I’ve read a couple of interesting blog posts over the past few days that have really got me thinking.  The first was from my friend CC Chapman, on the YSN blog, asking whether apps will kill work ethic.  The other was about iPads in education by Matt Levinson on the Edutopia Blog.  Both have a common theme about learning, and both have an underlying message as well- what is happening with the switch to mobile technology and instant answers in the world of education?

I read CC’s post and thought about the past week, where we were without power for almost five days in temperatures below freezing.   The lack of electricity meant entering a world of scarcity- conserving power on each device we had until we could get to someplace to recharge; spotty connections on phone lines and to data, because all the cellular networks were overloaded; and even with the power of Google, we had to solve our own problems about keeping our house warm, making sure pets were ok, and pipes didn’t freeze.  Facebook helped us connect with friends, and we received lots of help, support, and offers of help that were invaluable on every front.  While Facebook took over and was more efficient for connecting people to resources than the phone might have been in the old days, many of the issues required good, old fashioned driving around and gathering supplies- with the phone simply saving time and trips.

In an emergency, you can’t always rely on your social networks, apps or the internet to solve problems for you.  We had an incident where unexpectedly hot coals were put into a receptacle that, if not caught, could have caused a fire.  No one thought about googling that issue before it became one, or during the emergency, and it was by experience and past knowledge that it was solved and taught to the next generation. A lot of lessons were learned, but not one of them involved a search online, even if we had power.

I say this because often we’re so focused on efficiency and solutions we don’t always focus enough on the problem itself and formulating good questions.  For example, when Matt Levinson talks about teachers’ frustration with iPads, it’s because the person is expecting the iPad to solve all problems or be something it is not.  It’s not the iPad’s fault.  It’s like trying to use a screwdriver as a hammer.  You can kind of get it to work, but it might not be the best tool for the job.  However, the iPad has a lot of great things going for it, including the ability to capture photos and videos to integrate into projects on the fly- great for making sure your observations in a science experiment, for example, are accurate.

This is why in our school district, we’re trying to take the “device” out of the equation when we’re talking about technology in school.  What a teacher wants to accomplish, what the learning goals are, needs to come first.  A variety of tools, ranging from mobile devices to computers to cameras, tablets, overhead projectors, etc. can then be selected to get the job done as efficiently as possible, while enhancing, not detracting, from the educational goals.    In other situations, we have to look at whether ownership of technology- ie personal versus borrowed, makes a difference in both how the tech is treated, but also how the students learn to use and master it.

It’s not unlike the difference between your personal car and a rental.    Your car is likely tailored to your personal preferences and needs, ranging from the radio station selection to the contents of the glove box (where often no gloves actually reside!)  The personalization helps define your ownership and the idiosyncratic way you use the car, while simultaneously treating it well because it has to last a long time.  Compare that to most rentals, which are often driven in more extreme ways than personal cars, and even if you take care of the interior and exterior to avoid extra costs, your involvement and investment are minimal and temporary.

So back to making decisions like Bring Your Own Technology for schools.  School can’t be expected to be The Apple Store, Microsoft Store and Radio Shack for every device under the Sun, but as more students and faculty have their own devices, the less need there may be for this command and control approach.  The more opportunity kids have to customize and kick the tires on their own personal devices, the more adept they will become with them, and the easier it will be for them to use.  There’s investment in this set of tech tools this way, versus borrowed technology.  And in the end, there will be more investment in making the device, whether its a tablet or laptop or projector, to reach farther out to the edges of the devices capabilities.  That’s a good thing.  We should know what device to choose for the job at hand and be able to use a wide range of them, in any environment, rather than just one- it’s just like learning multiple languages, or knowing what tool to select from the aisles and thousands of choices at Home Depot.

CC’s starting question is whether instant gratification and making everything easy had long term effects on how we think and react to challenges.  I know with the power outage, I began to think that full time access to electricity has in some ways made me soft and less resourceful.  Yet I also know that often when I face a problem, I mentally go through my friends and family members I can ask for help if I need it; I don’t always Google a solution first, even though I know I could.  Why?  Sometimes my social network seems faster, the advice better or more personal, or perhaps asking also helps build social bonds and friendships that are more important in the long run than googling an answer.  Sometimes people are much better at helping you find the right question and answer, when you aren’t really sure about the boundaries of the challenge at hand.

That said, we should help everyone – kids, friends, everyone- learn to ask the next question, help solve their problems, and learn to develop a stack of resources, real and virtual, to rely on when you don’t know the answer.  Google and the internet are getting more crowded every day.  Search algorithms that prioritize information based on your past searches and your social networks sometimes gets you closer to the answer, but often may cut you off from new and novel information you need.

I love the internet and search, and that so many people share solutions to their own problems, in order to help you when you run against the same challenge.  But there’s still no substitute for having enough knowledge on hand, in your head, to make sure you are properly diagnosing and identifying the problem itself, and can ask the right question.  If you ask a fuzzy question, such as “what is this spot on my arm?” you could get an answer ranging from bug bite to melonoma, and treatment for both are radically different with lots of pros and cons, not to mention costs attached.

In the end, I think we need to get better at question formation, and struggling with asking better questions, all the time.  We also have to teach our kids these skills, so they, too, become better critical thinkers and analysers of problems, before they just try to pitch solutions at problems, hoping one sticks, rather than using the right tool for the job.  Often that just makes the problem more complex and more difficult than it was at the start.