Teaching Opinion

Response: Using Ed Tech to Create “Deep & Meaningful Experiences”

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 19, 2012 11 min read
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(This is Part Two in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Last year, Carla Arena asked:

How do teachers make informed decisions in relation to a balanced use of technology in the classroom?

I answered the question at that time, along with guests Richard Byrne and Marsha Ratzel. You can see our responses here.

However, since it was an early question that appeared when this blog’s audience was much smaller than it is now, I thought it would be worth highlighting it again for a follow-up response.

As I mentioned in Part One of this series, I won’t be adding anything new to my comments from last year in this new series. However, readers might be interested in three collections of free web tools that students can use -- without needing to register -- and create educational online content quickly and easily.

I have invited several new guests to share their thoughts on the topic in this post and one or two additional ones. Earlier this week, Sylvia Martinez, Tina Barseghian and Scott McLeod contributed their ideas. Today’s post features pieces by Gary Stager and Kevin Hodgson. I hope readers will share their suggestions in the comments. Next week’s final post in this series will include them.

Response From Gary Stager

Gary Stager, Ph.D. Is an internationally recognized speaker and teacher educator. He also founded the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute:

Technology is Not Neutral: Educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance

There are three competing visions of educational computing. Each bestows agency on an actor in the educational enterprise. We can use classroom computers to benefit the system, the teacher or the student. Data collection, drill-and-practice test-prep, computerized assessment or monitoring Common Core compliance are examples of the computer benefitting the system. “Interactive” white boards, presenting information or managing whole-class simulations are examples of computing for the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher is the actor, the classroom a theatre, the students the audience and the computer is a prop.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.

Too many educators make the mistake of assuming a false equivalence between “technology” and its use. Technology is not neutral. It is always designed to influence behavior. Sure, you might point to an anecdote in which a clever teacher figures out a way to use a white board in a learner-centered fashion or a teacher finds the diagnostic data collected by the management system useful. These are the exception to the rule.

While flexible high-quality hardware is critical, educational computing is about software because software determines what you can do and what you do determines what you can learn. In my opinion the lowest ROI comes from granting agency to the system and the most from empowering each learner. You might think of the a continuum that runs from drill/testing at the bottom; through information access, productivity, simulation and modeling; with the computer as a computational material for knowledge construction representing not only the greatest ROI, but the most potential benefit for the learner.

Piaget reminds us ,"To understand is to invent,” while our mutual colleague Seymour Papert said, “If you can use technology to make things, you can make more interesting things and you can learn a lot more by making them.”

Some people view the computer as a way of increasing efficiency. Heck, there are schools with fancy-sounding names popping-up where you put 200 kids in a room with computer terminals and an armed security guard. The computer quizzes kids endlessly on prior knowledge and generates a tsunami of data for the system. This may be cheap and efficient, but it does little to empower the learner or take advantage of the computer’s potential as the protean device for knowledge construction.

School concoctions like information literacy, digital citizenship or making PowerPoint presentations represent at best a form of “Computer Appreciation.” The Conservative UK Government just abandoned their national ICT curriculum on the basis of it being “harmful and dull” and is calling for computer science to be taught K-12. I could not agree more.

My work with children, teachers and computers over the past thirty years has been focused on increasing opportunity and replacing “quick and easy” with deep and meaningful experiences. When I began working with schools where every student had a laptop in 1990, project-based learning was supercharged and Dewey’s theories were realized in ways he had only imagined. The computer was a radical instrument for school reform, not a way of enforcing the top-down status quo.

Now, kindergarteners could build, program and choreograph their own robot ballerinas by utilizing mathematical concepts and engineering principles never before accessible to young children. Kids express themselves through filmmaking, animation, music composition and collaborations with peers or experts across the globe. 5th graders write computer programs to represent fractions in a variety of ways while understanding not only fractions, but also a host of other mathematics and computer science concepts used in service of that understanding. An incarcerated 17 year-old dropout saddled with a host of learning disabilities is able to use computer programming and robotics to create “gopher-cam,” an intelligent vehicle for exploring beneath the earth, or launch his own probe into space for aerial reconnaissance. Little boys and girls can now make and program wearable computers with circuitry sewn with conductive thread while 10th grade English students can bring Lady Macbeth to life by composing a symphony. Soon, you be able to email and print a bicycle. Computing as a verb is the game-changer.

Used well, the computer extends the breadth, depth and complexity of potential projects. This in turn affords kids with the opportunity to, in the words of David Perkins, “play the whole game.” Thanks to the computer, children today have the opportunity to be mathematicians, novelists, engineers, composers, geneticists, composers, filmmakers, etc... But, only if our vision of computing is sufficiently imaginative.

Three recommendations:

1) Kids need real computers capable of programming, video editing, music composition and controlling external peripherals, such as probes or robotics. Since the lifespan of school computers is long, they need to do all of the things adults expect today and support ingenuity for years to come.

2) Look for ways to use computers to provide experiences not addressed by the curriculum. Writing, communicating and looking stuff up are obvious uses that require little instruction and few resources.

3) Every student deserves computer science experiences during their K-12 education. Educators would be wise to consider programming environments designed to support learning and progressive education such as MicroWorlds EX and Scratch.

Response From Kevin Hodgson

Kevin Hodgson is a sixth grade teacher in Southampton, Massachusetts. He is the technology liaison with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and is a member of the National Writing Project. His sixth grade classroom weblog site is The Electronic Pencil. Kevin also blogs regularly at Kevin’s Meandering Mind and tweets more often than is healthy as @dogtrax:

I’ve often come to see my process of determining the possibilities of technology and digital media with my students along two distinct, yet connected, lines. First, I, myself, need to discover and play with an idea or a digital tool for an extended period of time to determine the strengths and weaknesses, and it is only after that personal experimental period that I even begin to mull over the learning objectives for my students if we were to use the tools in the classroom. Those two threads, plus my curriculum, inform my own decisions about technology in the classroom.

The “discover and play” concept is a philosophy for my own personal journey as I connect with other educators and explore new terrain on my own. It stems from what I learned about writing -- that we write to learn, and we write to explore. I view technology through the same lens. Long ago, I decided I would dive in as fearless as possible into emerging technology that interested me, and then I would reflect on the possibilities of that technology for my own compositional strategies. If something worked well for me, I figured, it might have also some possibilities for my students. So, on a parallel track, the teacher-in-me would also be wondering, “How would this work in my classroom with my students for this particular concept?”

The trick here is to balance the “cool factor” of technology with the learning objectives. It’s easy to get swept up in the “that is neat” sentiment, which connects to the “my students just have to see this” reaction. I’ve found it helpful to immerse myself in the idea of backwards design. We have a specific goal or outcome that we want to students to reach -- a learning idea or benchmark. Sometimes, the technology is immersed in the plan to get them there -- one of a handful of strategies that allow entry into a complicated idea. Often, to be honest, the no-tech option is still the strongest way to go, despite the pressure to use digital tools to meet the needs of our 21st Century students. Technology for technology’s sake does no one any good.

However, if there are ways that the technology can not only engage students deeper in the learning, but also expand their thinking about a concept, then that is the moment when I will bring in that technology tool or digital media concept to the classroom. The post-lesson or post-unit evaluation is critical, too. Did the technology work the way I wanted it to work? Was it distracting? Where did things go in directions I was not expecting? Do I need to make adjustments for next year? Often, allowing students have a chance to weigh in with their own reflections is a key part of this evaluation process, too.

I’ll give you a recent example. I’ve long been fascinated by the Webmaker tools that the Mozilla Foundation have been developing and releasing to the public. These tools - Popcorn Maker, Hackasaurus X-Ray Goggles, Thimble and more -- seem to really shift the idea of user of technology into the “maker” mode. I knew these tools would be interesting for my students, but I never really found the right space for them. They were certainly cool, but cool was not enough. So I let them simmer on the side.

And then we started our video game design unit. Here, I realized, the hacking tools that Mozilla provides would make a perfect activity as we talked about and learned about the shifts that were part of our game design unit from player of someone else’s content to creator of our own video games (that are connected to our science class and where the real goal of the unit is comprehension of scientific concepts and story framing along with game dynamics). Suddenly, I was teaching hacking to my students, and delving into the open source movement, and the technology tools from Mozilla have become another avenue to engage my students in playful exploration of the possibilities of technology.

Still, the technology is not the end, just a means to the end. The main idea here is to have students aware of the increasing ways that technology is providing more and more avenues for them to be in the roles of creators, and once that idea is lodged firmly in our discussions, we shift gears into the process of video game design.

What’s interesting is that much of this work could be done without powering up a single device, and in fact, we do classroom hacking of images and we hack board games, all before we even bring technology into the picture. The digital aspects become part of a tapestry of strategies that allow students to see the larger picture of their role in be active users.

It all begins with me, playing, and leads to them, learning.

Thanks to Gary and Kevin for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. As I mentioned earlier, they’ll be included in a future post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Look for Part Three of this series next week....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.