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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, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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