Friday, February 3, 2012

Does Technology Get In The Way In the Classroom 1?

Do technology and education mix well? Or is technology a distraction?  We will post two articles from two educators on this vital subject.  This is part one.

For years now I have repeatedly read articles about technology and education. As an educator, I always pick them up with enthusiasm and hope. Maybe this time the article will finally say what needs to be said. Nine times out of ten, I finish them by shaking my head in disappointment. Another article which completely misses the point. Well, I have finally reached my breaking point.

Let me make a side note here, that it is the policy at Plus Ultra Technologies to write all articles as a collective, which is why they are all written using the pronoun "we." This time, however, I need to deviate from this in order to share my personal experience.

You see, I am a teacher. To be specific, I have taught middle school english (both regular ed. and honors) for the last 14 years, the last 6 of which has been done using all technology. I have also taught at two different colleges over the past 4 years (both writing classes and information technology classes). I have also worked, at some point, at every level of education from pre K to college. In short, I have been involved in the world of education my entire life, either as a student or a teacher. And I need to make this clear because this entire blog is based on my experience.

My breaking point came when reading an article posted on I, Cringley Titled Class Dismissed: Even good students don't always want to learnIn it, Cringley quotes extensively from "an electrical engineer turned high school math teacher," who he refers to as his "new hero."Apparently, this teacher, Steve, has reservations about using technology as a motivator for student success. He also feels that technology "gets in the way" of better learning. Steve then goes on to discuss a scenario where iPads are brought into a classroom. He says that while
...for some students who are intrinsically motivated, this will unlock great learning options, . . . many will choose to use the iPad as just another distraction (and a very compelling one) instead of learning the class content. 
I have been dealing with this complaint for the last 6 years. People tend to think that the only reason to bring technology into the classroom is because it is the magic potion which can work miracles. Want kids to pay attention, break out the iPads. Want students to behave, pull out the laptops. Want to impress the observers from the state, where are those iPod Touches? Want to do real work, put the devices away.

Yes, kids will be very anxious to get their hands on all these cool devices. To be allowed to use them, they will do almost anything; right up until the point when they realize that they are supposed to use them to do work. Then, all of a sudden, they lose their luster and become just as boring as pen and paper. And what makes it even worse, is that when the students are given technology to use, most of the time they aren't being taught how to use them.

Think about it this way, how many times have you heard of a teacher demanding that students type a paper? Now how much time have those same teachers spent teaching the students how to type? The answer is zero. Students are also constantly being assigned research papers. Yet, again, how many of these teachers have bothered to teach their students how to evaluate the validity of a website or how to do web searches so as to get the best sources. The students are expected to know this already. And then we wonder why they aren't using technology the correct way.

We shouldn't be using technology to motivate our students. We shouldn't be using technology to lure kids to work or behave. That is what the teachers are for. We should be using technology in the classroom because when these students graduate, they will be expected to use this technology to do their jobs and in their daily lives. We should be using technology in the classroom, because if our students don't learn how to use technology no one will hire them.

At the college where I teach, over the last 2 years, 100% of the students with Information Technology Minors were able to find good jobs in their field upon graduating. No other department has been able to come even close to those numbers. In fact, Wharton Business School, part of The University of Pennsylvania, and one of the best business schools in the country, got so tired of having their graduates lose jobs to our students that they asked the director of the IT department to help them create their own IT department. If this doesn't show the importance of having a technology background, I don't know what will.

Next, Steve tells of his own personal experience taking a college class. Steve paints a picture of a classroom full of students, all of which have their laptops "either open to Facebook or to some online game." Why? According to Steve, "These students were convinced that they could effectively multitask and learn while being distracted by technology." Of course, not Steve. Steve was the good one who took notes, "on paper no less." What were the results? Well, of course Steve was the only one who got an "A" on the final exam. Steve's solution is to maintain control of the students' Internet access in the classroom. But, Cringley points out how this does not work.

I don't even know where to begin with this little anecdote. First, I find "Steve's analysis that the students were on Facebook or playing games because they "were convinced that they could effectively multitask and learn while being distracted by technology" one of the most unbelievable and far-fetched statements in the article. How does Steve know why the students were multitasking? Did he ask them? Also, how does Steve know that these students would do any better had they not been allowed to bring their laptops into class?

Based on my experiences, both as a student and as a college professor, I would give a much different hypothesis. The students found the material boring, irrelevant, and/or easy enough to learn on their own. College students don't pay attention when the material has no relevance to their world or the work force they wish to join. Take all those devices away and they still wouldn't have paid attention. Why do people seem to have this impression that only technology distracts students? Why does the blame for the students' lack of focus automatically fall on the shoulders of technology? If I had a student who was flinging pencils up trying to get them to stick into the ceiling, I surely wouldn't blame the pencils.

When I am teaching my college classes, no matter what the content. I go out of may to make sure that I can make it relevant. Does it keep all students focused? No? That is impossible. So to help, I have all the students take notes, which I collect and grade at the end of each class. I don't even worry if they are on Facebook or playing games. If they can pay close enough attention to take good notes and still manage to play games, then what do I care?

Some people can multitask that well. If they choose to still not pay attention and do poorly in the class (which some still do), well that is their prerogative as well. The thing we need to remember is that students who are not engaged in the material being taught are not going to pay attention no matter what. I seem to remember being in my fifth grade english class and day dreaming. I had nothing to distract me. I just was bored and hated the class. I've never hated english before. I just had a bad teacher that year.

Cringley uses Steve's experience along with his own teaching experience to jump to the conclusion that students are grateful "for any class disruption, with a class cancellation being the best news of all." What Cringley forgets to mention is that this is for only the classes that have no relevance to the students. He also fails to mention that this is not the fault of technology. Students have always been like this.

And yet despite all of this, Cringley still feels that "technology is essential, yet so far inconsequential in the calculus of education." This is the one statement Cringley makes which I agree with. Technology is essential. And it is inconsequential in the calculus of education. But it doesn't have to be. And it definitely shouldn't be.

The reason it is inconsequential is because teachers and administrators treat it this way. I can't even tell you how many times I have been told by administrators to put the technology away and prepare the students for the state test. I also can't even begin to list all the problems with that statement; beginning with why on earth the state, which constantly pushes the schools to use more technology, would give a test that has nothing to do with technology. It doesn't ask any questions about it. It doesn't even allow the students to take the test using computers.

Allow me to finish by telling my own little anecdote. For the last 6 years I have been teaching reading and writing to middle school students using technology. What I mean by this, is that all my students used devices to do all their work. They read all digital books and they typed all papers. But this was just the start. All my students had email addresses which they used to submit work and to ask me questions if they had any problems. All of them saved all their work to the cloud using They all used Diigo to research and collaborate as well as to create their works cited pages. The students did all of this using their own devices; whatever they had. Some used laptops. Some used iPod Touches. Some used smartphones. It didn't matter. My students were using all the latest websites and technologies that they would be expected to use in college and the workforce. That is until this year.

This year I was told that my students are no longer allowed to bring in their own technology to do their work. Why? Because it hasn't improved test scores. Of course, how can we expect the use of technology to improve the scores on a test which has nothing to do with technology? We can't. Can anyone come up with any scenario where a high school graduate is allowed to submit a hand written paper to a college professor or a boss? No one I've talked to has been able to. So why do I have to have my students write papers by hand rather than type them? Because the state test is a hand written test.

So even though everyone is in agreement that hand written papers are not accepted anywhere other than Kindergarten through 12th grade, students still need to write essays by hand. So one test has now become more important than all of our students' future successes. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

This all brings me to the only other line in Cringley's article which I agreed with. When he mentions the "prickly state of teaching today" whereby "saying the truth out loud can hurt a career" he is right!  Administrators can not go against the state; just like I can't say where I teach in this article. And so what happens is nothing ever gets changed. And so our students learn antiquated skills which have little place in the real world. Oh yeah. And we also get a bunch of people blaming technology for what is really the fault of the teachers, administrators, the state, and the entire system in general.

1 comment:

mike_byster said...

an educator, I believe it is very important to teach material that is
important for the future of the students. When inventing my math and
memory system Brainetics (, I wanted to focus
on new subjects and innovative methods to teach. By teaching for the
21st century, students will be more prepared in the future. It seems
like so many aspects of today’s society centers around the digital
environment and teaching should be altered to adapt.

Great article,

Mike Byster
Inventor of Brainetics, Educator, Author of Genius, Mathematician