As an adult who now enjoys the more calm method of train travel to the more efficient 747, I better understand and appreciate their reluctance to adopt technologies as a default option. As a professor of educational technology, it may surprise you to know that I probably have more in common with the Amish in relation to technology adoption than I do with many of my peers in academia.
How the Amish approach new technologies
The Amish have always understood that technology is not neutral or value-free. The use of different technologies changes our relationship with our work, our leisure time, and each other. While Amish children learn to be intentional and skeptical about new innovations, I wasn’t introduced to this concept until my doctoral program in instructional technology at the University of Virginia.
The Amish are not opposed to all forms of technology. Many Amish communities share “phone shanties” – outdoor buildings with a communal phone that serves multiple families. Many own refrigerators and hire drivers when necessary to travel longer distances more quickly. They don’t view technologies as inherently evil. They also recognize that technologies are not wholly good either. So how do the Amish determine when to embrace technology and when to avoid it?
An Amish community is organized according to carefully established communal values – reflected in the German word “Gelassenheit” which can be translated as “yielding to a higher authority.” One of the core values is that “the welfare of the community ranks above individual rights and choices.” It is through this communal lens that any new technology or innovation is viewed. A central question when considering adopting a new technology is the likely impact the technology will have on the community. Adam Graber explains it this way – “The Gelassenheit posture toward technology could probably best be summed up with this question: ‘Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?’… They think seriously about the long-term effects of technology, and about what technology does to them.”
We could use more of this kind of thinking in education – both in K-12 and higher education. Currently, there is an implicit assumption that more technology equals better/more engaged/deeper/more productive learning for students. In some cases, these assumptions may prove accurate. They may also have less desirable and/or unintended consequences as well. I think we can all benefit from a more deliberate, intentional consideration of technology in our teaching practice – particularly in regards to how its integration benefits or harms the learning communities of our classrooms.
Points to consider and examples of more mindful technology use
On her blog, Struggle to Victory, Kari Scare offers five tips for adopting an Amish approach to technology:
- Be deliberate about the technology you choose to use and when you use it.
- Don’t assume new technology is always better.
- Consider if any given technology helps or hinders your life as a whole.
- Ask if a technology will bolster or tear down your relationships.
- Make simplicity a priority.
I actively try to consider these questions when I consider how and why I might integrate technology into a course or single class session. For example, in my first class session for Designs for Technology-Enhanced Learning course this semester, I asked students to put away their laptops and capture notes and ideas on paper for a portion of the class. Because they would be shifting back and forth between taking individual notes and working to synthesize ideas in small groups, I didn’t want the laptops to serve as literal and figurative barriers between the students – I wanted them to actively engage with each other.
For the rest of the semester, I have scheduled a number of expert guest speakers on different topics. During these presentations, I will ask students to use a customized Twitter hashtag as a kind of back channel conversation during the talk to share questions and comments. I’ll be monitoring the Tweets to pull out the most common questions and interesting points to begin the Q&A portion of the talks. In this way, the boldest students won’t drive the conversation. Rather, the most important and compelling points will shape the interactions.
Finally, all the courses I teach are hybrid, meaning that some sessions are face-to-face in the classroom together while others take place asynchronously offline. While in some ways, these online sessions decrease our opportunity to learn from each other in community. They do, however, afford the students the opportunity to think more deeply, explore more broadly, and elicit feedback and perspectives from others outside the class in comparison with a face-to-face class. I very strategically and deliberately select those experiences that will benefit from these affordances when choosing what to put online.
A call to action
An Amish approach to technology integration shouldn’t encourage you to avoid technology use absolutely. It should encourage you to be more deliberate, intentional and mindful of the choices you make. Think about the impact that the use of technology will have on you, your individual students, and the larger learning community. A helpful metric is to ask yourself whether the use of a particular technology will bring you, the students, and the learning closer together or create additional distance. It's easy to be tempted to use the latest, trendiest technology in our teaching...can we take a step back and follow the lead of the Amish in inviting the use of technology into our classrooms?
How do you determine when and how to integrate technology in your courses?
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