If Technology Motivates Students, Let's Use It! | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

If Technology Motivates Students, Let's Use It!

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Comments (62)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bryan's picture

I agree with Eric. We must make sure that we not only rely on technology to be a gimmick to keep students attention, but to use it to really engage students in learning. It is important that we utilize technology for students in this way because they are going into a workplace where technology is going to be used in ways that have been unimaginable in the past. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the top jobs today were not in existence 10 years ago

Bethany Rosenberg's picture

That is a great question Amy that I think many teachers struggle with. At my school they have technology classes that the students take in the 6th grade to really learn the basics. They focus on Microsoft Office programs and web technology. However I know at my school the transiency is high so there are times where the student misses out on the course because they come in as 7th or 8th graders. You may want to try to have activities where the students can pair up, one student who is proficient and one student that needs some help where they can help each other through the new programs. I think often students learn better from each other than from the teacher. I found though the only way to really help them is get them on computers and give them practice so they can get over their lack of experience. You could also offer a time before or after school where the student could come in and "play" on the computer to ease into how to use them. Perhaps having a internet scavenger hunt where students are having to surf the Internet to find informantion but make it student fun and not neccessarily on topic of your class. Make it fun and they will come around.

Bryan's picture

I agree Susan.

I have noticed that many of my students are spending less and less time on their studies outside of the school day. I feel that their fascination and dependence on technology has something to do with this because of the quick fix technology seems to give everything. Some students do not seem to believe that some things that take time to do are worth doing. It is difficult to motivate students to overcome this mentality. We must find ways to show students that technology is great in that it allows us to be more efficient and convenient in the processes we do on a day to day basis, but that there is a human element of work that must be utilized in order to be successful in education or in life.

Amy West's picture
Amy West
Eighth Grade English Teacher

Thank you for the suggestion. I think providing fun activities for the students would be interesting. Perhaps a computer club could be started. This would also support the other teachers on campus who may have students without computers at home, but who have assignments that necessitate online access or typing. Thanks!

Janet Wilson's picture
Janet Wilson
7th and 8th grade ESE math teacher

I am all for engaging students with technology. All the math and science classrooms in my school have smart boards and the kids are engaged when an interesting online tutorial or virtual manipulatives can be used to make the lesson more visual and understandable. When you assign projects the smart boards give the students an engaging way to present their powerpoiint to the class. Technology is great but has limitations, for one it requires training. Some teachers not all that well versed in technology themselves have not yet or just barely begun to explore the value it can add to teaching. A few merely use their smartboard as a fancy whiteboard. Our school has been using the Compass Odyssey and Plato programs which were state of the art when employed and have great graphics to remediate level 1 math students for years. They have yielded only limited success as far as raising our FCAT scores because the students using them still hate math and find it difficult. Our county has us give quarterly formative assessments on the computer. Advanced and honors students who take the time to solve problems on paper before answering are improving their scores but the lowest level kids are doing worse because they don't write anything down when at the computer. The multiple choice only format just makes it quicker and easier for them to guess wrongly.
I served on a textbook adoption committee last year all the publishers were pushing their online student and parent resources as being better than the books. You should have seen their faces when I suggested that for what we were paying for the textbooks multiplied by 4 core subjects it would be cheaper overall to issue each kid a $500.00 laptop with the textbook on CD and online access to their websites. We are not there yet but it wouldn't be too far fetched to contemplate that we may be heading there in education reform. There is still some novelty to use of technology now but the time will come when kids are board with that as well. We are becoming an entitlement society absent of personal responsibility. Our students are demanding that we constantly engage and entertain them or they will refuse to learn. Technology is here to stay and provides many advantages never available before; but it has also contributed to the short attention spans and laziness of the current generation. All of us in education should have a spirited and thoughtful debate about how best to use it to motivate and educate going forward.

Doris Paul's picture

Every student on a college campus has a lap top that usually goes to class with them. It is only a matter of time before every student in high school also engages in the learning process by using a lap top, or perhaps an iPad, for note-taking, completing assignments, doing research, or taking assessments. But whether using laptops or classroom computers, it seems that the reason students get excited when they are informed that they will be using the computers that day is because they know they can discreetly open other websites and spend time on them when the teacher is busy with another student. Other than blocking popular websites, which our school already does, how do you prevent that and keep the students focused on learning? Another issue is blackboard. Students are savvy enough to know that homework is homework, even if it is posted on blackboard instead of given as a paper copy. Nobody is fooling them and so most of them "hate" blackboard because of the tech issues that tend to arise or because teachers don't get around to posting something until late in the day - and some students try to do their homework in the afternoon due to evening commitments. It appears that the real challenge is not just using technology as part of the educational process but using it effectively!

Carolyn Chambers's picture
Carolyn Chambers
Technology Teacher / Coordinator

Your article motivates me! I've been teaching technology classes at a small catholic school for the past 11 years to Pre K thru 8th grade students. It has truly been a blast! Having survived a 20 year corporate career in technology at a major fortune 500 company, I decided to change directions a bit. I held onto the most enjoyable part and that was teaching technology. I've seen technology evolve over my lifetime and I am a witness to, if integrated correctly into curriculum it can motivate students to learn. Technology integration takes the student to another level of learning compared to just using a text book. I just love to read articles like this because it inspires me to continue finding fun ways using technology to teach the same old concepts!

Nettie Barrow's picture

I am a student studying for my Masters In Education and I am now taking a course in teaching and learning with Technology. I hope to some day be a teacher whom uses technology as an integral part of my classroom work. Though I enjoyed and appreciated the article for its insight and information I feel that technology should support teaching and it support learning. The "motovating" apects of technology should not be the end of all of learning, but a component of the entire learning process in the classroom.

Mike Haller's picture

I agree that teaching the "old fashion way" is a big reason students are not always motivated. I think we do have to be careful about the idea that more technology is always the answer. I teach high school social studies and their have been times where I have required my students to hand write research based assignments because of the problem of cutting and pasting. I am aware of sites like turnitin.com etc.. but it seems that sometimes technology can make it easier for students to take shortcuts. I do however feel it is very important to use technology a lot in the classroom, we just need to be selective about the way we do it.

Valeria Nolley's picture

I must agree that some use of technology in the classroom is necessary in this day and age. Life as we know moves a whole lot faster than it did 30 years ago when I was in grade school. Just about everything that grabs and holds the attention of children is fast-paced and animated. Why can't we use the same tactic in the classroom?

Incorporating some "bells and whistles," or tying in a real-life experience or simulation is another way to gain the attention of our students.

In a recent lesson, I guided the class through an attempt to order a pair of sneakers from one of the FootLocker International websites. The goal was to see how many US Dollars would be needed to purchase a pair of sneakers in another country. Using a Google, we found a useful currency convertor to convert the cost. This brief activity held the attention of the majority of the class, and successfully showed students why countries need a system for fair currency exchange.

Discussion All Kids Can Code: 4 Factors for Success

Last comment 6 hours 14 min ago in Coding in the Classroom

blog The Era of the Teacherpreneur

Last comment 4 days 1 hour ago in Technology Integration

blog 3 Edtech Myths

Last comment 1 week 3 days ago in Technology Integration

Discussion Star Trek: Next Generation - Technology as an Accelerator

Last comment 1 week 3 days ago in Classroom Technology

article New Teachers: Technology-Integration Basics

Last comment 2 weeks 4 days ago in New Teachers

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.