Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Two Faces of Technology

Technology use in education is enticing and stimulating but it can also lead to frustration and confusion.

One of the most effective uses of technology in the classroom that I've seen is the use of Smart Boards in math  and geometry instruction.  It's so easy to integrate pictures and shapes into lessons. The technology allows the teacher and student to manipulate geometric shapes to help students visualize them in ways not even the most skilled artist could do.  Textbook and worksheet pages can be downloaded so that everyone is literally, working from the same page.  It is also easy to show videos that relate to the topic and access the internet in the same space as problem solving is going on.The technology also allows teachers to save notes and share them so that students can go back and review on their own. 

The very simple use of digital photography can also make instruction faster and communication easier.  I have done a number of quilting projects with students over the years.  At some point somebody, the teacher or the student needs to record the design.  Younger students design best with either fabrics or colored paper in their hands.  Instead of laboriously transferring their designs onto graph paper and coloring it, I just took a photo of each kindergarten student's design. The printed copy was their pattern and it took a fraction of the time graph paper would have.  We have also photographed our problem solving process when we work on some big math problems. It helps communicate the process so that we can share it with a larger audience such as parents or other students.

Wavepad, a new application on my iPad is a great way to get an oral reading sample for students. It is a simple voice recorder like Garage Band on my computer but it is easier to use, includes a timer and can be shared through email.  Students can record themselves reading and then go back with a teacher and analyze their reading.  When they hear themselves it is easier for them to see where they made their mistakes and improve their reading.   I think it will be great for teaching storytelling too.

Conversely, one of the worst experiences I've had with the use of technology is with Power Point presentations.  We educators are the worst violators of basic presentation skills.  We think that because something looks OK on our desktops it will look OK in a PP presentation.  Too much data, too small graphics, clutter, bullet points, fancy transitions that make your head spin.  They can be horrible!  Just give me the thumbnail notes and let me go home!  At the same time, we want students to be able to communicate learning through producing Power Point or Keynote presentations. They can be powerful programs but they should not be the presentation itself.  I've seen a few great presentations and many mediocre or horrible ones.

A lesson I have crashed and burned on more than once is asking students to access the internet to answer a research question. Several things have gone wrong most related to time management and the result was frustration rather than enlightenment.
  1. the students haven't been able to log on or time ran out before their log-in process was complete.
  2. Students spent their time inefficiently on sites that weren't helpful.
  3. We couldn't find appropriate sites and relevant information in the time allowed.
  4. we didn't have an effective vehicle for sharing the information.
  5. The equipment was broken, too slow, or inadequate in some way.
In every case we need to think about how and why we use any technology.  Does it enhance learning? Does it make better use of time? talent? Why are we using it? Without careful planning and training, technology can get in the way of learning just as easily as not.


  1. One of the things I have come to believe is that teaching and learning are two very different things. Sometimes teaching begets learning but not always but often learning happens without the need of teaching. In many ways this is illustrated between the polar dichotomy between behaviorist/instructionalist theory and constructivist theory of learning. Another thing I have come to believe is that computer technology has the greatest potential to improve learning within an open constructivist environment. Such an environment defies strict programming. It also is out of step with the pedagogical heritage present in our school systems. When we try to integrate technology in the classroom it often is like trying to control a pool of water on a flat surface. It's messy and doesn't do what we want it to do. But, if we don't try to control it then what?

    I am curious what your thoughts are on this video:

  2. I have seen that video, or at least parts of it, before. I think the reason my experience was different from the experience of the researchers was because:
    1. The question has to be properly phrased and asked to stimulate inquiry. For example, "Find out all you can about hippos and tell us about it in a half hour," is not the same as "Why don't hippos live in Minnesota?" The first is too open-ended and vague. The second gives the student a specific purpose.
    2. Artificial time constraints should be avoided.
    3. Grouping kids improves their results instead of having each kid work independently. A computer works better than an individual hand held. An iPad may work when every one in the group can see the screen.

    He made several other points about the experience with the Hole in the Wall that I have also found to be true in working with my high ability students. So many of them say that regular classroom work is boring and they wan to be challenged. I think what they really want is to be interested. They want to be in charge of their own learning. For the last 8 years I have taught every subject at every grade level from k-8th grade. Kids have always learned and usually enjoyed doing so. They were never given a grade. I assessed them, I needed to know if they understood and could transfer their knowledge but I never gave a test or a grade.

    I noticed that the reading level of the resources on the internet wasn't discussed. I believe that reading levels naturally increase when you read with a purpose and not just for entertainment.