Meditations on Education 1.01

The Role Of Technology In Education

When I hear people talk about moving education forward I hear a lot of 21st century talk but not a lot of 21st century content. A lot of people seem to use the future and technology as buzzwords without fully conceptualizing the role of technology in the education process. Now I am sure to some extent that statement seems to have the same problem it describes. Let me clarify the idea.

So education professional Bob Roberts decides that the current model for education doesn’t work. Bob says this is because we are using some industrial age model of education that presumes the educator sort of tips open his head and pours knowledge into students. Bob is not satisfied with the way people use white boards and overheads, he thinks that education should embrace technology.

Bob isn’t wrong per se. Bob simply has used a lot of words to say “embrace technology.” What exactly does Bob mean? Does he mean 3rd Grade teachers should be using powerpoint? Does he think every child should be at a computer terminal learning to type rather than study handwriting? What does it mean to “embrace technology?”

Instead I would think that educators should be looking at practical applications for technology as a teaching tool. But more than that should be developing curriculum that teaches technology based skills. However I also think this is a slippery slope.

Let’s say Annie Annabelle wants to do just what I’ve said. She has gotten a grant and has a laptop for every student in her 6th grade room. She abandons handwritten work entirely and has student type all their assignments. She abandons spelling since the word processor will correct most common spelling errors and decides that a per incident sort of teaching on grammar and spelling should be more time efficient. She also starts teaching computer based skills like HTML design as a way to present the big research paper for the year.

Annie is doing a lot right, but she may also be going too far. Do we need to continue spelling and grammar in a world of MS Office? Do we even need to worry about typing skills when there are so many advances in language processing? Certainly the time saved in the classroom could be used to teach HTML encoding, or science or any number of useful things.

But are we abandoning a core skill because the tools we use make it easy to produce product with less prior skill? How many young people no longer remember important phone numbers because they store them in their cell phone? I know I do, I used to remember the phone numbers for all my important friends, now my phone has to show me my girlfriend’s picture and play a special ringtone for me to know it’s her.

I think the main force behind technology adoption has to be creating a classroom environment that mirrors the environment outside. Not only do we need to use new technology to build students familiarity level but e also need to use it in a way that mirrors their use outside the classroom. This will not only enhance their educational experience with technology but it will help ground the skills that they learn in the real world.

We cannot simply try to use computers more, if we use them in a way which doesn’t match the outside world then the experience we give our students will not help them exists outside the classroom. We also cannot abandon the normal curriculum we teach in favor of making more technological skills. There are some elements of education which are timeless. Be able to spell the search term is as important as learning what search terms yield better results. Learning to type is useful but learning cursive in order to develop a unique signature is just as important. There is something tactile and important about learning penmanship, it’s a skill I wish I had dedicated more time to now that I am 30 and use an awkward style of calligraphy and print.

For example, mixing handwriting lessons with lessons dealing with typography and page layout would incorporate a core skill, an art subject and a practical application. Doing a biology report that included taking video of an animal and building a presentation in powerpoint would provide research skills, a science lesson and a use of technology in both a business context and a consumer context. That student would not only know more about the animal but would learn the basics of a video editing program and a presentation program. However having a companion paper to that assignment would make certain the student not only learns about the software but continues to build sentence and paragraph building skills and doesn’t start to write everything in bullet points.

In short it’s not enough to say we need to move education into the 21st century. It is also not enough to say that teachers need to use more technology in the classroom. We need to incorporate not only tech as a tool for making the work of teaching easier but we need to holistically approach using technology in the classroom in a way that enhances core skills while offering students a real world link to technology. It is important to continue to develop the skills students are learning now, just as it is important to give them a meaningful chance to interact with technology. Education is not made better through bells and whistles, it is mad better by progressively moving the classroom environment to keep pace with the world outside.