• Brent Kaneft

Task-Oriented vs. Goal-Oriented Technology in the Classroom

My new Alexa heard the word "fail" during a conversation and, seemingly prompted, responded: "Putting fail in your cart." Among company, I said, "No, please, Alexa. I have plenty of 'fail' in my life. I don't need anymore." My buddy and wife laughed, Alexa didn't. But she did say she took "fail" out of my cart, whatever that meant. She (or it?) didn't get the joke. When we anthropomorphize (give human characteristics to) our technological devices, we soon realize just how impersonal our personal devices are. They are, as we need to remember, tools. Tools can be used in myriad ways. A hammer can build a house; it can also be used by your ex to leave a break-up-sized dent in your car. One thing's for sure, a hammer is adaptable to the needs of humans.

Adaptability in our digital educational tools is also important. In "Perspectives from Social Media and Affective Neuroscience on the Design of Digital Learning Technologies," Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Vanessa Singh suggest that our educational tools should "foster a sense of agency that empowers the student to master skills that he could not have managed without computerized assistance." To do so, we must separate our devices into two categories: task-oriented and goal-oriented. Devices can be placed in either category depending on the need of the user, but students should understand the difference.

For example, I recently brought a Google Home into my classroom. This device is a task-oriented machine; it provides definitions, statistics, and facts. It is not essential, it is convenient. Google Home allows me to do more with the time given, but it is not a goal-oriented device. Noodletools, an online citation generator, is, for me, in the same category. The program could certainly be used to teach citation rules, but in my experience, 9 times out of 10, Noodletools is used as a task-oriented device. My students rely heavily on citation generators, a reliance I am comfortable with as a teacher. I've always believed good citation work is about efficiency. Task-oriented devices are about efficiency, not learning. Without Google Home or Noodletools, my class doesn't suffer from a lack of access (we can always find the information we need without them) These tools do, however, increase the amount of work we can complete in a given year by making laborious work easier.

Adaptable, goal-oriented devices — devices used for teaching skills — like Membean, a tool that helps students build their vocabulary, are successful because they customize the learning experience for each student. Membean, for example, assesses the student's current lexicon, allows the student to learn at his/her own pace, and integrates a multimodal approach designed to benefit students. Students feel that sense of "agency." Students are fully aware that when they use their Membean account, they are doing so with the goal of improving their vocabulary. This is not a supplemental device, it is the primary device in many classrooms for learning new words.

Why does this distinction matter?

Remember the iPad craze? When administrators thought giving every student and teacher an iPad was innovative? People used it, but most used it as a task-oriented device — scheduling, email, photos, etc — because a clear educational purpose for the device had not been provided. They could have used it as a goal-oriented device (and now, many schools do), but during the early teens of this century, few school leaders knew what their schools' technological goals were —

"A learner using the digital environment [should] understand what the program is good for, what the learning goal is, and therefore how best to engage with the computer without frustration or boredom" (Immordino-Yang 188).

The distinction between task-oriented and goal-oriented devices matters because students need to know why they are using each tool. In my experience, the lack of a learning goal has prevented many teachers from using technology in the classroom. They want to know why they should use these devices and programs. They are not interested in the appearance of innovation (and they shouldn't be!), which is why it's incumbent for educational leaders to be specific about the purpose and expectations of technological integration in the classroom. If their goals are vague, many teachers will avoid using technology. Many will say they don't know how to use digital tools, but without a clear goal, there is no reason to learn how. When teachers tell me their students are far more advanced in their understanding of technology, I say phooey! The majority of the students I've seen use their technology with one goal in mind: entertainment. Entertainment is about consumption, so while some of their technology is goal-oriented and "foster[s] a sense of agency" (e.g. video games, iTunes, social media, Netflix), it makes students passive technology users. They are consistently positioned as a consumer in the "digital environment." Being a consumer is easy. Becoming a creator takes work. Becoming a creator should be a part of every technological goal.

And that's where teachers step in. Learning to use digital tools to innovate (do something new and better) should be a primary goal for teachers and should be clearly defined by administrators. Using an iPad to help students organize themselves, watch videos, or film a project, for example, is not innovative, but it can be when it's used as a supplemental tool to aid the learning process (i.e. filming said project as an act of metacognition). And, as Cal Newport said,

“If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).”

- So Good They Can't Ignore You

We teachers must help students discover what they can offer the world, and integrating the appropriate digital tools into our classroom is about helping students bring forth their contributions.


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