Do We Really Need Technology To Learn?

When I first picked up this Sunday’s New York Times, I was delighted to see a photo of kids standing in front of an interactive whiteboard. A whiteboard which was mounted to a wall with the children’s height in mind (Many of my students have to use a stool. It’s unfortunate, but at least I’m lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard in my classroom). Then I read the article that accompanied the picture which questioned the necessity of technology in schools, and how districts are spending a lot of money on state-of-the-art equipment with very little effect in terms of higher test scores and student results.

Unfortunately, the question shouldn’t really be whether technology is needed to learn. The question should be “Are you teaching kids to use technology to learn?” I am a huge proponent of technology, but it is merely a tool. It’s not about the ‘state-of-the-art stuff’ one has in a classroom, but how the kids are using it. Technology is a mindset and until teachers start to understand that, technology just takes away time from other curricular activities. Rather than see technology as a separate subject or skill, it should be integrated into what you are already doing.

I had kids head to our computer lab yesterday, our first day of school. Of course there were certain things I had to show them, like how to save a file to a particular folder, but the idea was to engage the kids in the writing process. Earlier in the day, we had generated ideas for our poems. Then the kids wrote a draft using pencil and paper. As they were doing this, I provided feedback, and gave them suggestions to help them revise their work. It was only then that we headed to create our good copies. Many of my students have not had a lot of exposure to computers, but its the questions the generate that excite me. “How do I move the cursor to the next line?” “Can I change the size of the letters?” “What does that red squiggly line mean?” It’s then that you start to give individualized instruction to each child. Another great thing that happens is the dialogue that happens between kids. “How did you do that?” “Oh, let me show you.”

We don’t use a lot of tech in my class, but when we do, the kids need to see a purpose to it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a mindset. It’s not about whether or not the computer is running Apple or Windows 7 (I’m actually writing this on an Apple running Windows 7). It’s not a question of Google vs. Bing. It’s not about whether they are using MS Word, PowerPoint, or Google Docs. Twitter is an amazing tool, but who knows if it will even be around in 5 years. Technology should support what the kids are trying to do. And in the case of my class this week, completing the writing process by editing and typing their poem was the task. When kids want to learn how to do something, they will.

So, do we need technology to learn? YES! But we also know how to make it meaningful, and how to use it to enhance learning.


6 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Technology To Learn?

  1. Envy the tech available to students today. Imagine research for college papers when your only two sources of info was the college and town libraries not the entire world with the internet. My generation was taught with a blackboard, text books, and a composition book. We did OK. The thing about today’s tech world in school these days is that their hands glide over the keyboard seemingly magically. But they don’t know how to make things with their hands. Sewing, pottery, sawing wood, building models, painting – kids today don’t have a clue. I can fix the toilet with that $7 part but they will have to shell out $125 for the plumber.


  2. Technology is just an enhancer. Last year: composition books; this year: computers and printers.
    I think it’s fair to say that the idea of education is to get information into students’ heads, and to get ideas out.
    Carl: one sign of kids’ loss of “manual arts” is the way they hold pencils these days – as if it’s a foreign, alien object. I suppose that since “it works”, it’s OK. I figure it’s because nobody ever told them how to do it.
    And what do we do when the last plumber retires?
    Every now and again I read that a school has given every student a computer. I think the assumption we’re supposed to make is “Great! Now all our kids will learn all sorts of neat stuff and everybody will be above average”.
    Anthony: What does the whiteboard do for you? In business, it’s usually a collaborative tool, good for widely-spaced groups. (On the other hand, nobody has to beat the erasers together. That was sort of fun, in the Old Days.)
    A few weeks ago we met a young woman – just graduated high school – who’s going to college. (She’ll only be taking 18 units……) She said that everything there is done through the computer (I almost said, “by computer’). Assignments are posted, homework is mailed in. Classes still meet in classrooms, but I;m sure they’re working on that.
    That’ll let the professor do his teaching from the beach in Bermuda.

    • Thanks for your comments. Both of you make very good points, which is why I’m not a big fan of virtual manipulatives. I think kids need to feel and touch the real things. The whiteboard works best when it’s used as a station for small groups and the kids are moving letters and words around. For whole group, it’s great for projecting things that I couldn’t draw and can be manipulated like google earth, or saving work that’s done collaboratively before it gets erased. Yes, chart paper does the same thing and can be displayed more permanently, but a digital file (if it doesn’t need to be displayed) is easier to manage. As you both have said, kids need to be able to build things. They need to be able to read, write (with a pen or pencil first), and they need to develop decent math skills. They also need to learn to get along with one another, figure out how to solve problems of all kinds on their own, and most importantly, be allowed to be kids. Computers don’t make kids smart. Learning how to ask good questions does. And when the power goes out or the server dies, one always needs to have a Plan B. Although, I have to say, I don’t miss beating erasers and having chalk dust all over me.

  3. Teaching kids how to use technology to actually enhance their learning is critical. So many people us Google searches to find information, but finding isn’t the same as learning or thinking. There was a great opinion piece in the Seatle Times back in June by two UW Information School professors. They found that college students actually narrow their choice of sources to consult in order to cope with the overwhelmingly huge number of information options and their inability to assess the quality of the information they find. Given that the Google results on my computer adjust based on my past searches, continued use of one source essentially reinforces and narrows the search results rather than broadening them. We need to teach people of all ages how to use technology (and books!) to find information, but then follow through with the old-school skills of critical evaluation and of using new information to build upon existing ideas. The above professors argue that “evaluation, interpretation and synthesis are the key competencies of the 21st Century”. Hard to argue with that. As Dex said in Star Wars: Episode II: “Those analysis droids only focus on symbols. Huh! I should think that you Jedi would have more respect for the difference between knowledge and… heh heh heh… wisdom.” Thanks Google for refreshing my memory of that line – I only hope whoever posted it transcribed it correctly. Maybe that is my excuse to watch the movie again…

    • The real key is “critical evaluation” – what I’d call “critical thinking”. It’s a skill I believe is fast disappearing. That’s the only thing I can think of that explains the “average man in the street”, (How else explain that people fall for “climate change”, simply because “Al Gore said so”? But that’s another long thread.)

      Using Google (I use Ask almost all the time now) is only different than going to the library in terms of convenience (and time). (My wife has long complained the loss of library catalog cards. With those, you could look through the cards before and after, and find all sorts of neat things serendipitously.)

      It’s been too long since I was a t school – do any of you remember being shown how to use a library card catalog system? Or the Dewey Decimal System? Or the Library of Congress system?

      [A friend of mine suggested using the abbreviation “q.G” in place of “q.v.”]

      I don’t know if Ask refines its hits based on past searches. I agree with you that that’s not a Good Thing. If anything, I want broader, not narrower, searches.

      There’s good news and bad news about the Web. The good news is that everything’s out there. The bad news is that everything’s out there. Some of it is true, and some of it is useful.

      One problem with Web searches is that while a query may come back with “over 1,000,000 hits”, if you track them down, there mat only be 1000 or so distinct sources – so many sites borrow and copy from others. In one recent case, a search I did came back with “about 1,000 hits” – and they all referred to the same article – and a questionable one at that.

      So the question, then, is “how do you teach critical thinking”? I’d vote for “earlier rather than later”. Maybe it has to be done in parallel – starting in First Grade and continuing indefinitely.

      Lastly, any technology is only a tool to help you get there faster or more efficiently. At least, until they come up with little pills marked “Algebra” and “History” and “French”.

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