Technology: Education’s boon or bane?

A fellow teacher shared with me an article inThe Washington Post about two D.C.-area private schools, one that uses computers in the classroom and one that uses strictly traditional teaching methods  –  no electronics whatsoever.

In the article, an employee at the school without technology said, “There is a time and a place for technology, but children need to first relate to the physical world around them.”

The idea that technology is ruining our youth is becoming more absurd (the article does provide this balance), and this observation has strengthened  the longer I teach. Technology is becoming more pervasive in society, much to Ray Bradburys chargin. Any career that pays will involve technology and will likely involve technology that hasn’t even been invented yet.

Technology in schools? How important is it? Can it help those with shorter attention spans or will it hinder independence?  (Photos: Public Domain)

They say younger people have shorter attention spans, thanks to technology. If that’s the case, then we need to tailor our pedagogy for more engaging activities. People who are anti-technology still want us to teach the way people have for hundreds of years in a method call intensive-explicit – I stand in the front of the classroom and tell you what you need to know.

Is that how we learn nowadays? Let’s say I wasn’t helpful and didn’t provide a definition of intensive-explicit instruction, but you wanted to know what it meant. What would you do? Google it, of course. That’s the power of technology: I can learn so much about the world through my own sense of discovery. The trick for today’s teachers is to instill that sense of discovery, and traditional intensive-explicit instruction will not foster that independence.

It’s not about throwing technology into the classroom for the sake of having bells and whistles. It’s about teaching kids that these wonderful devices and programs are powerful tools that can help expand their minds and creativity.

But the naysayers believe technology stifles creativity. Go to this website then come back and continue your argument. Thanks to Web 2.0, we have the ability to create, manipulate and communicate in ways unheard of in a traditional classroom. Fifteen years ago, I wasn’t able to work on a project with my classmates via Google Talk and the collaborative tools that Google Drive provides. Now the journalism class I teach can use Drive in the same way a professional newsroom would use a news-editing program – and it’s free!

Technology gives teachers tools that we could never have without a lot of preparation and supplies. Plus, these tools are available out-of-the-classroom, so kids can continue their learning when the bell rings. I create video lessons on a new concept that the students must watch at home. When they come to class, they can apply their skill and knowledge of the concept, and I can assess their knowledge and make corrections on the spot. It’s called the flipped classroom, and it’s a very good way to infuse technology into modern teaching standards.

The argument that kids can’t learn life skills through technology is preposterous. The problem is that people see technology as just Angry Birds, Facebook, YouTube music videos, and word processors that fix your spelling and grammar problems. That does exist, but so do tools that can enlighten your mind like nothing else.

Student summer camps such as Girls Learning Electrical Engineering in Illinois for 11th and 12th graders are helping improve math skills.  (GLEE)

Want to teach astronomy? You can use websites that will give you the star field on any date and show the mind-boggling size of the universe. You can expand your vocabulary while feeding hungry people. Want to have fun teaching history? Have your students make fake Facebook pages for famous historical figures. I’ve only given a few (and here are a few more) of the hundreds of websites that people can use to increase their knowledge and make learning more fun.

Using technology in the classroom provides a key skill everyone needs – problem solving. When students arrive in my classroom next fall, they will see a Nintendo Wii remote glued to the ceiling-mounted overhead projector. They will inevitably ask, “Why is that there?”

The Wiimote helps turn my drab dry-erase board into an interactive board. It took me nearly a year to get it to work, thanks to constant research and trial and error. The excitement when I figured it out was immeasurable, and kids can feel the same when they learn how to use a fancy presentation site to make their projects pop.

And the guy who invented the Wiimote Whiteboard developed it by problem-solving the mechanics of the remote and how it can work with a computer. What did that work get him? A job at Microsoft developing the Kinect system for the Xbox.

For the 2012-2013 school year, I plan to make my classroom as close to a 21st century classroom as possible. Most of these high-tech classrooms are in suburban areas with decent resources. But I plan to do this in a more urban setting with very limited resources, and I will chronicle my efforts on this website. Hopefully by this time next year, I will have more evidence to prove that technology integration is a boon and not a bane for education.

There will be times when markers and chart paper are more useful than laptops and Twitter. But the more we work to show technology as a tool rather than mindless entertainment, the more likely our kids will use these tools to better themselves and their world.