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If Technology Motivates Students, Let's Use It!

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow

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.

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Bethany Rosenberg's picture
Bethany Rosenberg
Eighth grade English teacher from Las Vegas, Nevada

I see the idea that it is important to use technology in the classroom but it is equally important to teach them how to use it. Students are exposed to so much on the Internet and as educators we need to educate them on being safe.

I think that to be an effective teacher in today's technology world we need to learn with the students and help them develop the skills they will need beyond our time with them. Implementing new activities that enhance their experiences is only one way to make that difference.

Ludmila Ameno Ribeiro's picture

Technology in the classroom is not the only way to motivate students, but new pedagogical approaches are maybe a better form to help the learning process and can also be a motivational tool for students who are so used to with technology.
It is part of the teacher's role to help students to learn with motivation. But by bringing the technology to the classroom or even adopting any digital gadget for a task to be done in or out the classroom, won't be helpful for students' lack of interest in the classroom, because anything that is done in the classroom needs to have a clear pedagogical reason in order to work properly. Just to bring or to take any digital technology to class won't be the solution for better educational practice. Technology has to be adopted wisely in the classroom, so teachers need to have a purpose in mind and a goal to achieve, for example: in order to get something done in a faster way; to help students or teachers to accomplish something; as a way to entertainer the class (to show videos, locations, to illustrate better something); to complete a difficult task or to generate ideas; etc. A lot of things can be done when technology is available, but one of the most important reasons to adopt technology in the classroom, it is to make classes even richer for students to visualize. But once more I state, it is extremely relevant that teachers develop a planning where technology is just a way of making our lives easier and more colorful, and then teachers and students together in that social environment that is the classroom, will be able to build the learning process with pleasure.

Isabel's picture

Now a days i think technology is a very good tool to get students interest, I start use computer games and videos at my kindergarden class and surprise, surprise (for me) I had a student that just couldn't learn couting and the first time he watched the video that i upload from youtube and he start to count at the same day. that's because it got his atention then I have been using computer in my classes very often. They learn and have fun.

Mauricio Horto's picture

Education, as many other things, has been changing throughout the years; and we - teachers, can't act as teachers used to many years ago.
I can see clearly my students' involvement and interest when I use techs in my classes.
However, the educational public policies, concerning the digital age, aren't completely engaged yet. There is still a lot to be done.
I wouldn't say that everyone has the same opportunities considering the World Wide Web connectivity. I still see many organizations and people not so familiar with the web and the high-tech world.
So, I believe that government should provide more academic qualification for teachers, as well as equipment and accessibility investment.

Milinda Montgomery's picture

Mauricio, can you please qualify your statement? I'm not sure whether you are saying that government needs to step in and mandate what qualifications a teacher needs and provide the training, equipment and funding so that everyone is equal, basically they have total control, or that they should provide guidelines that every state should follow.

Also, are you saying the national government or state governments should do this?

It's a conundrum to say the least.

Jennifer Garmon's picture

I agree technology can be a great resource to help motivate student learning. I recently discovered a website called Edmodo, which sets up a teacher's blog. It can upload attachments, links, and the students have 24/7 access to the site. I like the site because it can create a discussion board where the student can disscuss. This how I'm going to do homework assignments using the blogs/discussion boards. I think it will help create a learning community for all students (which is what I want my classroom to be).

I think students will like the site because the format is set up to look like facebook. (which our students do love).

If any one uses this site let me know your thoughts and feelings on it?

Stephanie Snyder's picture
Stephanie Snyder
College Professor currently living overseas in Sicily

Technology is certainly necessary to keep the younger generation interested, but what about my older students? Many of my students are adult learners and learn just fine through the "old black and white" methods. So how can I incorporate technology into my courses without losing my older students?
I have thought about changing an assignment from a typical word processing paper to a PowerPoint assignment, but I am concerned that the older students will get too frustrated trying to figure out the PowerPoint. Any thoughts or suggestions on this would be greatly appreciated.

Dawn P.'s picture

This is a great blog! Teaching should be innovating and learning rewarding. I agree that educators shouldn't become frustrated with unmotivated students in their classroom. It isn't totally the student's fault that most have become uninterested in the traditional way of teaching within the classroom. It's evident that the use of educational technology is urgent! The new generation student typically expects educators to provide a variety of teaching methods that are exciting and not boring.

On the other hand, the 21st century teachers have become more innovative toward providing more educational technology opportunities within the classroom. The use of technology to teach and motivate students in their learning is now a requirement in most states. Educators that provide a creative teaching style with technology influence students to think learn and communicate in a nontraditional way. The student's are motivated, and inspired through a different teaching method.

allieLholland's picture
eLearning Coach for Plymouth Community Schools

I have seen many teachers disgruntled because their students won't listen to them in class. They complain about their students, blaming them for their acting out when, as you said, many students are just not motivated therefore are bored and will do anything to entertain themselves. There are ways to integrate old ideas to make them seem like new ideas. I use School House Rock with my second graders and they love it! Instead of watching it on a VCR on a rolling TV cart, we watch in on our SmartBoard. Teachers need to be willing to adapt their lessons. Textbooks are not evil. If textbooks are all you use, well, you can bet you will not reach many of your students. Use your textbook along with a video of what you are talking about and a game on a website dealing with that topic. You can use the traditional idea and enhance them to make it more interactive.

I am definitely sharing the post with my fellow teachers!

allieLholland's picture
eLearning Coach for Plymouth Community Schools

There are a lot of resources out there that are very user friendly. It's important to have a balance of new technology and "old" technology. Prezi.com is a great presentation tool that is much simpler than PowerPoint and it looks a lot "cooler", too. I actually wrote a blogpost on helpful tips when creating a Prezi! http://bit.ly/jaSFI8

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