10 July 2006

Tiny orange laptops: the global importance of technology in education

When I was in high school, I desperately wanted a graphing calculator, even though I detested math, and struggled just to finish Algebra 2 and meet college entrance requirements. I didn't want a graphing calculator because I thought it would help me understand math more or get higher scores on the tests, I wanted one because a friend of mine had somehow loaded the video game "Tetris" onto his, and as my parents would not allow me to own any sort of video game, I was eager to get a TI-82 of my very own and join the ranks of the calculator gamers. However, in dumb teenage fashion, as I was making a pitch to my mother as to why I needed this expensive device, I let it slip that not only would this calculator help me bring up my math grade, but that I could also hook it up to other students' calculators and get things like games from them.

Thus ended any chance I had of getting a graphing calculator. Perhaps if I'd been a halfway motivated math student, she might have taken my request more seriously, but as I was more interested in Faulkner than in factoring, I let it drop.

Los Angeles Times educational columnist Bob Sipchen returned this week from the International Society for Technology in Education's annual national conference in San Diego, and in this week's column, he had much to discuss regarding the place of technology in education today not just in the US, but globally. At the end of the column, he posed his weekly question for his readers: Is the global technology revolution good or bad for American students?

I thought about his question this morning as I assembled my weekly powerpoint presentation for the remedial reading class I am teaching this summer. I pondered my own extensive use of technology both in and out of the classroom, how I came to incorporate it in my teaching, and how very different my teaching style would be without it.

One point that Sipchen brings up is a 2000 US Department of Education survey that states that 21% of 12th graders find school "quite or very interesting." He plays off of this statistic to discuss why students today are increasingly disengaged from traditional educational methods, preferring a world of light and sound rather than of paper and ink.  I believe the reason that only 21% of students profess to find school engaging or interesting is not because of a lack of technological bells and whistles on the teacher's end, but a lack of intrinsic motivation on the part of the student. Some of this is the educational system, with its increasing emphasis on standardized tests and scripted learning at an early age, some of it is a societal lack of emphasis on education, and some of it is lack parental pressure--parents who tell their children that school is important, but they don't model it at home. Most children are innately extrinsicly motivated, and with enough extrinsic motivation (both positive and negative) as well as adults who model the proper attitudes and behaviors, they develop their own intrinsic motivation and become engaged in school and learning.

I went into teaching to educate and mentor, not to entertain, and when my students whine that something is boring, my standard response (as any of my students can attest) is "waaah." I'm not astoundingly sympathetic to kids who are given everything and then complain that they're bored--of course they're bored! I constantly tell them that I wouldn't give them the material if it weren't interesting or relevant in some way (which is only a lie about 5% of the time, really!) and, if they think it's boring, I challenge them to find something important and interesting about what we're learning. Most of the time, it works to some extent, and it works best with the kids who are willing to work for something rather than those who expect things to be given to them.

That said, I believe that the global technology revolution will be good for American students, as long as they realize the importance of keeping up with it! Too many of our students define "technology" as MySpace or text messaging or high speed internet access, without thinking about the underpinnings of those technologies--who and what it took to create them.

I'm a big Thomas Friedman fan as well. Around the time of the 2004 presidental elections, MTV showed a series of 30-minute documentaries geared toward getting their viewership more interested in voting. One of them, titled "Choose or Lose: Work It", dealt with the job outlook in the US, and the fact that not only are jobs being outsourced, but more and more foreign workers with strong backgrounds in science and technology are coming here to work because there aren't enough Americans to fill the positions.

I was fortunate enough to catch a rerun on my DVR, which I then hooked up to my computer and burned to DVD to show my students on the LCD projector in my classroom, as part of a unit on the importance of being politically and socially aware (what better time for that than election season?) My English classes also watched the same documentary, as part of a unit on argumentation and persuasion. My students, mostly freshmen and sophomores at the time, got into the unit and were surprised by a lot of what they saw on the documentary. We live in a small farming town, and they have missed a lot of the diversity global exposure I took for granted growing up in southern California, so the issues presented in the documentary were more or less new to them.

I don't know how much they retained, but there was a lively and fascinating discussion on the class blog the following week.

All of the technology I use in my classroom is technology I have actively sought out--my webpage, my class blogs for homework and discussion, my classroom computer, which I bought because the ones the school supplied for the teachers were 6 years old, the LCD projector I "borrowed" from the library five years ago and never returned, not that anyone has come looking for it in that time.

We can either use technology or be run over by it. However, just as the MIT computer project is student-driven, classroom technology should be instructor-driven, and the instructors need to take their cues from the students as to what is valuable and what is a waste of time and money. I started to make a list of all the so-called technological innovations that sit in cabinets and storage rooms at my school because the decision to purchase them belonged to an administrator who went to an educational technology conference, rather than sending a teacher who might see the practical applications of such equipment. However, as I didn't want to fill up your comment section, I opted to leave the list out.

I'm a technogeek by nature, but in watching my students and seeing what technology they use and how they use it, I have been able to better adapt my own educationally-related technology usage to help streamline my classes and better assist and enage the students. While I don't believe that every student needs a laptop at school, and while I feel that much of today's oft-touted educational technology is just hype, I believe that many teachers need to stop thinking of technology as something to be taught separately and start thinking of it as just effective of a tool as chalk and a blackboard. It should be up to each teacher to decide what tools and to what extent they should utilize technology, but if we don't stop treating it as secondary and start not only using it but showing students what goes into that technology and the implications it has on their futures, they are going to get left behind, not just with regards to test scores, but with regards to the flat world in which we now live.


At 10:41 AM, Blogger Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC said...

It's important to remember that technology is as good as we make it. If we ask our students to use it for important and innovative activities then we are using it well. If our students only use it for playing games, they are wasting resources. Fortunately, today there are many games that are both fun and enable players to develop important skills. Many of our students play these games. Perhaps because they are so accustomed to playing these action-packed games, our job as teachers becomes more difficult. We must live up to the challenge.

Andrew Pass


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