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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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Ksword's picture

Technology is great, if the filtering within your school is light. I teach 3rd and 4th grade at a small rural school. Our tech rep has the filtering so tight that we can not use the simplest of SMARTBoard programs online. I have students that do not care to use the technology, and I can accomodate their needs. For those that do learn from the S-board activities, as well as computer games, they are short changed.

Bruce McBrien's picture

I had to smile when I read the reference to Sesame Street..I honestly look back on that as the beginning of short burst education...high-speed snippets that kept viewers on their toes. It was a far departure from the calm, easy pace of Mr.Rogers, Romper Room or other children's programming of the day....

Lora Evanouski's picture
Lora Evanouski
Graduate Student at Boise State University in Educational Technology

I have to commend you on a fine piece of writing. I think back to the days when I was in my undergraduate days which was a traditional learning setting. I have become accustomed to learning and educating others through online devices. I do not think I could muster my attention span to sit down and listen to lectures, read a book as required of me in those earlier school days. I now look through a different lens when presenting information with technology, I will continue to use it to help enhance my teaching skills.

Amy Cirjak's picture

I find your research interesting - as my school received an influx of technology last year we saw an immediate increase in engagement, but felt that was due to the novelty of having the technology. Now, we see we have to be much more intentional with our choice and use of technology to maintain engagement.

radhikasunil's picture

Our interactive videos are a fun new way to understand concepts, solve homework problems and become a smarter student at school.

Tressy's picture

I agree that we must use what motivates the students in order to get them to learn. What we used back wen we were in school was "black and white", that was new to alot of us at that time because we didnt see these things in our homes. We now have to do list, chore list and honey please list on dry erase board. We have evolved with time. Our students need us to evolve with them as well.

Society is quick to label a child that is inattentive, hyperactive, and unsocialized as being a problem child or one that needs medication. Have we thought that maybe the child is simply bored. There have been studies to show that some of these children have better than average IQ's.

We as educators and parents need to realize what worked for us is not the same as what will work with todays students.

Ksword's picture

I agree that we can no longer serve our students in the "old fashioned" style. I find myself envious of students and the many advantages we can offer them through technology. There are so any methods available that allows ALL students the opportunity to learn. SMARTBoards, MP3 players, nintendo DSi...all are very valuable in the learning environment.

Megan's picture

Even though the elementary school in which I teach does not have a lot of technology due to a lack of funding, when we use what we have, we do see the students more engaged and motivated. However, unless we find a way to have more funding available for all schools, the curriculum that we teach will not have a consistent use of the technology. Since each school has a different amount of technology available, our curriculum is very much written in the "traditional" style with technology used as extension activity. Unless we change our curriculum, we will not see the true impact that technology can have on our students. We need to move forward with technology in our schools.

Melanie Nuffer's picture

I too find filtering to be a problem. I teach high school and am of the philosophy that instead of blocking everything we should teach students responsibility instead. Anyone else out there finding success in persuading administrators and IT departments to filter less?

Denise Timberman's picture

Thank you so much for that website. I plan on using the tutorials for the smartboard and notebook 10.

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