On Our Minds: The Importance of Relationship Building in the Age of Educational Technology

Metis senior researcher Dr. Lori Ramsey discusses her thoughts on relationships and educational technology.

Dr. Lori Ramsey presenting at a recent Metis staff meeting. Photo Credit: Lawrence Chau.

Recently, an article in Ed Week caught my eye. It consisted of a set of interviews with five experts in educational technology and focused on their wishes for and concerns about technology in the classrooms of the future.1 I enjoyed reading the article and many of the different opinions stood out to me as ones that I relate to and find useful. However, one idea struck me as particularly important. An area that I think is all too often overlooked. Richard Culatta, current CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), previous chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island, and the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology, said that one of his biggest concerns about technology is related to student connections. He commented, “…learning is inherently social. If technology is being used in a way that’s isolating students, that’s a problem for me.”

As a person who has taught with and researched technology in education for decades, this struck a chord with me. In fact, in my early years as a teacher, I was often the go-to person in my school for ways to use technology to support teaching and learning. During that time, I developed my understanding of effective uses of technology while facilitating one of the New American Schools Models in education (CoNECT). The model promoted project-based learning in a collaborative environment, all with technology as a support rather than a primary means of learning. I was able to use the technology available to me at the time to work with students to help them develop their academic and non-cognitive learning experiences. Since that time, technology has grown exponentially and it is clear that things are becoming even more technology-driven. In today’s world of real-time data, adaptive curricula and assessments, and ever-growing pressures to improve student test scores, technology can seem like an enticing solution. The issue is, of course, that technology itself isn’t a solution to anything. It is a tool. A rich, powerful, and seemingly endless-in-its-capacity tool, but a tool just the same.

The truth is that technology can be isolating. Screens can take our attention away from the people around us and can be a distraction from engaging and valuable interactive experiences. While many schools and teachers are using technology in rich, engaging, and collaborative ways, there are still times where students are parked in front of a screen to wiz through content instead of working with teachers to build shared understandings of content and learning. While using technology in this way may seem useful in the short-term, it isn’t a real solution.

What technology doesn’t do, what it can’t do, is take the place of the essential relationships that must be present between teachers and students in order to have meaningful and successful learning experiences. As James Ford, 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year, said in his Ed Week blog post, “In the classroom, relationships are everything.”2 He went on to say, “Our first job as teachers is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible.” My work in education as a classroom teacher, technology coordinator, adjunct faculty teaching educational technology courses, and my work at Metis in evaluation research has shown me that this is a statement of fact. Relationships are essential. Without them the real work of learning can’t take place. While I fully support the use of technology to help facilitate these relationships, provide support in data-informed decision making, provide adaptive, real-time content and an endless array of opportunities for creativity and collaboration, I also find myself worrying about the extent to which technology is getting in the way of relationship building.

Indeed, technology can offer opportunities for students to engage collaboratively and creatively, to learn essential 21st Century and other non-cognitive skills. However, it is important that students and teachers build strong relationships to meet student needs. We can use technology to help do the work but must remember that real learning takes place when strong and rich relationships are leading the charge. I believe that continued study of the association between students’ individual classroom use of technology and their interpersonal relationships (with their teachers and peers) and social development would be quite informative for the field.