If Technology is the Answer, What Was the Question?

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If technology is the answer, what was the question?” was the title of the keynote of the SimpliedED15 Summit I attended at UCLA this week. A fitting session for the day-long conference that focused on the future of education and the role of technology. The Summit, part of ‘Innovation Week’ in Los Angeles, featured a diverse group of education leaders including Dr. John Moravec—session presenter and author of Knowmads and Manifesto 15. Moravec discussed several frameworks for technology integration including the idea leveraging technology as a tool to support Knowmads—knowledge workers who are ‘creative, imaginative, and innovative people who can work anytime, and anywhere’ and the model of ‘invisible learning’ (Knowmad Society). The concepts were interesting, but it’s the session title that resonated most. What was the question? could be reworded to, ‘what problem are we trying to solve with technology?

This idea of activating conversations about education technology with a jeopardy-type question is a different approach, yet it holds potential for institutions and educators considering integrating technology tools or applications across online, blended or face-to-face spaces. We’re at the point with technology where questions have shifted from ‘should we use technology?’ to probing questions that focus on education problems and needs; questions that promote dialogue about how, when, and what technology can solve learning problems and needs. This approach is similar to the needs analysis phase of the design process—either instructional design or product design

Ed-Tech Needs Analysis
The goal of a needs analysis is to find a solution to a problem by asking questions to achieve a full understanding of the nature of the problem in order to find a feasible and effective solution. Applying the needs analysis process to education technology is not a stretch. A series of questions can uncover the complexities of a problem or learning need and reveal the critical information that could include: the core issue, or root problem or need, stakeholders to include, potential barriers, etc. The goal is to get the core of the problem or need, which sets the foundation for evaluating alternatives and finding solutions.  Solutions may include technology (though not always), revised or new systems or procedures, people, among others, and likely will include a combination of solutions.

The Institute of Education Sciences (ies) website features a comprehensive article “Determining Your Technology Needs” that details each step of the needs analysis process specific to education technology.  I approach the needs analysis somewhat differently, which is by not assuming technology is a solution from the get-go. However the process ies outlines is sound and instructive.

identity-crisisBelow is a summary of my five-step process for needs analysis.

  1. Ask questions to delve into the problem/need (examples)
  2. Gather information. Compile information—data, facts, results, opinions (obtained through interviews, conversations), etc.— which should all be driven by questions from step one.
  3. Analyze information to determine the core problem(s) or need(s). This step is critical—only after analyzing information and identifying the core need(s) can effective, viable solution(s) be selected. Otherwise, patchwork solutions are chosen which can result in the wasting of money and time.
  4. Prioritize needs. Often, several needs are identified, yet a thorough analysis of needs is also required to determine the most pressing.
  5. Evaluate alternatives and select best alternative to solve/meet need(s).

Sample Questions
The above process seems straightforward enough on paper—yet the application is challenging—there are often competing priorities and needs, and barriers. Below is a selection of questions used in a (K-12) school district before implementing technology tools and software as part of its Blended Learning Initiative (Arney, 2015).

  • How can we re-mediate and accelerate the learning of students on both ends of the curve?
  • How can we create more learning time for a (particular) topic?
  • How can we identify and help struggling students more quickly and efficiently using data?
  • How can we reduce the number of our graduates who need to take remedial math upon entering college?
  • How can we leverage smart-phone or web-connected devices that students bring into the classroom?

Asking questions of our technology—beginning with questions before jumping to education technology solutions is not new. Neil Postman, professor and author of several seminal books on media and culture, posed this question in his book “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century” (pg 42):

What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?


Further Reading


  • Arney, L. (2015). Go blended! Handbook for blending technology. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Moravec, J. (2015, October). If technology is the answer, what was the question? Keynote session presented at SimplifiED Summit 2015, Los Angeles, CA
  • Postman, N. (1999). Building a bridge to the 18th century. Vintage Books.
  • US Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. (n.d.). Part 2: Determining your technology needs. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2005/tech_suite/part_2.asp

2 thoughts on “If Technology is the Answer, What Was the Question?

  1. A timely reminder to educators easily dazzled by this week’s top ten cool tools.

    In addition to the reflective approach for selection you describe here, it is also important to commit to the choice for a time that allows for complete life-cycle testing (a semester, webinar series, for example). As quickly as people seize upon new ideas, they often discard them equally quickly at the first inconvenience.

    Apart from being intellectually wasteful (don’t waste my time with learning how to use this app, even if the learning curve is very short), it is also counter-productive in promoting learning skills such as adaptability, resourcefulness and perseverance.


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