Technology as a Medium for Learning

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Lauren Maksym 

This student advocates for the usefulness of technology in the process of educating.

 

Technology as a Medium for Learning

 

Technology alone is not the answer, but innovation through sophisticated technologies can be a catalyst to drive educational transformation for the 21st century, inspiring children to learn and succeed…A 21st century education motivates students to learn how to learn, actively seek information, create new ideas, make discerning judgments, and apply knowledge to complex challenges. Infusing educational content with tools and expertise from our technology partners has the potential to transform education, cultivate a passion for learning, and inspire innovation in our children. ( Spires 1)

Introduction  

The impact of technology is far-reaching in the world today, especially in its way of branching all aspects of life. Information now travels faster than ever, and as a result, knowledge is no longer limited by the confines of city, state, or even country borders. Simultaneously, a university student in California may search the online archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to collect research for a thesis paper on Impressionism while listening to streaming video from an art history lecture in Japan. In addition, U.S. companies are becoming more efficient in creating business proposals and presenting them to clients in Europe and Asia via live conferencing, cutting unnecessary travel expenses and time delays between business affairs. These are just a couple of examples of how technology has influenced and shaped the world as we know it. In essence, society is increasingly becoming a more complex series of interlocking networks, providing a sense of unity and connection across cultures and communities that may have experienced limited relationships in the past. These new ties have broadened everyday interactions among people to such an extent that it is difficult to find issues that do not come to the awareness of a wide range of people.

It is necessary to understand the importance of becoming technologically-proficient in modern society. Developing this skill is a source of empowerment because it familiarizes users with current technical trends and enables them to streamline their tasks at home, at school, and in the workplace. Connecting to this technology will be the greatest challenge faced by all generations as we move further into the 21 st Century. However, the earlier the next generation is exposed to these tools, the smoother the transition will be from traditional rote learning to truly interactive and engaging education. Consequently, it is our duty, as teachers, to prepare students to become active participants in evolving environments. Therefore, in helping them to achieve autonomy, the first steps must start in the classroom.

Available Technological Resources

Countless appliances exist on the market today that can be used to address the specific needs of different individuals in a variety of academic fields. Headsets, audio books, and closed caption videos are all effective tools in facilitating development of critical language skills in classes that range from elementary reading to adult ESL. At the private high school where I observed this semester, visual computer software programs, like Adobe Photoshop, Quark X-press, Microsoft Office, Geometer’s Sketchpad, and ASAP, prove to be integral components of many art, computer science, mathematics, and chemistry courses (Course 10, 24, 28). In addition, television and film play equally important roles in reinforcing themes and supplementing the curricula in many English, interdisciplinary, and foreign language classes (Course 13, 15, 16, 22), while the arts and sciences focus extensively on exercises involving SLR cameras for digital design and microscopes for laboratory investigation, respectively (Course 10, 27, 29). This assortment of academic aides allows students to discover new mediums for exploring concepts in the classroom while helping them to build relationships with technologies that they will likely encounter in the future.

Implementation of Technology in the Classroom

As technological trends continue to increase in today’s markets, teachers who are able to wed teaching with this industrial assistance are, ultimately, the most successful in giving students the knowledge and experience to gain the upper hand in their futures. In fact, the biggest challenge that educators face in the coming century is not familiarizing themselves with the features of technology; instead, it is recognizing how to appropriately and effectively use it to support learning within the context of a course. Looking back to my placement in a ninth grade Computer Applications course at a local private high school, I realize that even educators who specialize in technological subjects, like computer science, are prone to occasionally overlook significant concepts in the implementation of their field in the classroom. Although the approach to learning in a subject like this can be quite different due to the status of the computer as both the central topic AND the means of study, certain observations repeatedly surfaced during my placement experience that merit consideration by all teachers, regardless of the course matter at hand. Seeing as many school districts are placing increasing emphasis on finding new ways to efficiently integrate technology in education, the following three observations are significant points to reflect on when looking to implement these tools: 

Observation #1: Physical classroom layout impacts the effectiveness of technology in education. Scenario where physical classroom layout does not enhance integration

The classroom is long and rectangular in shape, hosting a U-shaped ring of student computers in the back and a 4x4 square of student desks towards the front. A projector hangs from the ceiling above the seats and is positioned towards the whiteboard, located behind the teacher’s large desk (which is also outfitted with its own desktop computer). The room is configured in such a way that this larger desk and posterior whiteboard are the foci; all objects are angled to face these central points, giving anyone stationed there full view of everything that is going on in the classroom. (Maksym 1)

Used primarily for instruction in the Computer Science Department, my placement classroom serves as a useful example in analyzing the visual integration of technology in a specific learning context. Based on photographs taken at the scene and field notes like those listed above, the most prominent observation to be made was the invisible partition that noticeably separates the computer bay from the rest of the space. This central division causes the machines to appear as physical additions to the traditional educational setting and not enhancements to what already exists. In addition, the sheer length of the space does not facilitate easy communication between a teacher at the whiteboard and students at the back computers without yelling or squinting taking place. As a result, the layout itself does not suggest an environment where technology and education are completely integrated but, rather, a space where learning tends to occur either collectively at desks or independently at computer terminals. For the most part, I found this perception to be right on target with what I observed during the semester; classes regimentally began with students sitting at desks and then moving to the workstations only if an activity was assigned.

Nonetheless, although the placement courses that I participated in were entirely computer-based and, thus, incorporated machine use on a daily basis, the utility of the space could be drastically altered if a different course were held in this space. For instance, I would imagine that the computer bay would likely receive far less attention during instruction in the humanities, especially in those classes that rely strongly on novels and discussion. Having terminals available for each student could pose a greater distraction since the configuration of the room is already not conducive to group interaction while using these devices. As a result, any resistance displayed by a teacher for this reason would have an extremely disempowering effect on students, who would now be closed off to the academic aid that these tools could provide. Consequently, this physical classroom layout, in particular, impacts the effectiveness of technology in education by proliferating a pedagogical separation of computer use and academic teaching, which may only be remedied by curriculum changes in the way technology is incorporated.

Observation #2: Students fail to recognize the value of certain tools if their practical applications are not clearly stated or made explicit using real-life examples.

“Some scholars assert that simulations and computer-based models are the most powerful resources for the advancement and application of mathematics and science since the origins of mathematical modeling during the Renaissance” (National 215). With new visualizations and hands-on activities, technology is believed to create more engaging, student-centered classrooms that are ideal for individuals who learn in less-traditional styles. These environments support the theory of multiple intelligences and, essentially, empower students to take control of their educations by presenting them with more interactive learning opportunities.

However, all of this can be cast aside if students are not enlightened about how they can apply certain tools to their lives. In many circumstances, a lesson’s apparent lack of practicality will equate to it being viewed as valueless and insignificant. For example, in the ninth grade Computer Applications class, students participated in an electronic spreadsheet unit that aimed to familiarize individuals with the workings of Microsoft Excel. Designed to be completed independently or with a partner, one related activity was the “Dice Simulation Worksheet”, which contained directions and questions assigned for students to complete during the period.

A series of nine instructions listed the steps that each student was expected take in labeling cells, entering formulas, and manipulating random data in a new Excel spreadsheet. These directions were then followed by several questions that asked students to observe, modify, and then observe again the data in each column, taking into account subtle similarities and differences. After worksheets were distributed during the laboratory, I circulated around the room, expecting to do more observing than answering of questions due to the seemingly straightforward nature of the activity. However, the questions and comments I did receive had nothing to do with the procedure outlined on the worksheet; instead, I was faced with a sea of scrunched brows, repeatedly whispering “What’s the point of this anyway?” (Maksym 6)

The goals of the lesson were to practice functions and relative/absolute positioning and to, also, illustrate how spreadsheets can manipulate data beyond simple computations (Devlin 1). Because he strongly believes “students need some context in which they can put and apply knowledge” (Devlin 1), the teacher aimed to use the idea of rolling dice as a means of connecting numbers on the screen with real events to which students could relate. With prior programming and software experience, I can easily see the merit in this “teach-by-example” approach, especially when the most effective method of learning an application like Microsoft Excel often rests on first mastering elements that will immediately assist a person with practical tasks. Unfortunately, my placement teacher failed to clarify the importance of learning the specific skills incorporated into the activity, instilling frustration and feelings of disempowerment in students who did not fully grasp the potential applications of this knowledge. 

Observation #3: Assignments that outline every step in navigating a software program only cause students to view activities as “to-do” lists, instead of portals for inquiry and exploration.

Intelligence cannot develop without matter to think about. Making new connections depends on knowing enough about something in the first place to provide a basis for thinking of other things to do—of other questions to ask—that demand more complex connections in order to make sense. (Duckworth 14)

Furthermore, in assigning the dice simulation to his ninth-grade Computer Applications class, my placement teacher demonstrated support for Duckworth’s theory on making connections by previously reviewing Excel functions before the worksheet was assigned. In this regard, Duckworth would likely agree that the new understanding of functions and positioning, acquired from prior lectures and coursework, could have been easily adopted by students and applied towards the straightforward tasks presented in the activity.

Interestingly enough though, the observed behaviors of some students did not reflect Duckworth’s optimistic view of self-propelled exploration. In fact, at the faintest signs of uncertainty during the lab, several students raised their hands off the keyboards and sat silently in their chairs until the teacher questioned their inactivity.

“What do I do next?” one student asked, eyes darting back and forth between her neighbors’ computer screens.

“Think about the functions we did yesterday,” replied the teacher, addressing the class as a whole. “How can you use them to complete that function?”

The confused student said nothing and, after a moment’s hesitation, leaned over her neighbor’s shoulder to copy formulas before the bell rang, signaling the end of class. (Maksym 6)

This startling action suggests that a minor oversight may exist in Duckworth’s belief that education is a self-proliferating process. In addition, it also reveals the downside of giving explicit steps for navigating programs without providing the necessary explanations that will stimulate inquiry into what they do. Some students exhibit the tendency to go through the motions of an activity without pondering its implications. In response, emphasis must be placed on consciously implementing technology into the curriculum so as to motivate students and spark interest in their future education.

Conclusion

As this marriage of technology and education progresses, the teacher/student connection to this dynamic environment will continue to be emphasized. Those who resist these trends entirely do their students an injustice because they are not opening their minds to the opportunities technology presents. In the meantime, it is important to remember that these tools only work as well as they can be implemented constructively. First, the utility and practicality of equipment should be considered when designing the physical configurations of educational environments. Second, steps must be taken to ensure that students understand the applicability of what they are learning, especially because it will improve the quality of their lives at home and at work. In the end, it is a personal decision on the educator’s part as to what degree these tools will be integrated to support the curriculum. Above all, technology should be looked upon as a companion in the classroom, much like a teaching assistant who helps to facilitate inquiry, discussion, expression, and learning.

Works Cited

Course Description Book 2006-2007. Placement School. 2 Mar 2006.

Duckworth, Eleanor. “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” & Other Essays on Teaching & Learning. New York: Teachers College Press, 1987.

Maksym, Lauren. Field Notes & Observations From Spring 2006 Placement.

National Research Council. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington D.C: National Academy Press, 2000.

Placement Teacher. Personal Interview. 16 Mar 2006.

Spires, Hiller. “Tech Companies, Friday Institute to Advance Education Skills.” 10 Apr 2006. Grid Today Quote of the Week. <http://www.gridtoday.com/grid/619547.html>.

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