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If Technology Motivates Students, Let's Use It!

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
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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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David's picture

We live in a world that is driven by technology, our students are growing and learning in a world outside of school that is surrounded with technological advances, so integrating technology in the classroom is not scary or uncomfortable for them, I believe it scares the teachers more. I teach physical education and it's not enough to have the students check their pulse by putting two fingers to the side of their neck and watch a second hand clock as they count their heart beat. Most students can't even read a clock with hands on it anymore! Everything is digital now-a-days and does the calculations for you. We need to use heart rate monitors and pedometers to measure the student's activity and fitness levels. I'm excited to use the new technology in the classroom and it gives the students amazing formative feedback, but it's our job as teachers to stay updated on technology, so we can teach our students appropriately.

S Jordan's picture

I am a Seventh Grade Language Arts teacher and I can definitely say that the use of technology definitely causes my students to become more engaged! I am very happy to say that my district was very fortunate to have received last year a grant that allowed each classroom to have the installation of Smartboards! With this new technology I am able to immediately access the internet, show online movies, and even find many interactive activities that connect to my lessons. My students really do enjoy using the Smartboard and I must say that it has made learning fun for my students! We live in a time where children are very used to technology and I feel that if used in the correct way, as an added bonus to our pedagogy, the use of technology can be nothing but a positive additive to our classrooms.

Cami Case's picture

I have been fortunate enough to work in a school district that has an abundance of technology at our fingertips from smartboards, document cameras, video streaming services, etc... I find that I can engage my students more when I use technology. For example, I did a lesson on onomatopoeia this week. I did an interactive lesson where students could check their answers and students went up to the smartboard. The lesson showed a video clip of Batman and Robin and onomatopoeic words (ouch, splash, bang). They know what the word means and how to use it. We will be applying it to their writing this next week. Kids have grown up with technology and ipods attached to their ears. We need to keep their attention and focus while we teach our standards.

Danna Sabolik's picture

My 2nd graders are hooked on IXL math. I introduced this to them on Monday. The love the certificates that I print and post in our classroom. They are very competitive too. Everyone wants to have the most awards. Every morning I hear them asking each other how many they have. Today I heard 3 of them say they were on before school. Anyone have any other websites that are similar but are for ELA skills?

Jessica's picture

I are very fortunate to have a SmartBoard in every classroom at the school I teach at. I also have an airliner in my room. Both of these pieces of technology helps to keep the students involved and engaged. The SmartBoard also helps with the visual learners.

Milinda Montgomery's picture

I agree with Mr. Brunsell. We need to remember to use technology to support our teaching, not rely on it to be the cure for motivational woes.

Milinda Montgomery's picture

After reading Mr. Chen's article, I am reminded that technology can be both a boon and a bane to us as teachers. Sure, Sesame Street helped to make learning fun and helped teachers by introducing children to the basics, but we need to remember that technology should supplement, not supplant good teaching strategies.

Milinda Montgomery's picture

After reading Mr. Chen's article, I am reminded that technology can be both a boon and a bane to us as teachers. Sure, Sesame Street helped to make learning fun and helped teachers by introducing children to the basics, but we need to remember that technology should supplement, not supplant good teaching strategies.

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

Deep and meaningful learning, and developing critical thinking skills require the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, to have the stamina to struggle through a difficult passage, and listen for an extended time to what might actually be an old-fashioned, maybe even boring lecture! I am a big advocate for tech in all aspects of learning, but I also see a hyper, adrenaline driven, abbreviated education culture developing and students who feel that learning should never be a long and difficult process -- but, frankly, it just sometimes is! Weeks ago I read an article about abbreviated communication (texting, emails, Facebook, bubble-in tests) affecting students' abilities to concentrate/formulate extended, comprehensive responses and thoughts. If I can find it again I will post a link.

Amy West's picture
Amy West
Eighth Grade English Teacher

The name sake of my school came to speak to the students as part of the Professionals and Youth Building a Commitment (PAYBAC) program. He went around the room asking each student, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" One of the boys said he did not know. Our speaker prodded the student with questions and finally asked if he was good with computers. The boy said he was not good with them and really did not like them.

As my school and district mandate an increasing use of technology, how do I help this student to feel comfortable with the technology? I do not want to alienate the student, but there are people out there who really do not have the knack for working with computers, iPods, cell phones, and the like. My father once joked that I would only be truly happy if I was using a piece of parchment and a quill pen. What about those students who are like me, and just are not savvy with technology? How do we reach them?

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