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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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If Technology Motivates Students, Let's Use It!

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Last week, I, along with Tina Barseghian, education editor at KQED-San Francisco (PBS/NPR) and formerly editor of Edutopia magazine, appeared on the popular KQED-FM Forum interview program in northern California, hosted by Michael Krasny. The topic was educational technology. We touched on many of the double-edges of the technology sword: it's part of many problems, such as short attention spans and lack of physical fitness, and part of the solutions. Listen to the one-hour program including viewer call-ins and emails. I might have said that the same technology we were debating has expanded Forum's audience nationally and internationally, through the Internet and mobile devices. I doubt that the KQED staff engaged in the same skepticism we see in education as to whether using this new technology was a good idea.

We started out the discussion by Krasny's reading from an article by Newsweek and Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson on ummotivated students. As I tried to point out, when students are not motivated to learn, we owe it to ourselves not to merely blame those students and throw up our hands. As educators, parents, and concerned citizens, we should conduct a closer diagnosis. I believe many students are bored and unmotivated because of the way they are being taught, with heavy reliance on reading textbooks, memorizing facts and figures, and listening to lectures, over and over.

This is the traditional world of black-and-white learning from the 1950s that persists today, literally, black text on white pages or white chalk on blackboards. It's how I went to school. Technology in its many forms is showing how teaching and learning can paint with a much broader palette of colors, from images and music to games, simulations, wikis, and many others, any time, any place, on laptops, desktops, and smartphones.

Today's students find this new world of digital learning to be very motivating. In fact, as some have said, today's youth are "born digital." I cited one example from the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS), which brought its statewide testing online. Even though the test was the same paper-and-pencil test, administered online, students enjoyed taking the exam more via computer and answered more questions rather than guessing randomly or simply quitting.

Many often discount the motivating aspects of technology, but I say, if students are drawn to certain types of media or experiences, let's use the power of that motivation and connect learning to it. This same argument was used with an earlier technology called television in the 1960s. Children love television, an intrepid band of innovators reasoned, so can't we adapt it to teach? That was the origin of Sesame Street. And there were many detractors then-as well as now-who blame the program for making learning "fun."

From Sesame Workshop to KQED to The George Lucas Educational Foundation: From the Longest Street in the World to a Galaxy Long Ago and Far, Far Away

I use this line in my book, Education Nation to summarize my nearly three-decade career in educational media and technology. Sesame Street, through its many international co-productions and English-language broadcasts overseas, has truly become a global street. Having spent a decade as education director at KQED before coming to GLEF in 1998, it was a reunion of sorts to be back in the KQED offices and see so many dedicated staff, some of whom were there with me in the 90s, who continue the public broadcasting mission of creating non-commercial TV, radio, and Web sites devoted to the highest quality content and commentary.

When you think about the unique aspects of our democracy and what holds the greatest potential for sustaining our leadership in the world, it comes down to our great public institutions. I call them the four cornerstones of our democracy: public schools and universities; public libraries; public parks, our national, state, and city parks; and public broadcasting. All of them are dedicated to providing all Americans with educational experiences, in the broadest and best sense, for formal and informal learning, for free, and open to all. All of them have a rich history built upon the vision of public-minded citizens and legislators. And in a time of budget cutbacks, each of them deserves greater public support.

Tina is part of a new NPR project, the Argo Network at a dozen public radio stations to use blogs and social media to create the new age of journalism beyond broadcast and print media. I learned a little bit more Greek mythology when I asked how the project got its name. Google it! Tina's blog has a great title, MindShift, and is all about digital learning.

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Betsye Sargent's picture
Betsye Sargent
Founder, head, and PK-3 teacher at he Phoenix School in Salem, MA

Technology is not a panacea, but it is an integral part of life for kids in school today. Having been a teacher for almost 50 years, I see a definite difference in the kids of today. Part of this comes from their comfort with technology and the role it has in their lives. Technology isn't necessarily a motivator -- it depends on what technology and how it is used. From my experience what motivates the most are the opportunity to make social connects especially when they are global and the ability to present their work and thinking using the more creative Web 2.0 tools. Blogging wouldn't be my first choice for introducing technology in the classroom simply because it is too much like regular school, but when you build in peer comments, a place to publish thoughts and ideas for a wider audience, a way to make global connections, a place to reflect, then kids are motivated by using technology. This summer, for example, we are going to try to integrate technology into our summer reading expectations by allowing kids to reflect on the books they read using Web 2.0 tools, then uploading them to Edmodo. We found a VERY different level of excitement when we offered them this option.

Mrs. Moyer's picture
Mrs. Moyer
4th grade Social Studies from Amanda, Ohio

I love your idea of using technology to motivate students. I definitely think that this is an excellent way to motivate students. This year I had a group of students who lacked motivation and I was desperately searching for ways to encourage them to want to learn. So I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. The problem I had was the availability of certain types of technology that I wanted to use. The other problem that I currently am struggling with is knowing how to use different types of technology effectively. I am not a novice at using technology but I am definitely not advanced either. I am currently enrolled in a Masters Program for Integrating Technology into the Classroom, and I must say that I am hearing about a lot of new types of technology and it is very overwhelming. For example, blogging is fairly new to me. I only did it one other time, in one of my other classes. Web 2.0 and all of the newer types of technology are what we are going to be learning about but again, it is all very overwhelming. I would love to be able to have the resources to use everyday in my classroom, along with the knowledge that is needed to use them effectively. So any suggestions on how to ease into these newer types of technology is appreciated. As far as using technology to motivate students, I know it works because I have seen my students become highly interested in my lessons when using it in the classroom. Again, the problem is availability. I also have a 15 year old step-daughter who is on the computer or her phone all the time. So I know that this is what are children are interested in and why wouldn't they be. Technology is amazing and interesting and fun. Therefore, I want to be able to bring those attitudes into my classroom. I just need more training.

Crystal Moyer

Mrs. Moyer's picture
Mrs. Moyer
4th grade Social Studies from Amanda, Ohio

Technology can be a great way to encourage students to learn but again, we as educators need to make sure that we are knowledgeable about the types of technology we are incorporating into our classrooms. Right now, my favorite piece of technology is the Smartboard. However, I am still learning about the different ways to use it interactively. It is very exciting to learn about and how to use new types of technology, but at the same time, very overwhelming. I find it hard to sift through all of the information to find what I need or want to use. Once I get the hang of it, I know it will be easier. Then I will be able to confidently use it in my classroom. I remember when I was in first grade, we got to get on the computer to play educational games, and I loved it! I want my students to feel the same way!

Crystal Moyer

Carey Pohanka's picture

Of course they love using technology because student like actually doing something! How many classes must they sit through where all they do is listen to the teacher and take notes. Ugh. How awful is that? There are so many ways we can use technology so students are active participants in their own learning, turning it from a passive to active process.

When will we stop taking excuses from people who are resistant?

Sam's picture

Great info but we should look at tech as educators.

Jennie's picture

Hey Mrs. Moyer!
I am so excited by your passion for using technology in your classroom. You are exactly the kind of teacher I want to have on my team! Sorry, I think I got so excited I forgot to introduce myself.
My name is Jennie Dougherty and I'm a high school English teacher. Over this summer, I went on a mission to get technology for my classroom, and along the way I established relationships with programers and CEO's who are currently developing the latest educational technology. I got free access to the educational technology of tomorrow, and my feedback helped shaped it to meet the needs of my classroom this fall. Now, I'm looking for other teachers to work with me, no previous experience with technology is necessary. If you are interested, fill out the form here:http://betaclassroom.wordpress.com/teachers-wanted cause I'm looking for other teachers to join the team, and I think you'd be perfect. I promise that I am a teacher like you, and this is not a sales pitch or trick. I want to get other teachers like us to make our collective voices heard by those creating the technologies for our classrooms. I also want to make sure that the tools of the 21st century are available to all of us no matter what kind of classroom we work in!

19Pencils's picture

This is a great write up. On the one hand anything that encourages and excites students could be leveraged but technology is not a silver bullet, and it can only be as useful as the teacher is experienced with using it.

I think the key to technology is for the teacher to also be encouraged and excited about it, or at least very comfortable with it. All too often we see lessons where students at young ages are thrown in front of MS Office because that's a common tool to use as an adult. Unfortunately this can often lead to frustration for everyone.

I'd encourage moving gradually through technology, while remembering that you don't need the latest iPad on every desk to engage students. There are many, many websites that can engage students of every age with often game like learning across all subjects. Typing, spelling, math, etc.

I respect all teachers for doing a the job they do. By putting yourself in the student's position, especially with technology, you may find a little technology can go a long way.

http://www.19Pencils.com

Jenny's picture

I, like many out there, enjoy changes and challenges. I agree with Erin Boyer that the changes with technology are not only electrifying for students but for the teachers as well. I have very few discipline issues in my classroom, and I believe that is because the students are engaged. I do not have a wide array of technological devices at my fingertips or in the classroom, but I do have the ability to be innovative with my lessons and activities. I have discovered some great ideas for using technology in the classroom, and I can't wait to work them in to my current lessons to make they new and exciting for me and my students.

Mrs. Burner's picture
Mrs. Burner
9-12 Geometry/Algebra1

Technology is very appealing to students based on my experience. My students seemed to appreciate how much work I've put into making my lessons more interesting to them. I get them excited and they always look forward as to what is new that's going to be presented. Technology keeps me wanting to update and adjust my lessons according to my students needs. It's a lot of hard work but I like the challenge.

Bernice German's picture
Bernice German
Math Whisperer

Milton Chen's blog from nearly two years ago is at least as true today as when he wrote it. In these past two years the cost of creating innovative computer animations has become much more affordable. As an example, this is a free YouTube animation for a critical high school Algebra topic, the order of operations. Until now, this has been taught by memorization, possibly with the help of a mnemonic device (PEMDAS). Contrast that to this enjoyable 5 1/2 minute animated story where the process actually makes sense! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bhh0z74RVk

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