This week, in an Education World “edu-torial,” Lynne Schrum presents her personal perspective on the ways in which technology can enhance learning — and calls on educators to take a leadership role in determining the ways in which technology is used to support educational goals.
Lynne Schrum, past president of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), is an associate professor in the department of instructional technology at the University of Georgia. Her research, teachings, and writings focus on issues related to distance education, specifically online learning. Schrum also investigates the uses of technology in K-12 environments and identifies ways to support educators in the effort.
We’re all familiar with the extravagant promises of technology: It will make our students smarter — and it will do it faster and cheaper than ever before. Moreover, the promise suggests, this miracle will occur almost by osmosis. We need only place a computer in a room, stand back, and watch the magic take place. If only life were that simple and learning that easy!
Those of us who remember the 1980s, when computers were first making their way into our classrooms, probably also remember a great deal of bad software. As educators, we were unfamiliar with the technology and uncertain about its possibilities. So we stepped back and let software developers, hardware vendors, and other technicians define not only what we could buy but also how those products would be used. In many ways, the technology drove the educational process. And guess what? It didn’t work very well!
Now, we’ve entered an era in which technology is no longer an intimidating novelty. Its use in business and industry is both accepted and expected. And pressure abounds — from the federal government, from local school boards, and certainly from the popular press — for educators to get on board and see to it that students become technologically skilled.
But is mere technological skill enough?
Two points should be considered.
TECHNOLOGY AS A TOOL
Technology is a tool that can change the nature of learning.
First and foremost, educators want students to learn. It is certainly not enough to tell educators that they need to use the boxes and wires that have invaded their schools simply because they are expensive or because students need to know how to use the latest widget. If it’s clear that technological tools will help them achieve that goal, educators will use those tools.
The real world is not broken down into discrete academic disciplines. I’ve heard a number of teachers say that they would like to be able to change the way they teach — to find ways to implement project-based, multidisciplinary lessons. Let’s think about how that might happen when technology is used to support learning.
Technology lends itself to exploration. But before technology can be used effectively, exploration must be valued as important to both teaching and learning. In a technology-rich classroom, students might search the Web for information, analyze river water, chart the results, and record what they’ve learned on the computer.
In such an environment, acquiring content changes from a static process to one of defining goals the learners wish to pursue. Students are active, rather than passive — producing knowledge and presenting that knowledge in a variety of formats.
In such an environment, educators can encourage a diversity of outcomes rather than insisting on one right answer. They can evaluate learning in multiple ways, instead of relying predominately on traditional paper and pencil tests. And perhaps most importantly, teachers and students can move from pursuing individual efforts to being part of learning teams, which may include students from all over the world.
Of course, active learning is rarely a clean, neat process. Students engaged in such a process can create busy, noisy, and messy classrooms. It’s important to recognize that this kind of learning takes practice — for both the teacher and the students.
Activities and learning environments must be carefully guided and structured so learners are fully engaged in their learning. Students must learn that exploration doesn’t mean just running around doing what they want and ending up who knows where. Educators must recognize that if students are investigating and asking questions, writing about what they’re learning, and doing those things in an authentic context, then they are learning to read and write and think.
In a technology-rich classroom, students don’t “learn” technology. Technology merely provides the tools to be used for authentic learning. It is a means, not an end.
Technology provides educators with the opportunity to move from simply streamlining the way things have always been done to really imagining things they would like to do.
What a wonderful opportunity!
CHOOSING AND USING THE TOOLS
Teachers must determine how technology tools are used, and they must have a hand in designing the staff development process that trains them.
What will it take to realize the full potential of that opportunity? First, teachers must insist on being part of the planning for technology integration, rather than merely the recipients of other people’s ideas.
They must work together to create exemplary units, and then they must share their experiences with one another.
Teachers must take responsibility for helping design the staff development process so that it really meets their needs — so that it includes time to practice using the equipment, to watch teachers model lessons that infuse technology into the curriculum, and to mentor other teachers.
Of course, teachers cannot revolutionize the educational system by themselves — and make no mistake about it, that is what we’re discussing.
Have you heard the story about the administrator who came to observe a teacher? The classroom had five computers, and the students were all busy on an investigation. Some of the students were using the computers, and others were working on projects or creating information. Some students were working together. Others were working alone. The administrator walked up to the teacher, who was assisting a small group of students, and said, “I’ll come back when you’re teaching.”
As that story demonstrates, we also have to help administrators understand what a technology-rich lesson looks like. We have to insist that administrators provide us with time to work together, to explore, and to play with technological tools. We have to make sure that support for lifelong learning for educators, as well as for students, is built into our schools.
Teachers are creative, intelligent people, and once they learn to use technology in their professional lives — for keeping records, for creating documents, and for enhancing their own learning — they will soon discover the many ways in which technology can enhance what they are doing with their students.