Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Future (non)Classroom: An Educational Philosophy of Technology

Dear Educational Administrator X,

The following is my hypothetical response to your hypothetical interview questions. Please do not hesitate to contact me about any of my responses. Technology is a subject I meditate on frequently and I would love to share a conversation about it with you. -SJF.

How do you believe technology* can be used most effectively to support and assess learning?

    I suppose i'll tackle 'support' first. Technology can be used to support learning in many ways, but the most notable (and I think most effective) way is simply through the sheer volumes of data that the internet and computers have made readily available. This makes it a relatively simple task for any teacher or student to begin to explore alternative perspectives, new communities and cultures, and focus on interdisciplinary aspects of traditional subjects in a way that was simply not possible before the advent of the internet. In this way, technology can transform the old static classroom into a bustling information hub where students (with support and guidance) can begin their own journey through humanity's collective knowledge.

    Assessment is especially important in today's current educational systems. Teachers, schools, and students are all measured up to standards, a process that has serious economic implications for all of the aforementioned. Computers were originally developed for the purpose of basic computing: simple math and organization of large data sets. As technology has evolved, it has gotten very good at keeping track of extremely varied data sets. Tracking a student's performance used to be done entirely by hand, usually in a grade book, but now teachers have the ability to digitize their classroom records. With the proper tools, it's not difficult to apply statistical analysis to classroom data including grade levels, individual student performance, lesson efficacy, and subject interest. While the benefits of these tools is clear for teachers, they can also give students greater control over their education which subsequently improves motivation.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of various technologies for particular types of learning?

    I've already gone over some of the advantages technology offers when compared to your traditional classroom, so now i'll focus on the disadvantages technology may have when compared to other classroom tools.

1. Technology breaks down: If a teacher saves all of his or her classroom data on a laptop, and that laptop ceases to function, then that teacher may have quite a bit of difficulty recovering that data or completing necessary tasks like assessment. Traditional white boards rarely break down and pen and paper also perform very consistently.

2. Technology is not always available: Many students all over the world have difficulties acquiring food and shelter for basic survival, let alone personal computers. While a lot of technology used in classrooms today is still much more expensive than traditional materials such as textbooks and paper, this is rapidly changing. Soon, paper books will be obsolete and personal computing devices will be just as readily available. But for now, this remains a disadvantage for using certain types of technology in the classroom.

3. Attention Span: Many folks currently believe that the internet is responsible for shortening our attention spans and fundamentally altering the way out brains work. Usually people making these arguments also believe that this change is a negative one and that it prevents us from making deep thoughts and retaining important information. There is, however, quite a bit of controversy on the issue. While research certainly shows differences in brain activity between reading a book and viewing a website, it's not clear that the difference is bad, just different. Dr. Gary Small is a commonly cited source for this. An article outlining his arguments can be found here. Even though Dr. Small's studies a slightly outdated, there still seems to be no firm consensus as to whether or not the biological changes humans experience from our increasing use of technology is affecting us in a positive or negative way.

Here is a video interview with more information on how technology may be affecting our brains:

What are some specifics for how you will use technology in your own classroom, including technologies to support diverse learners?

    I plan to use technology in my classroom as much as possible. It will allow me to share information with students in a multitude of ways and give students the opportunity to explore their interests in much greater depth than would otherwise be possible. Instead of listening to a lecture, students might watch a video where I or another expert explains a concept and gives examples. Instead giving an oral presentation to the class, a student might participate in an online forum or chat room, sharing ideas with other classrooms across the world. Every learner is diverse, and technology has a way to empower all of them. Whether it's a change in the method of instruction, or an accommodation for a disability, technology makes it possible to reach and engage any kind of student.

    With so much raw data available to students online, it's imperative that they master the tools they need to navigate the digital world. Once that toolset is learned, there is nothing that can hold students back from achieving their wildest dreams. To this end, research techniques, copyright, plagiarism, and content analysis are essential topics I plan to cover in my classes. Most of us have heard the saying: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." I plan to teach my students how to fish. My students, using the powerful tools technology has afforded us, will leave my class being able to teach themselves anything they ever need to know.

Is there anything else you consider important?

    There are many other things I consider important, such as love, environmental sustainability, human rights, etc. In regards to the topic of technology, as I assume this prompt infers, there is one other thing I would like to mention. While Moore's Law has seen the rapid exponential growth of technology over the last half-century, education systems are changing very slowly by comparison. There is a lack of motivation for many teachers, administrative staff, school districts, states, and governments to radically overhaul long-outdated education systems. It's an obvious fact that technology will define the future of our society, and I think it's high time we begin to focus on giving students the skills to use and analyze it. I'm not saying that schools should start ignoring standards or throw classical knowledge out the window, rather I propose that these should not be the focus that defines education. Instead, we should focus on preparing students for a future where they will be less dependent on institutionalized education and more dependent on their own ability to navigate a digital world.

*Please note that the term 'technology' is not used properly in the prompts or in my responses to them. 'Technology' in this post (and probably throughout most of my writings...) refers mainly to newer digital technologies such as personal computers, digital networks, and modern software. Just felt the need to clarify. :)

Monday, July 9, 2012

WWU's EARTC and WordWeb 6 Reviews

   For this blog post I was tasked with visiting the EARTC [education and acronyms always seem to go hand in hand even though acronyms are often inaccessible to wide audiences, often making them detriments to communication and a hindrance in the classroom]. The EARTC is this educational technology center that seems to be intended for students of education rather than actual students. Much of the material in the center is very outdated and the room itself is tiny and cramped with just 5-10 people inside. My assignment was essentially to review “Writing Focus”, a piece of software by Granada Learning. When I got to the center, however, it was full of people; a lesson on the use of SMART boards was being taught to other college students who were taking up about half of the space. There additional students using some of the center’s computers [these were obviously hand-me-downs from other departments or deceased computer labs] and others perusing the shelves of odd learning/teaching tools sorted by subject and age.

   When I finally got a chance to ask the single available staff person for help, he looked up the name of the software on a list, logged into a computer for me, and gave me a cd to install. After the initial install and the subsequent repair failed, I denied the staff person’s offer to switch to a computer with an older operating system and gave up on “Writing Focus.” Honestly, I don’t know who is in charge of the software that gets included in the EARTC’s library, but he or she is either daft or busy with other tasks. “Writing Focus” was created and sold in 2001 which means it probably runs on Windows 95 and/or Windows XP. These operating systems are all but obsolete, and preserving educational software that is 11 years old is pointless. “Writing Focus,” like many of the EARTC’s so-called ‘resources’ are just as horribly outdated as much of the education department’s curriculum. Considering the fact that Western Washington University was originally founded as a normal school, I’m surprised at the lack of resources allocated for educational technology in a time where technology is completely redefining all aspects of education. Western’s education department, however, is already recognized as being fairly prestigious in Washington, and so WWU will make more money by building more classrooms and dorms [as they have been doing the last couple years] to increase attendance numbers rather than improving the quality of existing programs and departments.

   All one has to do is type “educational software” as a search query and Google will grant you immediate access to more tools, resources, and information in 0.21 seconds than the EARTC has ever seen [134,000,000 results]. The 8th result of my Google search brought me to, a trusted download site that has been around for quite a few years now. The site is especially good for providing fast and safe servers for free software and demos. The 2nd most popular educational software on cnet’s site is a small application called “WordWeb.” “WordWeb” is extremely handy, great for classroom and personal use, and it’s free. Here’s a quick review:

WordWeb [ver. 6] – Reviewed 7/9/12 

   WordWeb is a reference tool can assist students with reading comprehension and vocabulary. Most vocabulary-focused reference tools provide definitions, synonyms, and other information about a word or term from a single source. Other tools incorporate multiple sources but usually contain overlapping definitions or irrelevant information. WordWeb at first appears like a normal reference tool, until you realize that it queries WordWeb’s database, Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and an additional online database all at once. If you purchase the pro version, you can even customize these queries and add additional databases. This is how a modern student would look up and learn the definition of a word anyhow; by checking multiple online sources in additional to a dictionary and likely including an encyclopedia/wiki query as well. WordWeb just simplifies the process. WordWeb can be set up to run in the background and respond to a hotkey. The default hotkey is control + right click. I can use this hotkey on any word I see on the screen as long as it isn’t part of an image file. That means I can use WordWeb for word documents, pdfs, websites, etc.

   Because it looks up standard definitions that are saved to your hard drive before querying websites, it’s blindingly fast. I haven’t ever used a reference tools that is this quick. Even the online resources are very speedy; taking you straight to the entry you are looking for, rather than requiring you to re-type the word in a search bar.

   Students and teachers alike will find that this software makes difficult texts more accessible simply due to the speed at which one can find the relevant definition of a word, term, or idea. It also allows students to remain engaged in what they are doing. It’s a huge drag to have to pull out a dictionary or open up a web browser, navigate to a wiki page, and enter a query. And while the program may not directly allow for student expression, it does provide synonyms for not only words, but phrases as well. This can help students find that phrase or word they were looking for and allow them to better and more efficiently express themselves.

   Every student who has the physical ability to use a computer and read can use this program. It supports different languages and could be very useful for a foreign language exchange program. With the pro version, one could set up an online translator as one of the queried databases [or even multiple translators for greater accuracy!!].

   I don’t have any concerns or reservations about this program. It’s everything an educational tool should be: simple, fast, and effective. I will be using this program for my personal use from this day forward, and I will definitely install it on any computers I come across in my own future classrooms. It’s just a no-brainer.

CNET download is here