Moving from Trivial to Powerful

By 12/08/2014 Think Tank

As we educators embrace these new capacities, it’s important to understand that technology isn’t just a “new way to do old things,” which is mostly how we use it in schools today. That is, in fact, the most trivial use of technology. The only reason to use technology in that way is to make us more efficient and enable us to cut out something old to make room for new things we need. Anyone who maintains that we should continue to teach and use both the old ways and the new is suggesting that we maintain an expensive horse in the barn in case our car breaks down. This is unaffordably inefficient and just plain wrong. If our technology does break down temporarily (and everything does), we repair it and move on.

Technology’s great boon to education, though, is that it enables students to do powerful new things that they couldn’t do before. With YouTube, for example, students can post their ideas to the world and get rapid global feedback. With tools like Twitter and its cousins, they can follow firsthand details of events unfolding anywhere in the world, from revolutions to natural disasters. With mashups and related techniques, they can combine sophisticated data sources in powerful new ways. One school group I know of created a Second Life model of Los Angeles, using the database of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to show each plane flying in its actual spot! With Skype-like tools, students can connect with experts and peers around the world in real time.

With sophisticated but easy-to-access simulations of everything from driving cars to running meetings, students can get immediate feedback on the implications of whatever strategies or actions they propose. Using virtual worlds, they can collaborate with groups large and small and solve problems in global teams. Using supercomputers (whose time we can now purchase by the second), students can run experiments millions of times over the span of human history.

I call the process of envisioning such technically enhanced possibilities imag-u-cation. It’s something every teacher and class should spend some time doing.

But to make technology do all these powerful things, students need to learn to control it. That is, students need to learn how to program—not how to do the “nerdy” task of writing code that many fear, but rather how to make technology do precisely what we want it to. Controlling (that is, programming) our increasingly complex and powerful machines is one of the most fundamental skills that students ought to learn, starting in preschool. Because they realize this, many kids have already started to do this on their own, making playlists; filtering their messages; creating complex websites; doing sophisticated tasks on Facebook; modding (that is, modifying) games; and even teaching humanoid robots how to dance.

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Marc Prensky

Founder & Executive Director at The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute
Marc Prensky is an American writer and speaker on learning and education. He is best known as the inventor and popularizer of the terms "Digital Native" and "Digital Immigrant" which he described in a 2001 article in "On the Horizon". He is the author of Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill 2001), Don't Bother Me Mom – I'm Learning (Paragon House 2006), Teaching Digital Natives (Corwin Press 2010), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom: Hopeful Essays for 21st Century Learning (2012), BRAIN GAIN: Technology and the Quest for Digital Wisdom (2012), and over 60 essays on learning and education. Marc Prensky is also a designer of learning games, and a well-known expert in the use of games in education.