From Education Week Teacher, Saturday, April 13, 2013.
Getting Real About Educational Technology
By Kyle Redford
Educational-technology enthusiasts are regularly making a case against
teachers who refuse to get on the tech bandwagon. They quickly dismiss
anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace every element of this new
educational frontier. They raise questions regarding the professional
flexibility of these "resisters." I actually have a
different complaint: I am beginning to lose patience with the
simplicity of the conversation around classroom technology.
When it comes to discussing the potential of technology in the
classroom, I am neither cheerleader nor denier, yet I am wary of being
labeled a technophobe when I occasionally express skepticism about the
educational value of a computer game or an app. To think critically
about technology is not an automatic dismissal of its potential value.
Why are we looking at educational technology as a monolith-something
that teachers have to absolutely embrace or reject?
I can't be the only teacher encountering dilemmas related to the uses
of iPads in the classroom. For example, the other day, my class was
sprawled across the room writing essays on their iPads during
Writer's Workshop. I was conferencing with individual writers while
trying to keep an eye on the others. With a small class of generally
independent and invested 5th graders, this is not typically too much
of a problem. However, something about the way a group of boys had
gathered on beanbags in the class library exuded odd energy, so I
moved in to investigate. As I approached, it was clear that they were
nervously scrambling to close out of something on their devices. One
student, less nimble than the others, could not move quickly enough to
hide what had been distracting this group for the past 25 minutes:
Minecraft [https://minecraft.net/ ]. After questioning, I found out
that they had been lured down the rabbit hole of an engaging session
of dopamine-rich computer play, all of them so wired and distracted
that they had pretty much forgotten they were even at school. And this
was not the first time: We had been through this game of cat and mouse
just the day before.
First let me explain. These kids are not troublemakers. They are not
bored. And they are not lazy. They are all highly intelligent,
curious, earnest, hard-working students. They were devastated to be
caught ... again. They were worried about the consequences, but they
were also horribly ashamed. Two cried. One boy said, "Take the
iPad away from me. I can't handle it." A few others blamed
Minecraft, complaining that it was so addictive they couldn't resist
it, even knowing that playing it would get them in trouble.
As frustrated as I was, I knew that we teachers had our fingerprints
on this problem as well. Why did I expect 10- and 11-year-olds to
resist the Siren song of the iPad's distractions when my adult
colleagues and I are struggling with the same compulsions?
It is time to end illusory thinking connected to educational
technology. I do not have anything against Minecraft. I acknowledge
its potential for inspiring creativity, engagement, and collaboration.
But I also want to talk about real trade-offs. My students need to
learn how to write and, as their teacher, I need to stop suspending
disbelief about the distracting allure of games on their learning
devices. Is it fair to put dessert on their lunch trays and then tell
them that they can only look at it and smell it, but they cannot eat
it until they get home (assuming their parents permit dessert)? By
having these apps on their iPads, I am concerned that I am setting
them up for unnecessary failure and shame.
Accuse me of being a tech resister, a slow adopter, or an "old
school" educator for raising these questions. But I am not afraid
of technology. In fact, I am a big fan of educational technology's
potential to help my students explore ideas or express themselves more
creatively, efficiently, or effectively. Several of my dyslexic
students have recently mastered speech-to-text software, and it has
transformed their ability to demonstrate their understanding and align
their oral and written expression. They are now passionate
"readers" because of the accessibility of audiobooks and
they connect with their favorite children's authors through Twitter.
As a professional, I am grateful to social media for making
educational conversations, resources, and professional development
opportunities more accessible.
Critical Thinking, Without Fear
But we need to stop oversimplifying the role tech plays in our
students' lives. A deeper, more thorough, look at tech's benefits and
trade-offs is needed. What are we potentially sacrificing when we do
not carefully guide our children's use of their devices? Student
engagement is an empty notion if we are not asking how they are being
engaged. Are outcomes enhanced because of the addition of a specific
technology, or hindered? We should be filtering our use of technology
through this kind of inquiry. As a teacher of 26 years, my central
question has always been: "What is the most effective way to
teach this material?"
Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist from the University of
Virginia, recently did a survey of the research looking at the
learning benefits of gaming. Considering this is relatively new
territory, it is not surprising that the conclusions raised more
questions than they answered. I am not arguing that we have to wait
until we know all the answers to explore the benefits of gaming in the
classroom. But we owe it to our students to have more honest
conversations about the accompanying untidiness.
Technology in the classroom is here to stay. Consequently, it is time
for educators to begin to have more sophisticated conversations about
best practices and to explore the inherent challenges. The learning
potential of educational technology is infinite, but as with every
learning tool, platform, or approach, educators need to sift through
the tensions and talk about the challenges and trade-offs. It's time
to give educators encouragement to apply critical thinking to
technology without the fear of being labeled a Luddite.
Kyle Redford is a 5th grade teacher at Marin Country Day
School, a K-8 school in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the
education editor for the Yale Center for Dyslexia and
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244