Monday, April 16, 2012

Technology: How important is it?

Prologue:  Is a prologue allowed in a blog post?  I guess it is now.

After writing and rewriting the post below in response to my colleague's Thursday afternoon post I'm still not happy with it.  So here's the short of it.  It's irresponsible to ignore the value of technology in education--AND--it is irresponsible to overestimate the value of technology in education.  That's pretty clear isn't it?  You've read this far, you might as well read the rest to see if you can figure out what I'm trying to say any better than I can.

About ten years ago (but only lasting a few) our school administrators included integration of technology as a part of teacher evaluations.  Serving on a teacher advisory committee for the school, I remember discussions about what it means to "integrate technology" in the classroom.  I argued at the time that simply showing a video clip to the class using the online video service "United Streaming" was no better than pushing play on the VCR or Laser Disk player.

I used United Streaming frequently, and found it much better for me, the teacher, than bothering with videotapes and laser disks.  But, I didn't agree that in a given class, me showing a video clip online made me better instructionally than another teacher showing the same clip on VHS.  Ultimately, United Streaming allowed for easier selection of relevant clips and allowed for smoother transition in and out of video presentations but it certainly wasn't a "game changer."

Technology should be an integral part of instruction, and I believe this has always been true.  It can be a powerful tool for reaching students in ways that can't always happen in traditional ways.  Here in the basement of the Teaching Underground, we witnessed this just last week.

Our colleague in the basement teaches an elective called "Issues of the Modern World."  In the fall, his class conducted an interview with an participant in the Arab Spring movement in the middle east.  After hearing from him, the students were able to formulate questions to ask him again this spring.  Through these interactions, students had access to a living primary source for history in the making.  They were also able to see the evolution and change of a movement and the demeanor of one of its participants in real time.  Twenty years ago this would have been a monumental task if not impossible.  Today, an internet connection and a Skype account are all that are needed.

My question is still the same.  This isn't critical of technology.  I am impressed with this teacher's learning activity.  It was innovative and forward thinking.  His students engaged in a learning experience that they will likely remember forever.  For my AP Psychology class, I frequently invite a graduate student from the University of Virginia department of neuroscience.  These doctoral students share with my Psychology students some of their ongoing research on the brain.  They even bring in a human brain for students to see and hold.  Which experience is better?  Skype or face-to-face.

Answer: neither!

I don't think I need to really explain this.  This teacher couldn't have conducted this experience without Skype.  For me, Skyping with a guest located three miles away wouldn't make sense.  For sure, we should recognize this use of Skype in the classroom for its novelty and innovation.  We should also recognize that in this case, technology brought a living primary source into the classroom in a way that couldn't be acheived without technology.

But, the underlying pedagogy is still the same.  Exposing students to primary sources in the Social Studies engages them in the process of social science instead of simply requiring them to memorize names, dates, facts, etc.

I think that most educators in the classroom recognize the power of technology.  When it allows us to do something more efficiently or better than we could do without it, we embrace it.  When it allows students to learn in ways that are more lasting and impacting, we embrace it.

Remember all of the modes of technology that have changed teaching and learning: mass printing, chalkboards, overhead projectors, filmstrips, television in the classroom, computer labs in schools, computers in classrooms, presentation software, streaming/digital video, computer access for most/all students, social networking, online course delivery.....

Quality teaching and learning can take place in the absence of any of the above.  There is a bit of a paradox when it comes to my attitude toward educational technology.  It is at the same time one of the most important factors/tools for learning and also one of the least necessary factors/tools for learning.

Whether they articulate this idea or not, I think that most teachers get it.  Some still avoid technology altogether, and others couldn't function without it.  Usually both types carry a sense of moral superiority about what they do.  In reality, they're both missing the point.

We should use technology resources available to their full extent insofar as they benefit the teacher and/or student and make learning more efficient or effective.  We should seek out new technologies that might benefit our classrooms.  We should not overestimate the power of technology for effective education or expect the technology to solve the complex problems facing education in the 21st century.

Post-logue:  Why not, I've already included a "prologue."  Thanks to Mr. Giordano for sharing his classroom experience with Skype.  If you're interested, he's also a recent convert to "Juicing." (The diet kind)  Read about his "juicing" experiences and related revelations about the human experience of eating at Sausage Boy Goes Green.

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