What’s the Point?

For the last few years, I have been a staunch proponent for the integration of technology into the curriculum, although not with some specific conditions. Recently, I have read several concerns from politicians in different countries about “throwing money at” education. While I choose to look at money spent on education as an investment, technology is one area that may be expensive and politicians, policy makers, parents, educators, and students need to know whether money spent on technology is a wise investment of tax payer money that will result in greater student learning. I would like to look at some of the reasons in favor of technology integration as well as the concerns some people have and the optimal conditions in which technology integration can benefit student learning.

Reasons - There are many reasons that I am an advocate for effective technology integration. Here are some of those that I consider the most compelling.

  • True Differentiation – As teachers, we talk of differentiation often. This refers to the practice of having different goals for students according to their abilities, allowing them to progress at paces different from others in the class, and allowing them to demonstrate their understanding in multiple ways. Once students understand how to use technology to learn, they can solve a problem or meet a goal in multiple ways. Those who need it can have extra scaffolding or resources. Those who finish early can learn more deeply. It makes true differentiation a more manageable procedure when the teacher does not have to prepare specific individualized material for 125 students but rather can include students in the process of setting goals and determining how to meet them.
  • Equality of Access – Schools cannot control what resources students have at home. Some students may have books, computers with Internet access, or access to a library whereas others may not. What schools can control is how students can have access to information during the school day. Making computers and the library, as well as other spaces depending on the school, open to students before, during, and after the school day can go a long way towards helping students become independent learners. Implementing a 1:1 program (where every student is given a device, such as a laptop, tablet, smart phone, or something else, by the school to use both at school and at home) can go even further by helping students to have access at home.
  • Engagement – There is a fallacy that is often promoted in education. It is thought by many that a silent classroom where every student appears to be listening to the teacher is an effective classroom where the students are paying attention. While that may be the case occasionally, I am more often than not concerned. Learning is messy and does not occur solely through listening. Students need to be doing more than listening (This is not to say that students never need to quietly listen to directions or explanations, but rather that that should not be the primary mode of learning.). Ideally, a technology-infused classroom should be allowing the students to participate in the learning process and, therefore, be more engaged. Greater engagement leads to greater understanding and retention.
  • Collaboration – Being able to work together with people of all different ages groups, cultures, and geographies is a skill that will help students in any position. There are so many tools that can help to augment collaborate within the classroom as well as make it possible to collaborate with others from around the world. Learning with and from students and experts beyond the classroom can be a tremendously enriching experience.
  • Independence – In the traditional model of teaching, learning seems to occur through transmission. The teacher says, the students hear and learn. However, real learning does not often occur that way. Now, through technology, students do not need to wait for the teacher to learn about something. There are some many resources available in some many different media (audio, text, video, etc…) that students can become independent learners in many ways.
  • Passion – Related to independence, students become more invested in the educational process when they have some choices about what and how they learn and when they can learn, at least in part, according to their passions. While the teacher should help students to discover and explore their passions, students should be able to simultaneously explore their passions while working towards mastering standards or investigate how what the class is learning about has significance in their own lives.
  • Authentic Audiences – It has never before been easier to get an authentic audience to look at one’s work, whether it is a song, a video, a written piece, etc… If the teacher is the only person to look at a student’s work, it cannot be authentic and, thus, looses meaning to the student. Students can easily send work to, for example, a local senator or to other students in different parts of the world; it means a lot to kids when their work is validated by those outside of their normal classroom.
  • Promote Digital Literacy Skills – Digital literacy skills have become a vital part of everyday life. Students need to be able to sort through the multiple streams of information that are directed towards them every day. They need to be able to discern what information is sound and what is false. Proper etiquette online becomes more important all the time as social networking becomes more embedded in the public consciousness. Without these skills, students can easily get into trouble online. Teachers need to ensure that their students have these skills. Remember also that school library media specialists can be a great resource for this.
  • Assistive Technology – All students have strengths and weaknesses. Assistive technology can help to allow students to learn on a more level playing field. Screen magnifiers, text-to-speech programs, and many other assistive technologies can help students to learn in ways that might not be possible without.
  • Efficiency – Unfortunately, paperwork is a large part of many school systems. Technology can allow people to streamline many repetitive tasks so that we have more time for the important things, such as actually working with students.

Concerns - There are many concerns about investing in technology in schools, some of which may be valid and some may not. Below, I try to explore some of the most common.

  • Distractions – It is a fairly common belief that having access to technology and the wide variety of sites on the Internet will be too great a temptation to keep children from distraction. However, if students are distracted, it is largely due to the classroom environment. When technology is introduced, students need to be trained on how and when to utilize it. The expectations need to be clear that it is a learning device and should be used as such. There are three reasons that I do not subscribe to the idea that students will be too distracted. First, when students are truly engaged, they will be focused on the task at hand and not their next Facebook post. Second, if a student is not paying attention, it is most likely not because of the computer, but rather the computer simply makes it more visible. If a student is not paying attention, generally the teacher, lesson, concept, etc… is not as interesting or important as something else in the student’s life; therefore, the teacher needs to find ways to make the class more interesting and important to the student. I am aware that this is a somewhat broad generalization and does not apply in every scenario. Third, when students leave school, they will be subject to countless distractions. Teachers need to help them learn to deal with those distractions rather than shield them and leave them unprepared.
  • Technology does not change the way we learn – I agree that good teaching definitely existed before technology and still exists without technology today. However, saying that technology has not changed the way that students learn is a fallacy. Technology is changing every aspect of life and schools need to stay current. Another way to think of this is to examine what we could not do before. My first year as a teacher, I did not have access to much technology and I taught in a relatively traditional way for the first few months. In the second and subsequent years, I was able to procure my own computer lab for my students. Letting them work in an inquiry-based classroom, solving real-world problem, and networking with people around the world made a tremendous benefit in their learning. We could have done some of that before, but not to the same extent. I believe that technology can allow for a great depth of learning that may be difficult to attain without it.
  • Infrastructure – This concern is the most valid to me. Unfortunately, many schools simply do not have the hardware to give enough students access or the network infrastructure to allow many students to be online at the same time. Retrofitting a school to support ubiquitous wireless or looking into buying devices with 3G/4G cellular connections can be expensive, but Internet access is simply a must.

Conditions - There is no 1 ideal classroom. Teachers have different strengths and, more importantly, students all have different needs. There are some aspects that need to be given thought to before integrating technology though.

  • Paradigm shift – When every students or every group of student has a device, be it a laptop, a tablet, a phone, or something else, the paradigm in the classroom needs to drastically shift. By nature, when every student has a device, it becomes more about them. As the classroom become more student centered, the lessons need to reflect that. Many teachers have tried to teach traditional lessons in a 1:1 environment, using modern devices as expensive notebooks. In this case, it becomes very easy for students to stop paying attention or pay attention to something more interesting. When every student has access, we need to take that into consideration and find ways to utilize that.
  • Careful forethought – While I obviously believe in the power of technology to transform learning, it is not necessary or appropriate to use in every situation. Therefore, careful thought must be given to how and when technology will be used and that needs to be explained to students at the beginning of a lesson.
  • Have a backup plan – Technology is built by people and therefore fallible. So, a backup plan is always a good idea. If you ever teach a lesson dependent on technology and have the technology fail, you will quickly understand why. What will you do if the Internet goes down or the site you want to use does not work? What if 2 students’ computers go down? Usually, nothing adverse will happen, but the lesson will run more smoothly in the event something does happen if you plan for it.
  • Teach safe and proper use – As mentioned above, this is simply a must. Technology cannot be introduced to students without teaching them responsible use. This should happen both when they are first exposed to technology and be ongoing as they utilize it throughout the year.
  • Proper training for staff – It is unrealistic to drop off a lot of technology and expect teachers to know what to do with it, both technically and pedagogically. Training and support, both at implementation and during normal use, is tremendously important to ensure success. It is a poor investment that spends millions of dollars on technology and nothing on training.

What do you think? Are there any other advantages or concerns that you feel strongly about or that you disagree with?