What Technology Does To Learning: An Analogy


What Technology Does To Learning: An Analogy

Here’s an analogy to help understand the potential of technology in learning. It’s a bit clumsy, but bear with me.

Imagine a teacher like an employee at a department store.

Using store guidelines and frameworks for merchandising, an employee will go back to the stock room and grab products and widgets to then place on the sales floor in some recognizable way that doesn’t take up too much space and is easy to shop.

What that employee chooses to put out on the floor depends on a variety of factors, among them what’s selling, what’s in stock, and what priorities managers have placed on specific items.

While an established process that’s “worked for years,” this model is limited as it is entirely governed by store policy, and the speed of a small handful of employees to stock. While fine in slower retail environments, in a busy store this system gets taxed very quickly. Missing sizes, incorrect pricing, low inventory on high-demand items, etc.

In this (labored) analogy, the teacher is the employee, surveying the sales floor, going back to the “stock room” of content, “grabbing” content (in the form of standards), then packaging these standards in a way that “shoppers” (i.e., students) can–and want to–use.

The students shop what the teachers put out.

But if you can add relevant technology to the equation, access changes at the ground level because the teacher is no longer the bottleneck.

To be fair, it’s true that this human “bottleneck” plays a vital role in the process–being capable of a kind of art of understanding both students and content to design learning experiences accordingly. Unfortunately, this process has still proven artificially limited, placing an enormous burden on the well-intentioned teacher to make magic happen every single day for every single student.

(In fact, in response we’ve learned to silently accept much, much less than magic; teachers want proficiency, parents want good grades, and the goals of the students are subverted if they are recognized and cultivated at all.)


Changing World, Changing Roles

What technology does is provide a direct connection between the shoppers and the product–the students and the content. This means students are no longer shopping neatly organized end-cap displays full pre-packaged items, but rather the raw, unfiltered product.



Of course this isn’t perfect, and presents new challenges for schools and districts, as well as thought leaders in education trying to understand how to best leverage all of the mobile learning, game-based learning, eLearning, blended learning, and project-based learning tools into classrooms–and systems–not necessarily built to accommodate them.

Textbooks were–for a while–successful because they allowed for “1:1” access of students to content, but that content was built around traditional genres of math, science, history, and literature, and with a dreadfully boring delivery system to boot (a 400 page book loaded with essay questions). Bad packaging.

Instead of a thousand books (on a thousand different topics) classrooms only needed one. But what’s more interesting, the way the Venturi effect literally lifts a 40 ton plane into the sky, or “science”?

The way viruses mutate in almost sentient ways to respond to their environment, or “biology”?

Emily Dickinson’s lifelong struggle to understand the will of God, or “Language Arts”?

The way minor disadvantages in access to resources can ensure a civilization’s ultimate collapse, or “History”?

So then maybe we need to go back to a thousand. 

Or millions, because books, essays, poems, social media, and the internet itself aren’t packaged in “content areas” and if they are–for example an app designed to deliver pure standards-based math instruction–it probably isn’t significantly better than a good old-fashioned textbook coupled with a charismatic teacher.

Which begs some questions:

So what is the role then of “content areas”? Do they still make sense in the 21st century?

How does access to technology impact the way content–whether in traditional areas or not–is delivered?

Does YouTube’s success suggest new authentic, often chaotic and self-actuated content?

More broadly, how can we best package content in the 21st century in light of the tremendous access to content students have?

And what is the role of the teacher as everything, moment by moment, continues to change?

Image attribution flickr users bengrey and flickeringbrad

Written By

Founder and Director at TeachThought, author, and former classroom teacher interested in how and why people learn.

1 Comment

  • Thank you for sharing. A favourite quote of mine answers one question.
    The goal of teaching is to teach our students to be learners. The content is what they practice with. (Brigham University)

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