Technology in the classroom: are we using it in meaningful ways?

All too often I read articles about technology use in the classroom as if the technology itself is a cure for all educational ills. However, the important thing it is not the technology which is used in the classroom but how it is used. Case in point: this article ‘Why Mobile Will Transform Learning: The Classroom of the Future’. The article suggests that the incorporation of mobile technology will not just improve but transform education. Now, I’m not suggesting it wouldn’t, but I am suggesting that it is how you use technology in the classroom that matters, not the fact that you use it. The article points to successful pilot programs which incorporate smartphones into classrooms. In discussing one of these, Project K-Nect, the article describes how students were provided with Internet-connected smartphones and then comments:

Teachers made the subject relevant by creating assignments that helped students see math in the real world. Teachers spent less time on direct instruction, instead encouraging students to talk with each other and learn from each other.

Is it just me, or isn’t this possibly the key change in teaching here? Maybe the key here is the real-world connections and the move away from traditional chalk and talk. Perhaps this is contributing significantly to the vast improvement in student outcomes, not just the fact that students could use smartphones at school and at home?

Technology itself is not the answer, but how we use it – or don’t use it. Giving students smartphones or iPads or laptops, putting Smartboards or SMALLab or Flow systems in classrooms: these things will not in themselves improve education. It is only when the teachers are using these tools in innovative, student-centered ways that education will improve.

In my visits to schools throughout this trip, I have seen schools using many different technological tools. However, most of the innovative teaching I have observed has not used the technology tools which the media seems to think are the way of the future, currently tablets and smartphones, but previously Smartboards and before that laptops. The most meaningful use of technology which I have observed on my trip, was the use of Vernier‘s data logging tools in Physics and Chemistry classes. I observed Arizona School for the Arts and Trinity both use these to make experimental data collection quick and efficient, leaving more time for analysis and discussion. This is a use of excellent, relevant technology to perform a job in a more accurate and faster way than traditional methods would allow. This is adding to the lesson in a significant way.

We need to consider whether the technologies we incorporate into the classroom are actually adding to the educational experience in some way. Is it doing something truly innovative, or is it simply recreating something which could be done traditional, low-tech solutions. Are the benefits worth the (often substantial) costs? These high tech tools are usually expensive, and we need to consider whether that money could be better spent in other ways to improve the learning experience for students.

While I was at High Tech High, a visiting teacher asked the director of the HTH school groups why they are not 1:1 laptop schools. (Despite the name, HTH does not have an overabundance of technology, including no Smartboards, and a combination of school laptops and desktops for kids to use.) The school director replied that they decided that the school’s funds were better spent on employing more high-quality teaching staff than on laptops, and the computers the school has were sufficient. I think that idea is something many schools would benefit from reflecting on.

In educational circles (and life in general) the word technology is usually used to mean ‘high tech’ digital and electronic devices. However we need to remember that technology is a broader word than that, and that tools such as pens, pencils and whiteboards are also a form of technology, albeit the ‘low tech’ form. So, always stop and consider: what ‘technology’ do you currently use in your classroom, how effective is it, and what ‘technology’ would most meaningfully improve the learning experience for your students?

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