Star Trek Ed: The Shiny Factor
[An introduction to the Star Trek Ed feature is here.]
Technology these days is very pretty. When your home computer has more power than Mission Control during the Apollo era, when your car can plan your route, and when your cell phone makes Captain Kirk's communicator look like a cereal box, it's easy to get swept up in the glitz and glamor of the shiny. Education is no exception to the seductive power of the Shiny Factor.
I've begun developing a framework for thinking about technology in schools. In brief, an administrator looking at making a major purchase of technology should be aware of the following three levels of any given technological innovation's potential: what can be done with it, what should be done with it, and what will be done with it.
The Shiny Factor is all about what can be done with a piece of technology. Consider this advertisement for Promethean's ActivInspire system. It's full of clips showing teachers and students navigating the interactive whiteboard easily and in a variety of ways. The list of features and compatibility options hits at a rapid-fire pace. The overall impression is of a slick tool that allows a staple of education – the whiteboard or chalkboard – to become more than what it was before. It is very shiny.
Now, in our heart of hearts, we know that this a promotional video that shows the product working perfectly every time. In reality, there will be glitches; software won't work quite right, or certain features won't in fact work well together. Learning how to use this will take time, and many teachers won't use anything close to the full range of options and features, at least not for years. And by then, who knows what the shiny new thing will be?
The Shiny Factor should not be used as an excuse not to invest in technology, of course; I think most would agree that increasing computer access for students better equips them for the world outside of school. However, any policymaker's claims about a technological advance – from interactive whiteboards to online schooling – should be evaluated with the Shiny Factor in mind.
Policymakers who don't spend their time immersed in pedagogy are by dint of their position and through no fault of their own more easily taken in by the Shiny Factor. We must encourage them to consider not just the shine, but also the substance and scalability for whatever they are proposing.