Friday, February 16, 2007


Teaching with technology

A pair of BBC items in January brought a question into focus: to what extent should teachers use new technology in their teaching. See “Too much technology in the classroom?” and the follow-up two weeks later, “Doubts over hi-tech white boards”. These also relate to the recent discussion here and elsewhere about using blogging as a teaching tool.

First, note that the question the BBC articles are considering is somewhat different from the one of student blogging, in that the BBC is talking about teachers, not students, using the technology. It's particularly important to understand that it's not a question of whether to teach technology, but whether to teach with technology — I hope we all agree that we have to teach our children to understand and use what's in the technological world around them (though we might disagree at what ages to push the various things).

But why isn't the use of technology as a teaching tool equally clear? The first BBC article starts right off with an example of the problem:

Interactive whiteboards can even “slow the pace of whole class learning”, the study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills suggested. They can also lead to “relatively mundane activities being over-valued”, the Institute of Education study found.
A government program put interactive whiteboards (IWBs) into the schools, trying to get at least some into every secondary school in London.
IWBs allow teachers to access computer programs and multi-media, such as images, music and video, on a large screen at the front of the class. Pupils can come up to the front of the class and touch the board to interact with what is on it.

That sounds great. What, then, is the problem? What I get from reading the articles is this:

  1. The results were studied barely a year after the boards were introduced. It's not clear that there was enough time for teachers to figure out how best to take advantage of them.
  2. Many teachers do not want to use them. Either they don't believe the IWBs can make a difference and they are unwilling to try them, or they don't want to put the effort into learning to use a new tool.

A year is nowhere near enough time to rework the curriculum to make use of these things. And it's clear that just sticking one in a classroom without a significant change in the lesson plan is just asking for underuse and misuse. The plan has to be designed around the devices in order for them to be most useful. It seems that the students were initially excited about them, but that excitement faded when it wasn't accompanied by excitement and adoption by the teachers. The boards were used mostly for simple projection, usually not taking advantage of the more interesting and interactive features. The administrators, as well, often didn't put much effort into it, since “departments' purchases seem to be as much a matter of chance as informed choice.”

There are questions of reliability of the devices and the software; it's not clear to me how much of that comes from the teachers' being unfamiliar with their use. And it's not clear to me how much of that is due to the short time since the introduction of the IWBs and how much comes from an unwillingness to change. Some of the teachers' comments in the second article lead me to believe that there's more unwillingness than I'd like to see.

I would hope to see teachers embracing new teaching tools and methods, and it disturbs me to see a strong resistance to such change. I suppose that in the end teachers are like the rest of us — we're comfortable with how we've done things before, and it takes a lot of work to learn something new. But the students we're teaching today will have to learn to use these new things, and having them use them first as tools for learning will give them the familiarity they'll need in the future.

One teacher has this to say:

Children should be able to find pleasure in simple things. We shouldn't make it all Disney-like every time we come to school.
...which is another way of saying that we should do things the way we always have, and not change. I don't buy it. The world has changed, and, for better or worse, the world is a lot more “Disney-like” than it used to be.

On the other hand:

She argues the £3,000 cost of each board could be better used reducing class sizes or funding an extra floating teacher.
...and that may well be true. The experiment should not be over yet; it needs to have time and training behind it. But in the end it might, indeed, turn out that there are better ways to spend the money. Even if technology has a new place in the classroom, IWBs might not be the right tools.

And there's a down-side to having so much technology available to those not yet mature enough. As a final note, consider this item from the New York Times, “Teenagers Misbehaving, for All Online to Watch”:

17-year-old Gary Buley-Neumar explained: “Kids beat up other kids and tape it, just so other kids will see it and laugh. Or they just post stupid things they did online so other kids will look at their Web page.”


Susan Kuchinskas said...

There's another important reason to not introduce too much screen technology to the grade school classroom: Kids' brains get very important stimulation from face to face contact with an adult. A lot of kids aren't getting enough attention at home, that is, the very simple and direct attention of having an adult look at them, see them and respond to them.

Our brains are wired for social interaction, and we need much of it as children in order to develop not only socially but also emotionally and cognitively.

At the same time, lighted screens are incredibly attractive to the eye. I think these devices will end up reducing personal interaction among kids and between teacher and kid.

I think the money would be much better spent hiring a teacher's assistant for each classroom.

Maggie said...

This is a very interesting issue. Technology should not be adopted into a classroom without having been studied in the context of a curriculum. That curriculum, plus the underlying principles of why the technology is beneficial and how to use it, should be explicitly taught to the teachers who are going to be using the technology.

It is a more Disney-like world, at least in this country of consumers. That doesn't mean that Disney belongs in school. We gain knowledge by reflecting on things, not by having them flashed in front of us with five seconds of screen time per image. Have you ever watched a classroom in a science museum? They run, as fast as they can, to each display, touching everything in the display before they run to the next. Is that a valuable experience? Is that a learning experience?

New technology is not necessarily new teaching technology. Teaching technology (whiteboard, legos, chemistry lab, piece of paper, etc.) should engage the student and should lead to discovery. I realize that these boards have an interactive feature, but that doesn't mean that the student is interacting with a meaningful thing in a meaningful way. Look at TV news as a great example of how technology changes what we present as news. The emphasis is on the visual. "I'm standing here live in the middle of the night in front of a building that's been closed for five hours to tell you that something happened here today." It's boring to present in-depth analysis on TV, so we get fluff, or we get pundits shouting over each other. (There are, of course, more in-depth interviews and polite pundit shows, but the visually exciting programs outweigh the thoughtful ones.)

Before placing technology in a classroom, there should be a curriculum put in place that uses the technology. Just because somebody is an experienced teacher, doesn't mean they're immediately going to see how a new technology will aid teaching. In fact, they could have ideas that are dead wrong.

How the technology can best be used should be studied empirically, and not conducted as thirty different ill-defined experiments on thirty classrooms of students.

I'm teaching in two electronic classrooms this year. For both of my classes, all of my students are in front of a computer. This makes it very difficult for me to give them group-work that does not involve a computer, and it makes it difficult for me to hold their attention, because in a 30-student class, I know some of them are checking their email and playing games. I haven't figured out how to avoid lecturing in my classes yet, because there are some concepts you simply must discuss and show by example. But I like for them to discover as much as possible by themselves, and the best way for that is to have them in groups with their peers, where everybody is responsible to everybody else (with clearly identified responsibilities), and everybody is close in their level of knowledge, but with different strengths and weaknesses. The amount that the computer technology aids that kind of learning: 0. The only place I find it useful is in the programming class, because I can pull up the development environment and show them how to experiment with their code.

I think Susan's point that our brains are wired for social interaction is a valid and extremely important one. Our ancestors did not evolve in front of computer. (I think I posted about this on my own blog last month.) Our ancestors evolved having to cooperate with each other in order to survive. What I had posted on my blog is that schools do not take advantage of the built-in human desire to do meaningful work that helps the tribe.

I agree with Susan -- put more teachers in the classroom. I'll add that new technology should be studied and not immediately adopted because it's new. Yes, students need to learn the new technology. And when that is obsolete, then what? They need to learn how to learn. Making them aware of the learning process and teaching them the underlying principles of information technology is going to be much more valuable than giving them yet another place to watch TV.

Dr. Momentum said...

“New technology without new curriculum isn’t worth the silicon its written in.” - James J. Kaput.