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Are We Getting Smarter about Ed Tech?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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A teaching is standing next to a sitting student, talking to him and pointing at the desktop computer screen in front of him.

"Will teachers be replaced by robots?" That was the provocative question asked by Scott McLeod (@mcleod), a leading voice in educational technology, at an international conference earlier this year.

I remember the growing discomfort among participants at my table as he shared example after example of what machines are smart enough to do already. Most of us agreed that computers have the edge when it comes to processing tasks and work that can be automated. But how about computers that can produce original artwork? Check. Write coherent essays? Check. Forge emotional connections with humans? Check.

What's Not Working

Meanwhile, our existing educational technology has failed to produce desired learning outcomes, according to a recent international report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Students, Computers, and Learning Making the Connection concludes that investments in classroom technology are yielding "no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics, or science." What's more, the study found technology to be of little help in "bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students." And then there was this headline-grabber: "Students who use computers very frequently at school do worse than their peers."

If machines are smarter than ever, why can't we seem to leverage them for better learning outcomes?

Author and global education expert Yong Zhao offers some insights in a new book, Never Send a Human to do a Machine's Job: Correcting the Top 5 Edtech Mistakes. He suggests that we suffer from "cyclic amnesia," forgetting to learn from previous efforts to integrate technology for learning. The tools keep changing -- from filmstrips to cable television to web tools -- but the results remain flat, at best, if we only substitute new tools for old tasks.

One problem, Zhao argues, is that we haven't thought hard enough about redefining the relationship between teacher and tools. In a recent Washington Post blog post, Five Big Mistakes in Education Technology and How to Fix Them, Zhao explains why it's a mistake to think of technology as a teacher substitute:

Teachers do not need to control technology as simply a teaching tool to enhance instruction. Instead they should relinquish some of their teaching responsibilities to technology and shift their energy to do things that technology cannot do. This calls for a re-conceptualization of the relationship as a partnership between teachers and technology.

What might this look like?

Smarter Tech Moves

The OECD report offers this suggestion: "If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them."

Experiential learning, project-based learning, and other inquiry approaches are among the strategies that put learners in the role of active participants, according to OECD. Similarly, Zhao suggests students use technology as "a tool for creating and making authentic products," rather than merely consuming information or performing rote tasks.

Tech tools to support these instructional strategies can range from simulations to social media to serious games. Both teaching and learning are enhanced by tools that deliver real-time formative assessment, foster collaboration and digital citizenship, personalize learning, and enable student creativity.

So, how can you think smarter about educational technology in your classroom? Here are a couple resources to help:

Consider SAMR: Dr. Rueben Puentedura developed the SAMR model to help teachers evaluate whether they are using technology to Substitute, Augment, Modify, or Redefine learning experiences. Learn more about SAMR in this video from Common Sense Media.

Tools for PBL: In project-based learning, you might leverage a number of tech tools at different times during a project, and for different purposes. This crowdsourced document captures suggestions from an ISTE workshop earlier this year. Participants suggested a wide range of tools to deepen learning across the arc of the PBL experience, from launch event to final reflection. Gather some new ideas or add your own suggestions for tools that help you teach smarter.

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Excellent Suzie! Much appreciated. Far too often we have a formulaic approach to new ideas in education. We need to think more, plan more, reflect more, before we act. Once a decision to move forward is made, we need to plan for training, before implementation. We also need to support those implementing, staff, teachers, and then students, with coaching and time for the learning curve to reach a plateau of comfort with using new tech. All too often, those in the decision making roles forget to plan for these important steps. Thank you for posting!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Thanks, Don! Are there tools you find especially useful for world languages?

JoJaStock's picture
K-12 Educator Technology Integration Coach

As long as the smart devices cannot do what the human brain can fully do, we will always need the human interaction.

Kimberly Rickabaugh's picture

I agree with what Zhao suggests. I believe that technology is more beneficial when students are creating and making authentic products. This helps them develop 21st century skills. It helps them develop critical decision making skills, problem solving skills, and truly teaches them what it means to be a digital citizen. However, I do believe that there is a time and a place for "consuming information or performing rote tasks." Sometimes a tech program can provide them with that little extra motivation and task in order for them to learn. Now I'm not saying it should be an everyday thing nor am I saying it will benefit every student, but I do think that from time to time it is necessary. In addition I love the SAMR model. My school's technology group recently decided that this model is what we will use to help is decide if what we are doing with students is truly beneficial. This model and other resources that follow it really provide you with the information that is need to see wether your lesson is Substituting, Augmenting, Modifying, or Redefining your learning experiences. Furthermore, I loved the ideas I gleaned from the resource you included. My entire school is moving towards PBL learning and this will greatly enhance our toolboxes on tools the students can use to deepen their understanding and repertoire of tech tools they can use.

Tabassum Hameed's picture

Children love technology .They feel happy while using technology.Their excitement grows when they are with it.They learn faster as the are completely engaged and enjoy the activities whether working on an app on a tablet ,taking pictures using a digital camera or locate a particular place using google technology makes them more confident ,develops collaboration .I am doing a technology course and have studied SMAR model and this model is really helpful in planning .I am an Early Years teacher and would appreciate suggestions how to reach to modification and redefinition with this age group.

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