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. :)

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