Innovation is the currency of progress. In our world of seismic changes, innovation has become a holy grail that promises to shepherd us through these uncertain and challenging times. And there isn’t a more visible symbol of innovation than the iPad. It’s captured the hearts and minds of disparate subcultures and organizations.

In education it’s been widely hailed as a revolutionary device, promising to transform education as we know it. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as bulk purchasing iPads and deploying them into the wilds of education. Innovation can’t be installed. It has to be grown — and generally from the margins.

It’s not ‘just add water’

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The profusion of digital technology at work, home and everywhere in between is evident to even the most causal observer. In this climate, it’s understandable why many schools are interested in technological integration and innovation. While it seems clear that students will increasingly be expected to be adept at using digital tools in their professional and personal lives, there isn’t great clarity on how exactly these tools should be used. Often visions and goals are nebulous — if they exist at all. We can’t just buy iPads (or any device), add water, and hope that strategy will usher schools to the leading edge of 21st century education. Technology, by itself, isn’t curative. Human agency shapes the path.

In light of this dynamic, two critical questions need to be asked and provisionally answered when integrating technology into education. The first question, while obvious at first glance, isn’t always fully articulated: “What are the educational goals of technology integration?”

The second question is equally important and often more elusive: “Do the current systems and processes support the integrative and innovative goals?”

Adapting Teaching To Technology

The answer to the first question — about the goals of technology integration — often orbits around 21st century skills. The problem is that most of the curriculum within schools today is distinctly tied to the 20th century. The first phase of technology integration usually focuses on the transition from an analog to a digital environment, but after that happens, the use of technology raises deeper pedagogical questions.

The best schools throughout history prepared their students for the social and economic realities of their time. Our system of universal education was designed to meet the social and economic needs of the industrial revolution, which was defined by a world of standardization. While the industrial revolution has been added to the annals of history, our system of education has not.

The social and economic world of today and tomorrow require people who can critically and creatively work in teams to solve problems. Technology widens the spectrum of how individuals and teams can access, construct and communicate knowledge. Education, for the most part, isn’t creating learners along these lines. Meanwhile, computers are challenging the legitimacy of expert-driven knowledge, i.e., of the teacher at the front of the classroom being the authority. All computing devices — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach.

This isn’t to say that teachers are becoming obsolete. Great teachers are needed now more than ever. But what it means to be a teacher and student is changing — as it has throughout history. The main point is that technology is helping to drive a pedagogical change, and schools need to be mindful of this influence and thoughtful of how they’d like to facilitate this transition. This is why linking technology to learning objectives is so important. Otherwise, schools could find themselves in a position where the cart (technology) is before the horse (pedagogy).

Does our current system support innovation?

Answers to the second question (Do the current systems and processes support the integrative and innovative goals?) are rarely offered because the question is seldom asked.

The organization of schools — their systems, processes and values — were deliberately designed to accomplish specific objectives. Departments, 50-minute classes, bells, rows of desks, lectures, textbooks, standardized tests, and grades are all aspects of schools’ organizational structure that were conceived to train students in the image of industrial society. Within this model, standardization and mass production rule supreme.

The systems and values of industrial education were not designed with innovation and digital tools in mind. Innovation, whether it’s with technology, assessment or instruction, requires time and space for experimentation and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Disruption of established patterns is the modus operandi of innovation. We like the fruits of innovation, but few of us have the mettle to run the gauntlet of innovation.

Innovation from the margins

Because integration and innovation with technology can be so disruptive to established systems, innovation is more likely to take root if it is grown on the margins. The margin can be a small percentage of class time that’s carved out each week for experimentation, or it can be a technology incubator designed to function beyond the conventional boundaries of school systems.

Wherever the appropriate margin is identified for technological innovation, the climate within the margin needs to be such that teachers and students are supported in exploring the edges of uncertainty. This is critical because uncertainty and experimentation are perceived as a waste of time within the current model because there is curriculum that needs to be covered and tests that need to be taken within a prescribed schedule. One can’t begin to have more time and space for innovating in class unless one loosens the reigns on traditional objectives and creates more flexibility and leverage within classrooms and schools.

This is easier said than done. To varying degrees we’ve all come through the traditional model of education that has trained us to seek certainty. Combine that with the fact that we are wired to look for negative information — and uncertainty would definitely fit into the negative category for most of us — and we have a compound society that is increasingly risk averse. Yet without taking risks, we can’t have breakthroughs.

Learning environments of the future are in incubation. And therein lies the challenge: Learning environments that don’t exist can’t be analyzed. Moving into the unknown requires a pioneering spirit. Helen Keller reminds us that is the truth of not only our age, but of all ages: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Photo of the iPads in the classroom by Lexie Flickinger and used here with Creative Commons license.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. He taught middle school history and science for five years, where he integrated technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. Aran recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he’s the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School. You can follow him @fusionjones on Twitter.