Friday, June 20, 2008

What Makes a Classroom "Smart"?

At a recent conference, the presenter was discussing a new technology he had put into a group study lab. He stated that they didn't want to refer to the room as the name of the technology because the technology might change down the road. Fair argument...

They decided instead to rebrand the product, a strategy that many schools have used with their course management systems (mostly unsuccessfully, by the way -- people still complain when the underlying technology changes). So, they called them "smart spaces." Hence, one of my least favorite terms has now expanded to apply to informal learning spaces.

We've all heard of so called "smart classrooms". Us technology folks feel that when we put computers, data projectors, and other equipment in a space, it makes it smart. Of course, as these folks show off their smart classrooms, they show photographs without people. An empty "smart" classrooms seems to me to be an oxymoron. Isn't it the people that make space "smart"? Anyone who has had a computer crash on them knows it's certainly not the technology.

Here's another one.... "learning management systems." Sometime over the last four to five years, products such as Blackboard and Sakai stopped becoming course management systems. Granted that these products have become much more sophisticated and course management system may no longer be tie right name, but isn't it presumptious for us to believe that technology can manage learning? Interestingly, the most common reason I am given for the name change is that when people hear "CMS", they now think of "content management systems". The name change is meant to avoid confusion. Sure clears it up for me.

Some might respond that I'm arguing semantics. What does it matter what we call it? After all, people are intelligent. They know what we're talking about.

The problem is that us tech folks sometimes forget that our language, the words we choose to use to communicate, impact people's perceptions. We've all seen people's faces turn blank when a saavy technologist tries to explain why a document won't print. Five minutes later nothing's any clearer and the document still hasn't printed. Sometimes I get the sense that some of the technologists are trying to impress the others with their deep knowledge and sophisticated language.

Technologists have a reputation for using language that most others can't understand. We have a habit of finding really cool solutions to non-existent problems, or of making life more complicated than it needs to be (ask my wife about her frustration with having to juggle five remote controls to get the television to display the output from a VCR -- thank you Harmony remote controls! -- but I digress). Our explanations of these solutions don't help as they often include all types of acronyms and foreign language. I knew a technologist once who even made up his own words when he was trying to explain a concept.

At the end of the day, us technologists have to know how to call it like it is, in plain language. If it's a classroom with technology, and we need to distinguish it from classrooms with no technology, let's call it a technology classroom. (Note that I didn't refer to it as a technology-enhanced classroom, another trigger. It's easy to argue that in some cases, technology most certainly doesn't enhance the classroom experience.)

Interactions between people add the "smartness" to a classroom, and learning can't be managed. Thinking about the language we use when we're talking to people and communicating concepts can only help us as we work with real people to use technology.

No comments: