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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

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

Melanie Nuffer's picture

I agree that we should be cautious when using technology in the classroom. I still find that no matter how engaging the topic or activity I still have students that insist on gaming or doing other activities in additional windows. Does anyone have any ideas on how to keep kids focused on ONE task at a time?

Jessica H's picture

I agree that students are accustomed to using technology (cell phones, Internet, and video game sysems). The traditional way of worksheets do not stimulate today's student. My primary concern with using technology is getting students to understand that it is still a valid assignment, not just "for fun". I have used essential questions to establish a purpose for the assignment. At the end of the lesson, students must answer the essential question to demonstrate their knowledge. Any suggestions on how to maintain the significance of the assignment while using technology?

Mike Schiller's picture

I agree. Our students now are "born digital" like was said above. They come to our classes, in many cases, being more technologically savy than their teachers. Unfortunately, our school systems were not "born digital". Many districts are finding it hard to keep class sizes down to manageable levels, let alone find the funds to purchase projectors, document cameras, and useful computer programs.

I'd be curious to hear how some other districts have raised these funds, or discovered clever ways to incorporate other technologies with their classes.

Diana Fields's picture

This is just what I needed to hear for motivating and engaging my second graders. I have access to twenty-five laptops that I need to get my students using more regularly. I have been researching ways to get students to become better listeners, but I have not been listening myself. The answer is use more technology! There are so many great websites that I can find and use for almost everything I am teaching. I had my students use the laptops a few times at the beginning of the year, and it was very difficult because many of them have not used them before and are not familiar with computer/technology terms. My students will listen when I am teaching them about technology. Thank you for opening my eyes!

Sarah Gostomski's picture

IXL.com is a math website that links activites to state standards. Bringing the laptops into the classroom and allowing my students to work on this site is viewed as a reward. All of my students, even those that hate math, love to get on IXL. The use of this technology enhances students abilities to complete activities that correlate to our state standards independently. The virtual reward system that this website uses motivates students to succeed. I feel that using technology in the classroom can be beneficial to students when it is relevant to instruction.

Andrea Miller-Fay's picture

I agree with much of this article. I have had students participate in a blog in book group with great success. Students tended to both write more and go more in depth. I did however have a problem in that some students did not have computer access. Since the blogging was not due every day students with out computers needed to plan ahead and use the available computers in the library or another resource.

Tayna Miranda's picture

This was interesting to read because just recently I started allowing some of my students who have a difficult time writing use their laptops instead of their writers notebook. They now come to class motivated and excited about writing.

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

I agree that students are technological but I find a problem is that not all teachers are. I have teachers at my school who are still fighting to use a computerized attendance program and grade book. Students are visual and love the technology. What they love even more is teaching me something. I think if we can get through to them, it needs to be any way possible whether it's on computers, ipods, or SMART boards. If teachers collaborate lessons that integrate the technology and how to make lessons meaningful to the students it can make the learning process so much more effective and "stick" with the students. This I find can also help with classroom management, the students think, "Hey this is cool....what do you mean I am learning something". Our job as educators is to make lessons meaningful to students and reach that part of them that helps develop them into lifelong learners. One thing though I still teach is how to use a dictionary and how to use at Atlas. Sure you can Google it but sometimes you just need a good book to get something done. Does anyone have ideas of how to get through to those teachers that just won't use technology?

Melanie Nuffer's picture

One way that schools in my area are bringing more tech into the classroom is by allowing students to bring their own. Mnay of the kids have some type of tech even if it is just texting with their phones. By allowing students to bring it and make use of it in the classroom, schools don't need the cash to purchase it themselves and they don't need the personal to troubleshoot it or maintain it. I have been working on talking my own administration into converting the school to wireless and becoming a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) school. Good Luck!

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