The Wrong Question

Over the years, one of the common questions I have regularly heard being asked by schools that are in the process of moving from one technology platform to another is about the choice of substitute apps.

I’ve heard it when I’ve been in schools that made the switch from Microsoft to Google – “But the teaching program says we have to use PowerPoint! I can’t use Slides!” or “But I can’t use Docs, all my stuff is in Word!”

I’ve heard it when people switched from one type of phone operating system to another – “I used to use iMessage on my iPhone, but there’s no iMessage on Android! Now what?!”

I recently heard someone ask what Chromebook apps they could use to replace the apps they used to use with their iPads – “I need to know what apps to use on the Chromebook to teach robotics!”

Asking what apps should be used on a new platform to replace the things that you used to do on the old platform seems like a valid question. Certainly if a school is moving from iPads to Chromebooks, or Google to Microsoft, or Windows to Mac, or whatever other combination you want to think about, then yes, at some point there probably needs to be some consideration given to which tools will be used to produce the things that need to be produced.

Asking “I used to use X, and now I need to use Y, so what are the equivalent apps?” is probably a question that needs some kind of answer at some point.

However, I think this is the wrong question to start with. I think there is a bigger, more important question that needs to be asked first.

Rather than “I used to use iMovie and now I need to find a replacement for iMovie”, the better question is “How can my students tell stories?”  In other words, if you only ever think in terms of the tool, you will be stuck on the idea that you need an exact replacement for the tool you currently know.  Shifting your thinking to frame the question in terms of the outcome you want students to achieve changes the conversation.

Thinking in terms of wanting students to be able to explain a concept, persuade an audience, communicate an idea, or compare and contrast two options is based on the VERBS found in your curriculum documents and is the stuff we need to teach. Your curriculum does NOT say your students need to know how to use iMotion or picCollage or Photoshop or Outlook or <insert name of any tech tool here>. These tools are simply the nouns we can use to teach the verbs. 

Those tools – the nouns – are transient however. They are not set in stone. They change over time as better options and newer versions some along, and sometimes they even go away completely, as evidenced by the long list of apps that once existed but no longer do.

But the verbs… the verbs are timeless. We will still be teaching students how to explain, persuade, communicate, compare, etc, long after some tech company decides to stop producing that app you used to think you couldn’t live without.

As teachers we need to stop focusing on the nouns (the tools) and focus more on the verbs.  When you do that, the actual tools become far less important.   In my opinion, the mark of a good technology user (and a great teacher) is being able to easily switch to new nouns while never losing sight of the verbs.

CC BY 4.0 The Wrong Question by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

3 Replies to “The Wrong Question”

  1. Chris, your discussion of Chromebooks reminds me of something that I wrote a few years ago about changing the mindset, rather than the program.

    It has been interesting supporting Ms 5 during her learning at home. We started off using an iPad, but I found limitations in regards to typing in passwords and jumping between screens. Having a touchscreen Chromebook, I found that my daughter like the ability to pinch zoom on the screen, while also use the cursor and trackpad to select the next page.

    It did not solve everything, I still find it useful to use the iPad to take photos and record videos. Even though I can treat my Chromebook as a ‘tablet’, it does not have the same form factor.

  2. Thanks for the comment Aaron. I used to manage both the iPads and the Chromebooks in my last school, and I agree that they both have strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot of cool stuff you can do with an iPad for sure, but the problem is that in many schools they don’t have the luxury of two devices.

    If I had to choose… actually, let me rephrase that… when I watched students who had the choice of an iPad or a Chromebook choose, I was consistently seeing them choose a Chromebook. On several occasions I’d see a student who was part of the 1:1 iPad program at school sitting in the library working on a borrowed library Chromebook instead. When I asked them why, the answer was almost always something along the lines of “because I want to get some actual work done”.

    That “borrowability” is also an important factor too I think. Being able to pick up ANY Chromebook and log in, and have all your stuff there – files, bookmarks, extensions, settings – is so incredibly useful in a school setting. While I like an iPad as an individual’s device, they simply don’t work well as shared devices. I have more grey hair from managing iPads with Configurator than I care to admit!

    I’ve been using the Lenovo Duet Chromebook lately (I bought myself one I liked it so much) and it’s a ChomeOS computer with an detachable keyboard (or a tablet with an attachable keyboard, depending on how you look at it I guess). While I would like it to have just a little more horsepower and a slightly better camera, man, it’s so close to being the ideal student device. Both ASUS and HP have released competing products, and I would bet that in the next 12 months or so we will really see the convertable computer/tablet form factor running on ChromeOS live up to its potential.

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