Over the past few weeks, I feel as though I have come full circle in my readings and research. I started learning about educational technology at the turn of the century – literally. In 1999, I became enamored with the notion of using digital tools to encourage deep inquiry and provide students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with otherwise abstract concepts. From Seymour Papert’s work with Logo to Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment, I explored the potential for students to teach themselves not only about technology but also the world around them.

For this reason, it came as a bit of a shock when I then discovered Larry Cuban’s groundbreaking book Oversold and Underused in 2001. As a professor at Stanford, Cuban chronicled the use of technology in Silicon Valley schools and revealed that most places simply treated computers as glorified typewriters. Despite the potential for these technologies to engage and connect students with new learning contexts, Cuban found that most teachers continued existing practices instead of creating new types of educational experiences.

Between 1996 and 2001, researchers Yong Zhao and Kenneth Frank at Michigan State University conducted a different study in nineteen elementary schools within four districts in one Midwestern state. They compared the spread of computers in schools to that of an invasive species. In most instances, teachers and administrators “tamed” the technologies to fit the existing ecosystem rather than adapt their practice to take advantage of the new affordances. So while Papert, Mitra, and others hailed the potential for technology to encourage deeper learning and inquiry by encouraging students to play, explore, and create, the traditionally bureaucratic structures and systems of schools seemed to be working against these new capabilities.

As an ed tech enthusiast, I would like to think that these studies are no longer relevant, that we have finally moved beyond the idea of using powerful digital tools for no more than the replication of existing practices or the digitization of traditional assignments. However, as evidenced by the myriad of technology frameworks, plethora of professional development offerings, and more studies that I care to cite right now, we still seem to be missing the mark when it comes to capitalizing on the potential for technology to change learning.  Instead of encouraging students to explore and create, the focus often seems to be on standardization, assessment, and the process of fitting new tools into traditional practices.

Though recent efforts by organizations like Code.org, Stanford Research Institute (SRI)  and Google have raised the issue of computational thinking and coding to a national level, it seems to have already started the enculturation process. Some states have started adding computer science to the math curriculum. Others have begun developing new standards for its assessment and have focused on formalized curricula. However, as I think about the power of early edtech, I want to come back to the play-based ideologies of Papert and Mitra as well as the work in distributed cognition and cognitive apprenticeship from Collins, Brown, DuGuid, Scardemalia, and Bereiter to name a few. If we really want students to think about employing technology in meaningful ways to support their learning,inquiry, and curiosity, then maybe we really need to harness the power of play and empower our students to learn and explore on their own.

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