The promise and the peril: Technology in the classroom

This weekend found many teachers sitting at home awash in the realization that the new year had begun. The budget cuts are truly hitting home now, and all across the province teachers are facing reduced preparation time, larger classes, and the threat of even further cutbacks to come.

However, teachers are a resilient lot, and are keenly aware that despite the challenges, the kids are in front of us and we have a job to do. And facing shrinking budgets and massive pressure to reduce spending, there is a bit of a movement afoot. Now, more than ever before, educators are trying new and creative ways to use technology to enhance student learning.

Having been in the game nearly 20 years now, I have seen a massive change in the technology available to students. Even in the past six years of my position in a high school in HRSB I have seen technology go from being a novelty used to hook kids into to learning to a mainstay of the majority of programming. Teachers have moved rapidly from simple web pages to assigning writing assignments on blogs, forming Facebook groups to contact students, and using Twitter to distribute homework. Many classes are moving towards paperless delivery, and homework is being stored on a seemingly limitless array of devices and clouds.

Yet, as we move more towards embracing technology as the saviour of modern education, we need to pause for a moment and consider some of the implications of doing so. Touting technology as a fix to what critics say is wrong with schools may be putting the cart before the horse. One thing twenty years of teaching teaches you is that there are no quick fixes, despite whatever theory the latest  wave of experts may be selling. (One finds that the only thing that most experts agree upon in the field of education is that most experts in the field of education don’t agree upon anything). However, one could easily be accused of having one’s head firmly affixed in the educational sand if one did not, at least in some respect, recognize that technology has huge potential for fundamentally changing classrooms.

Consider the work of Dr. Sugata Mitra, the man who envisioned the “Hole-in-the-Wall” experiment. Fascinated by children and their innate curiosity, Mitra and fellow researchers went to some of the poorest slums in India, placed a computer screen and a touch pad in a concrete wall, and basically walked away. What they discovered during their research was that children seemed to be able to teach themselves computer skills on their own without any help from adults. They were also able to do well on standardized tests and showed a keen ability to retain what they had learned. Their natural curiosity caused them to both succeed in learning and teach each other higher order skills. All made possible by the use of technology.

Now, before we go off and plop every grade 6 student  in front of an I-pad for the day, we need to recognize that not every society has enjoyed the same kind of experience with the techno revolution. The 2010 PBS  documentary  “Digital Nation” raised several concerns around children and their ability to survive in the cyberverse.  Korea, a country awash in technology, has actually declared that overuse of technology is an addiction, and has set up treatment centers to help young people break their online habits. Here in North America,  some estimates have kids spending, on average, upwards of 50 hours a week using technology at a time when their brains are still developing. Researchers have no idea of the impact of that on our children. Due to the pace at which technology is changing, research on it runs the risk of being obsolete before being published.

So what about here at home? Are we in danger of being swelled over by waves of technology, or are we simply missing the technological boat?

Thankfully, I feel that we are taking a balanced approach. Educators, although excited by the potential and power of technology, are aware that not everyone has embraced the digital revolution. As well, we are aware that having the latest techno-gizmo, or even paying for a cell phone, may be taxing on some parents we serve. And I, for one, hope we continue to be cautious. Yes, technology is exciting, but without considering the implications for our kids, our selves and our society, we are being reckless. In our haste to save money, let’s not forget that education needs to balance knowledge with critical thinking.

And, as far as I know, there is still no app for that.

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Filed under Funding cuts, Public education, Technology

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