"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Technology in Education

Among the many education reform measures is the call for increased technology in the classroom. To most people this means things like more computers and Smart boards. In extreme cases it means iPads for all the kindergarteners. Of course hardware is only one aspect of technology. Software is the driving force for the actual education and there is no shortage of companies vying for that business. In some sense it is the wild west of education, unsettled and barely regulated. It is a field ripe for innovation and snake oil salesman.

Take this program being marketed to teachers.

Qtopia by Qwizdom
(Marketing may be about making yourself stand out from the crowd, but the abuse of English spelling rules in the corporate name alone should make true educators cringe.)

The quasi text speak of the names is a dead giveaway to this company's product and corporate culture. They follow the fad of the young, using gimmicky technology to distract the learner from the learning process. Children answer questions, not because knowing how to do multiplication will enable them to function in the world beyond the classroom, but because it will enable them to purchase virtual items. They are rewarded by the program (and the teacher) with being able to select her avatar, telling the teacher how they, the students, would like her to be. In this video, apparently the students would prefer the teacher be the image of the sexual celebrity icon. They do not focus on her intelligence, leadership or ability to motivate them. Granted, a digital avatar does not exactly allow you to bestow those qualities, but it is obvious from her discomfort in the video, that the very activity has made her uncomfortable and forced her into a self image she does not like.

The particular activity chosen alternates between math facts and 20 seconds of game play. The entire time a fast paced music track runs in the background continuously stimulating the child. They make no bones that this uses the same features that feed gamers obsessive tendencies. The activity chosen does not actually teach, it assesses. Students who do not know their multiplication facts would simply be faced with an endless stream of problems with no reward. Studies have shown that students quickly tire of this type of activity. These studies show that when the immediate reward for academic performance is removed, the students stop participating in the learning process.

The role of the teacher is completely transformed by this software. Note that she does not need to know the standards to prepare her lessons. The program can select from either state standards or national ones. It develops the work and grades the students responses. This teacher says she can choose portions that complement what she is already teaching, but keep in mind this software is new. Over time it will expand to encompass more of what the teacher teaches. There will be less of what she does with students and more of this stuff. Is this what we want for education - A teacher marginalized to the role of game show model who turns the answer blocks?

Kid Electric at The Silicon Tower suggests these guidelines when considering technology in education:
It is extremely important that we evaluate and understand the advantages of educational technology tools before spending valuable resources (time and/or money) on them. Software tools need to be purposefully selected and integrated into instruction not based on how "new", "cool", or "powerful" they are, but based on whether the technology provides an advantage in meeting an educational goal. Let us consider some of the ramifications of jumping headfirst into using a technology before evaluating its purpose or advantage for the educational task:
  1. If the software is poorly designed, or is brand new but untested or unproven, it may be worse than using traditional methods or older technologies.
  2. If the software is a good tool, but not the right tool for the lesson at hand, student performance will suffer and students will learn less than if they didn't use the technology at all.
  3. If the teacher is untrained, unwilling, or unable to teach and guide students in effective use of the software, it will not be effectively integrated.
  4. If using traditional methods (pens, pencils, books, paper, verbal discussions, etc) would result in superior performance or better learning, then it is a waste to use technology.
  5. If any of the above occur, instructional time is wasted, learning is impeded, and the reputation of using educational technology is harmed. If low performance is perceived to occur in spite of (or even "because of") technology, this will make it difficult to convince anyone to invest future time, money, or effort in acquiring and using educational technology.

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