Overview of Technology Integration in Middle School Math
This overview was originally published in ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators, vol. 6, no.3, 1999. It addresses the issue of how teachers can take initiative in becoming effective technology users. For additional information, see http://enc.org/topics/edtech/context/
Technology in the Classroom: Asking the Right Questions
by Lynne Schrum,
When it comes to using educational technology in the classroom, I think it is important to ask the right questions, and I am not sure that we have done that in the past. We have wanted technology to be a magic bullet or a wand that we could wave over children to make them have perfect test scores.
Of course, nothing is that easy. We have to ask some difficult questions:
We are starting to see some answers, I believe. We are seeing new ways of interacting that change the curriculum. We are not just thinking about static content that fits inside a textbook. We are really thinking about a process of learning that includes all kinds of materials that students will discover on their own, that we as the designers of lessons haven't necessarily defined ahead of time.
Students Learn to Ask Their Own Questions
To use educational technology effectively, teachers must create the vehicle that will encourage students to think about what they need to learn and to ask their own questions. This sounds like such an easy thing to change, but it is really very difficult. I hear a number of teachers say that they would really like to be able to change the way they teach; they would like to do project-based, multi-disciplinary lessons because the real world is not broken down into academic disciplines.
But these same teachers say that they and their students are held accountable for getting through the curriculum before May. They have to cover an incredibly broad pool of material, and that lends itself to facts and formulas and tests. Faced with these conflicting pressures, how can teachers encourage students to ask -- and investigate -- their own questions?
Technology lends itself to exploration. But before we can use it effectively, we need to value exploration as real teaching and real learning. We need to recognize that if students are writing about what they are learning, if they are investigating and asking questions, if they are doing it in an authentic context, then clearly they are learning how to read and write and think. The biggest difference, the one that might scare us, is that when students explore there is no one right answer.
Now, that does not mean that we all just run around doing what we want and end up who knows where. Activities must be carefully guided and structured, but having the technology available in a ubiquitous manner makes the difference. By that I mean that technology is the means not the end. Technology merely provides the tools to be used for authentic learning.
One of the things that we do know is that when students have technology available, they tend to move faster than we expected. So we have sixth and seventh graders doing complex systems analysis. The possibilities are endless. Students who really are excelling in a particular area can take courses online or through distance education. They can continue to learn even if their community has limited resources.
From my background in special education, I know that we must also think about equity for the student who won't be taking the most advanced courses. Technology has the potential to build on whatever skills a student possesses. When students' own interests drive the learning process, we find that they work longer and harder, they are more engaged in their learning, they are asking questions at whatever level they happen to be.
Teachers Become Life-Long Learners
To use technology for this sort of authentic learning, we have to educate teachers. We must start in preservice teacher education programs and encourage those people to come into teaching who like the ambiguity, or at least can live with it. Prospective teachers need to be helped to recognize that their jobs are not to pour content knowledge and dates and facts and figures into students' heads.
Professional development for practitioners needs to model the ideal of life-long learning. When teachers recognize that they will never stop learning, they will live that ideal, and they will model it for their students.
Technology allows all sorts of possibilities for continuing education for teachers, but first they must be comfortable using it. What we know doesn't work is somebody standing at the front demonstrating how to use a computer, and then everyone goes home. We know that becoming comfortable with technology takes an intense amount of time and that educators need to have the computers at school and, typically, at home if they are truly to become users.
Teachers are very creative, very intelligent people, who quickly see the power of technology. Once they use it for their own professional lives -- for keeping records, for typing documents, and for their own learning -- they come up with all kinds of ways that technology can enhance what they are doing with students.
We also know that it is not enough to bring in technology either top down or bottom up--enthusiasm has to come from both directions. You have to have teachers who are eager and interested. You have to have administrators who value learning about technology as an important piece of what teachers do. All parties must recognize teachers' accomplishments in the use of technology and accept even their mistakes as an important part of the learning process.
It has become clear that educational technology is not a passing fad. Its potential is overwhelming, and we need to do it right.
When computer technology first came to schools in the 1980s, we educators stepped back and let the vendors, the software designers, and others decide what we needed and what we should buy. Now we as educators must take the pedagogical high road and demand good software and hardware.
We need to make sure that the technology we use in our classrooms is structurally sound and thoughtful and free of gender and racial bias. We really need to take the lead in using technology in a way that meets all of our students' needs.
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