A Cautionary Tale of the Woolly Mammoth

Note: This article first appeared in the September issue fo the NETA newsletter.

During the last great ice age, woolly mammoths roamed the earth. These giant creatures were incredibly well adapted to their environment. Tusks served as a means of protection and a thick wool coat provided warmth during the harsh, cold nights. In short, the woolly mammoth was perfectly suited to its environment.

Over time though things began to change. The glaciers receded. Temperatures warmed. New diseases began to evolve that targeted the mammoth and importantly, neanderthals became more efficient hunters. Because of these and other changes, the
woolly mammoth became extinct.

Now, what the heck do dead woolly mammoths have to do with technology and teachers?

Well, in a way, everything.

The technology landscape is in constant motion. Tools and web services once common are now gone or a shell of their former selves. Remember HyperCard? HyperStudio? WikiSpaces? SecondLife? Even for tools that are still around, they have changed so much that one might not recognize them any more. Think of all the changes the Google tools have gone through just in the past couple of years or how different Windows 8 and 10 look compared to Windows 7.

This changing landscape can cause frustrations. We’ve all been there – I know I have. For example, we spend countless hours on a lesson that uses a website like wiki spaces to keep things organized. Naturally we want to use that wiki for many years to come.

However, one day we receive notice the website is shutting down and we get angry. Now we have to re-do EVERYTHING; or we have an app we think is perfect but it’s developers have abandoned it and now it is no longer supported on our tablets and Laptops; or our school is switching learning management systems, or moving from Chromebooks to iPads. Or we found the PERFECT math game, but it’s an old one and uses Adobe Flash which isn’t supported on iPads; or I try to open that AppleWorks
document that I need; or… or… the list can go on and on.

In addition to changing technology tools, how and where we ask students to interact with digital tools is also shifting. It used to be exciting and motivating to students to venture to the computer lab. Seeing video in class was an event. Now students expect 24/7 access to technology and virtual field trips and 360 video is becoming more common.

The environment around us is evolving and as educators we should take heed. The woolly mammoth was highly adapted to its environment. Perfectly suited for life in constant conditions. However, as the environment changed, the mammoth didn’t. As teachers, we need to be adaptive, not adapted.

What I’m not suggesting here is change for change’s sake. If the woolly mammoth made random changes like changing the color of its tusks from ivory to red would be silly and wasteful. Likewise, we shouldn’t change our teaching just because something new comes along or there’s a new fad on Twitter. What we need to do is evaluate WHY we are doing things and look to see if and when we can move to something more effective in helping us achieve our goal – increasing students learning.

Seeing what’s new and thinking about how it may fit into learning designs can provide opportunities for transforming lessons and creating better learning experiences for our students. When sites and apps we rely on change or disappear, instead of getting mad we should use it as an opportunity to think of what we liked about that tool and explore the alternatives. We can use it as an opportunity to model flexibility for our students. Let’s be adaptive to our environment. Let’s explore new tools. Let’s find what works and what doesn’t work. We’ll avoid going ‘extinct’ and best of all our students will thank us.