The battle over technology in schools

(Disclaimer, this post is more of a rant and less of an academic critique!) Every teacher has heard it hundreds of times – there’s this crazy rhetoric amongst school officials that “student to computer ratios” and “number of smart boards” are excellent metrics for evaluating how well a school has “incorporated” technology into the school environment. Yet, the reality inside classrooms is that the technology is rarely shared beyond ICT. English, math and science rarely use computers or labs. Smart boards are gathering dust in the corner of history classrooms. Teachers are too busy to rebuild their curriculum around technology and many are too afraid of technology to try and do more with it. Add to that the fact that technology breaks, becomes obsolete every two years and technical problems eat up valuable instruction time.

So it’s no surprise the European Commission has concluded 63% of 9 year old students are missing the digital equipment they need at school.

Between 50% and 80% of students in EU countries never use digital textbooks, exercise software, broadcasts/podcasts, simulations or learning games. Most teachers at primary and secondary level do not consider themselves as ‘digitally confident’ or able to teach digital skills effectively, and 70% would like more training in using ICTs. Pupils in Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic are the most likely to have internet access at school (more than 90%), twice as much as in Greece and Croatia (around 45%).

Let’s be honest … this shouldn’t be a surprise. Currently teachers are severely undertrained for using computers or any technology in the classroom. Digital textbooks are few and far between, learning games are limited (too specific, too expensive, too outdated). Many teachers have no idea what a podcast is. Existing software is poorly used and rarely implemented. Technology is outdated and inadequately maintained. And I think that’s being quite generous! Decisions about technology in schools is being made by politicians and bureaucrats … and to make matters worse, there’s no consensus on what technology has value and how it can be applied in a standardised way across schools.

But to be fair, and taking a step back, this is not an easy problem to solve. By the time schools get around to agreeing on a strategy, the technology they are considering is already old. Teachers need to be trained and re-trained regularly. Technology needs to be maintained and updated every few months. Despite which, schools will still be years behind the cutting edge … while students are years ahead, already adept at using instagram, whatsapp, facebook and other new apps to communicate online.

However, one possible way forward is by looking closely at teachers. The teacher is the interface between the education system and the students. The teacher is the conduit. So it’s the responsibility of the education system to make sure teachers are able to do that job effectively. But how? Teacher training already has mandatory learning areas for would be teachers. They must learn about student welfare, learning methodologies, social justice, pedagogy and practice, and other areas that relate to effective teaching. Yet, very few universities have mandatory technology training for teachers – including how to use that technology in a classroom. And I’m not talking about smart boards. I’m talking about using Google groups as virtual classrooms. I’m talking about using iphone/android apps to communicate with students, record test scores, share resources. I’m talking about podcasting, documentary making, social media, RPG storylines and other technology areas being core parts of a teacher’s curriculum.

I’ll get a lot of hate for this, but if teachers can’t use technology, they probably don’t belong in a modern classroom. The trend now is BYOT – bring your own technology – and if teachers don’t know how to utilise the technologies they have available to them, then they are doing a disservice to students. Step 1 is start with rebuilding teacher training courses at university. Step 2 is less reliance on gimmicky technologies and more reliance on curriculum writing that takes advantage of student skills, personal technologies (smart phones) and access to hardware (computers) and software (apps) that will help students to achieve their goals.

Today’s luddite test: How many teachers use dropbox or cloud storage for their teaching resources?


Minecraft – Constructive fun, regardless of educational value

Regardless of your views of education, learning, gaming, gamification, serious games or any other buzzword that is thrown around, games like Minecraft are proving themselves to win people over for their inherent “fun” factor and potential as a learning tool. Not everyone agrees that games can be useful for learning and sometimes that isn’t even the point that those of us who extol Minecraft’s virtues are trying to make.

One recent article considered how much fun Minecraft was and made the point that has no educational value, yet, still has value as a tool which promotes creativity. Again, that’s the whole point of Minecraft. Whether or not learning is directly implied, Minecraft is fun and has value that is (without a doubt) tangible. Minecraft is a creativity game that allows children to express their creative side through building and construction. It’s a cooperation game that encourages players to work together. It’s a planning game that forces participants to calculate what they need and how big things are going to get. It’s a challenging game that invites users to expand their horizons by building PCs, writing mods, participating in communities that develop Minecraft plugins. It’s an expressive game that inspires its fans to draw comics, paint pictures, write jokes and sing songs.

Minecraft is all of those things … and at the end of the day there’s no test. There’s no essay or assignment. There’s no teacher marking down grades on a rubric. There’s only fun … and through fun comes the learning.

When you play computer games you learn, whether you want to or not … and that’s a pretty good reason to play games!

*For the record: There is a Minecraft curriculum. Minecraft teachers write units and build curriculum around the game and teach it in their classrooms. But that’s not the point. Minecraft inspires people to play, and to learn, and to do amazing things. You don’t need a curriculum for that!

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

Although somewhat dated, this short article by James Gee touches on some important elements of gaming and learning. The education system still pushes a “memorize and test” philosophy. Gee laments that children are not learning to think, they’re learning to memorise … and good students aren’t good at thinking they’re just good at “doing school”.

This is a very valid concern. Gee believes that games are an agent of mental training. That children aren’t meant to be memorising.

Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them.

I like that. It’s a very succinct way of describing what should be our relationship with information. This is exactly what the internet can do – provide an environment where we manipulate information by mixing, sharing and remixing between collectives online.

Gee states that the secret of video gaming’s success isn’t the games themselves or the 3D graphics, but the underlying architecture of the game. Each level is incrementally more difficult, pushing the gamer further and further beyond their abilities. This is the ‘regime of competence principal’. The game is just difficult enough to simultaneously provide pleasure and frustration for the player. It’s hard enough to be challenging, but through effort the player can be rewarded by winning the game.

Games also incorporate expertise. Gamers become masters of a game, but are then forced to adapt and evolve as the game becomes more complex.

As Gee notes, kids often say that playing games doesn’t feel like learning. They’re focused on playing. Again and again, educational experts push this point. Learning must become a secondary objective to having fun. When students are focused on having fun they forget that they’re also learning.

Teachers want access to more technology in the classroom

Teachers want access to more technology in the classroom

A nation wide survey conducted last year discovered that teachers want more technology in the classroom. Access to computers seems to be high and a lot of teachers are using websites, images and other media in their daily classroom routine.

However the problem, according to the survey, is that teachers feel they don’t have access to the “right” kinds of technology. The biggest barrier to technology, unsurprisingly, was budget constraints.

Teachers have their hearts in the right place. Most teachers cite ‘motivating students’ as their reason for wanting more technology in the classroom.

What surprised me was that 943% of teachers believed that interactive whiteboards ‘enrich’ classroom education. I understand the limitations of classroom technology and also the often low levels of training teachers have in using technology in the classroom. Particularly, teachers aren’t always well versed in areas like the internet and social media. However, I cannot fathom why interactive whiteboards (a 20+ year old technology) is still desired in a classroom environment.  I had access to them over 10 years ago and nobody in my school was interested in using them. Their application, quite honestly, is limited.

Overcoming budget is an understandable problem. One idea might be to apply a BYOT (bring your own technology) attitude. Allowing students to bring mobile devices to class – and use them directly for learning – will help raise motivation levels. Also, students are more likely to enjoy using computers (internet and social media) than they are using interactive whiteboards.

Teachers should start moving towards a more participatory methodology for learning. Provide students with the basic ideas or questions and let them use the resources that they’re comfortable with (online environments) and it might be surprising what they can produce.

Perhaps the problem in modern education is that we’re too focused on telling students what tools they can use to solve problems (such as learning, knowledge acquisition and skills building). Instead, let them choose their own tools. Why can’t a pyramid be modeled in Minecraft? Why can’t student presentations be done via youtube?

The best part is that teachers don’t even have to think of tools that students might choose. Students will do that! Technology? Not a problem, students will use the technology they have and whatever they’re comfortable with. Teenagers are happy to work when doing so on their own terms. Whatever students are studying, just give them core ideas and let them figure out the rest. Study after study proves that student will work when they work for themselves.

Motivation goes up. Creativity goes up. Original content and content creation goes up … all without the teacher lifting a finger.


Teachers, Students, Digital Games: What’s the Right Mix?

Teachers, Students, Digital Games: What’s the Right Mix?

There’s lots of buzz around computer games in education now. Various studies are being conducted to ascertain how much access kids have to computers, how often they’re being used in class and how effective games are as a learning tool. 

While more and more teachers are starting to use games in the classroom, there’s concern that tech resources aren’t being used effectively.

What’s more important is drawing a line between “educational games” and everything else. COTS computer games (according to Zichermann) are much more suited to educational purposes than education-centric games. 

Further, this kind of analysis doesn’t consider related factors such as social networking, which is a natural extension of modern gaming culture.

The shift away from an educational focus is gaining momentum. Even Prensky, known for his loathsome “digital native” theory, acknowledges the attitude that learning is becoming a background to achieving goals. This is the direction which education should be taking – how are students learning beyond classroom walls? By playing games, sharing and socialising, and being a part of a community, students are learning valuable knowledge and skills … which is secondary to having fun and hanging out.

The best learning occurs when we forget we’re learning at all.

Findings from the Teaching, Learning, and Computing Survey: Is Larry Cuban Right?

Findings from the Teaching, Learning, and Computing Survey: Is Larry Cuban Right?

Note: This article links directly to a PDF file.

Becker attempts to review Cuban’s initial findings that computers are largely incompatible with classroom teaching. His data, 16 years after Cuban’s initial study, asserts that there are conditions under which the likelihood of computer usage can dramatically increase.

However, I was unable to agree with Becker’s views. He did find Cuban’s assertions to still be correct.  Becker claimed, though, that computer usage could improve. My issue with this finding that there were too many caveats required to satisfy Becker’s claims. He stated that a classroom needed at least 5 computers and all students needed an average amount of technical skill. As well, the teacher needs to be highly proficient in using constructionist teaching pedagogy. 

While this may not be too difficult to accomplish, there are too many “ifs” to be satisfied. If the computers are fully functional and all software is up-to-date. If teachers have time to write a computer based curriculum. If time within the curriculum permits computer usage (as all teachers know, computer-based tasks take longer). If the teacher is skilled in developing curriculum that can maximise learning using computers.

Once all those “ifs” can be satisfied, then perhaps computers can make a dramatic difference in classroom education. However it’s still a case of shoehorning computers into classrooms. 

How about flipping the school instead?

How about flipping the school instead?

The idea of flipping the classroom, albeit new, has become a somewhat cliched concept already. Teachers talk about how the classroom can be radically changed by using the internet to change the way we teach. I’m not deriding this methodology. In fact, I agree it has its merits – in that it illustrates education’s willingness to change. 

However the entrenched problem of the system itself still remains. Why are children sitting in a classroom, isolated from each other by computer screens? They are learning but what’s the point of traveling all the way to school to get on the internet? 

While some would say that the 1-on-1 tutoring and contact with the teacher is the key ingredient, it doesn’t really answer the question. Students can get that assistance in other ways, such as by a teacher on a webcam (perhaps using Google hangouts). The teacher could use a shared drawing space app to draw and write problems which the student could see while listening to the teacher’s explanation. The teacher could also refer the student to a different instructional video. Another approach would be to have students conference together and explain to each other. Or just use a dedicated forum to ask for help. The student, as well as learning about a math problem, could be learning online interaction skills and research skills while they find the answer to the problem.

Finally, the student could also be getting help from their *gasp* parents in finding ways to solve problems or answer questions they don’t understand.

Flipping the classroom is great … but it’s still a classroom. Technology has always been shoehorned into schools for more political benefit than educational benefit. Kids are learning more online away from classrooms (and away from formal education) than ever. Teachers should not be instructors. They should become a guide, a sounding board or even a safety net for when students need a boost.

Flip the education system. Remove the classroom from the picture and see how quickly kids adapt to an education that they control.

The rise of social learning …