Monday, April 2, 2012

Technology in education

What can we reasonably expect technology to do in education?  In the last 30 years, computers have promised a great deal and delivered a great deal, but what was promised and what was delivered were not always the same thing.  As we move out of the era during which desktop computers are the ONLY way to do computing, the new thing is tablet computers, led by the gold standard, the iPad.  What will this new technology be able to do for us?

Audrey Watters, at the oft-cited but never duplicated Hack Education, wrote an interesting article about educational technology as a MacGuffin.  It's good for hooking us in to the plot, but it's only meant to hold us in place until the real plotline gets moving.  For explanation, she quotes a speaker she heard at a conference:"something that provokes learning, but isn't."  Technology is a good trick for getting students to pay attention, or a force for making teachers re-analyze the efficacy of their teaching strategies, or a way to show the school board that a staff is taking the problem of the day seriously: "See?  We were trained on a software product that helps us keep track of bullying instruments."  It's a good place to begin these conversations, but it was never meant to carry the whole party by itself.

In my own practice, I look to technology to do three things: to scale up good practices more easily, to make individualizing instruction and practice a little bit easier, and to take my students to places in the world I can't afford to send them for real.  Having said that, almost everything in that last sentence is wrong.  When I say, "In my own practice," I don't mean I actually practice this very well.  It's what I move towards.  When I write lesson plans, I look for places to do this.  It isn't very deeply ingrained in my day-to-day life yet, but I hope I'm moving in that direction.

Scaling up means to take something which works on the small scale, and to make it work reasonably well in a setting a hundred, a thousand, a million times bigger than when it was designed.  Starbuck's has succeeded because its business model was scaleable.  Hundreds of small, local coffee roasters and cafes, which clearly have a superior product, cannot say the same.  (Water Street is a happy exception, and may it long remain so.)  Scaling up is an issue I don't think that the education world has dealt with especially well yet.  Ironically, a lot of the education reform movement has its roots in scaleability of good practice (I'll write that doctoral thesis another day) and it's something that no ed reform movement really takes very seriously.  This is where technology comes in--we can put computers in a lot of places we can't put teachers.  Students can interact with computers much more frequently than with teachers.  (If I divide the number of minutes in class by the number of students I have in that class, each of my students is entitled to approximately 90 seconds of my time.)  So if I can translate a good practice on to a computer--a communicative activity where a student has to comprehend target vocabulary to complete a task, or a video chat with the ambassador from Spain--I can presumably reach a much larger number of students.

Individualizing instruction is terribly important, and in a lot of ways, feels like the opposite of scaling up.  That is sort of not true, though.  Good practice looks a lot of different ways, and individualizing instruction is all about finding the kind of good practice that works best for a given student.  An individual teacher can take care of HUGE swaths of this simply by increasing the variety of teaching methods s/he uses.  (A constant struggle for me, and I imagine for lots of other people, too.)  If a lesson plan calls for an aural-intensive lesson, providing a visual or a kinesthetic experience as well is helpful to ALL students, but especially those who learn best in that way.  Technology makes that easier to organize.  However, when I said it was "easier," it's not: it's just easier at time of instruction.  Planning it is as hard as planning anything else, and I think that's the reason I don't do it more often.  (That's probably true of educators more broadly, but I haven't read the study that shows it, so I can only speak for myself.)

The only clear victory for me in the world of ed tech is in taking my students around the world.  My Spanish II class had to find an apartment in Barcelona a week or two ago; it was awesome.  (Thanks to the MiWLA presentation of Amber Kasic-Sullivan for the idea and the unit plan.)  I've had my Spanish 1 students explore Chichén Itzá; there are some new laser-rendered drawings which are just extraordinary.  (I'll dig them up and put a link in the comments later.)  Using Google Earth and its acompanying street view, students have had to follow directions through downtown Oaxaca, Mexico; I've shown them big chunks of St. James's Trail, through northern Spain; we've visited my dad's ocean-side restaurant in Puerto Rico.  It's remarkable how little vocabulary students need to know in order to conduct 80% of these lessons in Spanish, so win-win there.

More thoughts about this later.  This is really only the summary of the piece I want to write about ed tech, so I might need to wait for a longer break to work on it.

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