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Technology in Education and Opportunity Cost

During a regional principal’s meeting today, our conversation steered toward the integration of technology within instruction. Smartphones were a frequent topic, especially from the secondary school leaders. Distractions and inappropriate use seemed to be the common reason for some of the administrators’ disdain for students’ mobile devices.

I empathized, as a former junior high school assistant principal. My administrative career began in 2011 which is around the time that iPhones started to come into prominence. From the beginning of my secondary tenure until my shift to an elementary principal role four years later, smartphones grew in frequency and in use in school. I always had a few of them on my desk or in a drawer. Many of them were more advanced than my district-issued smartphone.

Today, every educator seems to have a different perspective on the use of technology during classroom instruction. Each one of us seems to have a nuanced point of view about digital tool integration. This perspective can change based on the content, the task, the students’ developmental level, and the technology itself.  For example, one administrator today stated that she does not know the best approach for managing smartphones in schools, yet she did believe that high school students needed more than a Chromebook for engaging in creative, original work.

We will not get to a point of consensus in the near future regarding “best practices” when it comes to technology in education. So how do we address these types of challenges with more intent? One approach when preparing a lesson or unit of study for our students is to consider the opportunity costs of the inclusion or exclusion of technology within our instruction.

The concept of opportunity costs comes from the financial world. Whether you spend money on something or you decide not to, there is a cost. Say you are saving up for a family vacation. Every purchase you make from the moment you create this goal to the moment you go on vacation has a cost. Should we go out to eat? Yes means you can enjoy a meal out with family, but you are not saving that money toward the vacation. No means you are saving that money, and the cost is not enjoying a night out at a restaurant. 

I think the same principle of opportunity cost can apply when considering whether or not to integrate technology with instruction. Next is a process as an example:

  1. What is the goal of the lesson/unit of study? These are the essential learning outcomes, usually aligned with a standard, a competency, or a larger understanding, i.e. “conflict” within a study of U.S. history. Really not a lot of opportunities to incorporate technology into the lesson (unless the instruction is focused on learning how to use the technology itself).
  2. How will I know that my students have learned? We are looking for ways to evaluate understanding with the best tools available. Deciding how to assess student learning might be a better opportunity to incorporate technology. For example, if we want to know if students truly understand the concept of conflict through the lens of U.S. history, a multiple choice test or a written essay may not cut it. What if we designed a performance task such as creating a podcast in which two students debated in a respectful manner over a decision made in our country’s past? We could hear whether or not students used the strategies for a persuasive argument, both the language they use and in the way they used that language. They could also self-assess their work.

So what’s the opportunity cost? The benefits of incorporating technology within the assessment may include but are not limited to:

  • a better representation of student’s understanding of conflict,
  • a more engaging activity for students to create a podcast vs. taking a traditional test,
  • an opportunity to publish work for a wide audience, further increasing engagement, and
  • the integration of 21st-century skills into instruction.

The cost of this opportunity to integrate technology into assessment may include:

  • possible implementation challenges for the teacher to do the work well,
  • potential lack of access to the appropriate number of devices needed, and
  • more time spent working on this project, which can impact future instructional plans.

So should we integrate podcasting into our performance task? Here’s the thing: there’s no clear answer. We cannot say “four to three” in favor of the inclusion of technology. Every school and every teacher are unique. Maybe one teacher doesn’t feel comfortable introducing podcasting as an assessment tool by herself, but she has a library media specialist who is more savvy about these tools and happy to co-teach this part of the unit. 

Educators have to use their professional judgment when it comes to classroom technology integration. This requires both an open and a discerning mind, a mix of strong pedagogical knowledge along with enough social imagination to understand that teaching and learning are in a constant process of change. If you try out this process, of analyzing the opportunity cost of technology implementation within your instruction, let me know how it goes. 

In my book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology, I tackle five misconceptions regarding the integration of digital tools in schools. You can purchase my book through ASCD here.

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3 thoughts on “Technology in Education and Opportunity Cost”

  1. Matt – Your blog really caught my eye tonight. This is our first year with a teacher in the role of “technology integration coach” and we are constantly evaluating where and how technology fits into each of our classrooms. It is a constant struggle with little to no navigation tools in place! Thanks for your post.

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