Header text

EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Musings on Education: Technology vs Innovation

Educators are struggling to integrate technology into their classrooms, but we're losing sight of something much more important: Innovation.

The words "Technology" and "Innovation" are inextricably interrelated to the point where people tend to think of the two as being synonymous. I know I do. I mean if someone really asked us to articulate the difference between the two, we could come up with something reasonable. But, whatever--it's just a matter of semantics, right? Or so I thought.

I've just realized--and I mean "just" as in ten minutes ago--that if you really take the time to think about "Technology" vs "Innovation", there are huge, fundamental differences between the two terms. Fine, but why should you care? Here's my modest claim:

Understanding the difference between "Technology" and "Innovation" is what will save America.

Intrigued now?

Let's look at each term.

"Technology" encapsulates new tools and what those tools enable us to do. Technology allows us to do things that were never possible before or were previously extremely difficult or inefficient. The Internet is a piece of technology that changed not just how fast we could communicate but, more importantly, enabled an ever-expanding world of entirely new ways for us to communicate. Fire is a technology that forever changed primitive man's way of life.

The key concept here is that technology is a tool. Keep this in mind.

Now what is "Innovation"? Innovation is the process of creating something new and valuable. Technology is the tangible outcome of innovation. Innovation doesn't just happen. It is the result of applying a certain degree of expertise to solve a particular problem in a new, better way. Innovation requires resourcefulness, creativity, perseverance, and vision.

Technology and innovation are interrelated because one begets the other in a virtuous cycle. Innovators create new technology. That new technology creates new possibilities. Innovators explore those new possibilities and create more advanced technology. In an absurd way, there's a direct lineage between cavemen harnessing fire and Steve Jobs releasing the iPad.

Okay, so what?
I would guess that to most teachers "Innovation" sounds a lot more exciting than "Technology". Technology is a pain, it never works, it doesn't make sense. But innovation... man, that's got a lot of cool cognitive-rich terms in there.

Innovation should sound more exciting. Because it is.

I don't mean to diss technology. Technology is important and inescapable in the 21st-century; our students absolutely must be proficient in--if not masters of--technology. But don't forget: Technology is just a tool.

Cavemen used rocks to sharpen other rocks into spear tips. Give a caveman a rock hammer and teach him how to use it and he will get better at making spear tips. But he'll still be a caveman. Proficiency with tools alone is not sufficient.

So then, similarly, it is not sufficient to merely teach our students how to use technology. Getting your students to write their essays in Google Docs is a useful step forward. It makes certain things easier and more efficient. It develops their proficiency with Web-based technology. These are all useful--but modest--gains for the student. These are necessary skills in the 21st-century, but these skills alone are not sufficient.

Technology is just a tool. It's what we do with those tools that matter. It's the new ideas and new solutions that are enabled by those tools that matter. It's innovation that matters. What if that caveman instead understood innovation and used the rock hammer to create a wheel? What if that caveman used the rock hammer to create a sculpture?

Why this matters
If we're not teaching innovation, our students--our "cavemen"--won't evolve. They won't make it in the 21st-century, even if they know how to use the tools of the 21st-century. Any reasonably advanced country can teach its citizens to use technology--and many of them are doing a better job of it than we are. India didn't just magically or coincidentally happen to become the global hub for outsourced technology workers; they focused their education efforts to get to where they are now. Educated Indians are damned proficient with the tools of technology.

But what about innovation? Where do innovators come from? Innovators are the ones that create value in any era, but especially in the 21st-century. Apple is an American company. Intel is an American company. Google is an American company. We have been the worldwide hub of innovation for the last 100 years. But the rest of the world is catching up. Technology proficiency comes first (India) and that lays the groundwork for innovation (uh-oh).

So what are we doing to keep our innovation advantage? Anything? And, even worse, how much of today's education actively works against the development of innovation? Are we really developing our students' independent, creative problem solving skills--the fundamental ingredients of innovation?

Teaching innovation will save America. But we better get started.

Next: How do you teach innovation? (coming soon!)