Moving beyond the high tech pencil
When we imagine technology, we would often think of computers. But technology does not only refer to digital computers. Whilst how we understand the word does normally refer to computers, that’s only because most new technology in the home is some sort of computer. In the 1800s a new type of technology was introduced into the classroom. Chalk and Slate. This was great. Except for the fact that you couldn’t do long equations on it, or keep notes, it worked really well for short problems. Take a modern maths class where you want your students to practice five questions to demonstrate their mastery, you might normally have two options available to you:
- Pencil and paper. Students write their answers on the paper. This is often surrounded by notes, or in a special book just for calculating problems.
- Laptop computer. Students make a new document, and do the problems in there (or simply write the answers if they cant be bothered to write out the equations… I guess the same goes for paper here).
These problems are not useful to the student in the long run, nor are the answers going to solve any major world problems. The chances of students going back over them in minimal, as they would more likely try new problems if they wanted additional practice. So why write it down in a book for posterity? This is potentially just a wasteful way of putting our answers somewhere. With the chalk and slate however you can attempt a problem, show your teacher, get help, then erase it. This leads to less confusing file systems, the ability to forget your failures (thus improving your morale?) and a clean set of notes in your workbook. As this article suggests, sometimes the right tool is not the new tool.
There are several models for how we can categorize the use of technology in the classroom for educational purposes. A popular model is the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) model. The scale gives four fairly distinct regions of technological use in the classroom.
- Substitution is the bottom rung of the model, where we simply swap one old tech tool for a new tech tool. An example might be using online textbook as opposed to physical textbooks. There is no functional change, and on the online textbook you might not be able to write on the book, and you might even lose access after a year (if its subscription based).
- Augmentation is the next rung up, and still might not be considered an essential switch (although unlike substitution there might be useful changes). An example might be writing notes on the computer as opposed to in the notebook, where your teacher or classmates can more easily comment on them, or you can make things bold, red or rewrite notes. Redefinition is an improvement, but not always a big one.
- Modification is starting to get into the area of technology having a significant impact upon student learning. Technology is substituted in to tasks to make it notably better than before. An example in science might be in labs, where students all put their data on the same spreadsheet to pool results and quickly build a big data set. Whilst this was possible before, it would have been long and tedious to share that data onto our own data tables (now we can copy and paste) and do our own analysis.
- Redefinition is the holy grail. If we are redefining then we are doing things we just couldn’t do before. Using computer simulations in the sciences to see how subatomic physics works, or have the class Skype the author of the book you are reading. These are learning opportunities that did not exist to students before we had computers in our classrooms.
Redefinition is what we as teachers should be more interested in to boost the learning in the classroom. Not because everything to do with computers is better (it is not), but because before we had computers the tools and information we had readily available was limited to our school, and perhaps our local community. Suddenly the world is our local community. Does David Blaine have to be in Vietnam to teach my students some illusions? No, he can Skype in. If my students decide to have an Earth week, they can collect data from all around the world, they can call in experts to chat online or help via email, they can read scientific papers online. they dont need to wait for textbooks and things to be delivered. Its on their digital doorstep.
But I do not feel from my experience that redefinition is happening on a large scale, to quote Edutopia:
Willingness to embrace change is also a major requirement for successful technology integration. Technology is continuously, and rapidly, evolving. It is an ongoing process and demands continual learning.
Lots of teachers appreciate that technology can help their instruction, but either do not have the skills or time to properly implement it. I know there are teachers in our 1-1 laptop, Apple Distinguished school that can barely send an email. Talking to those teachers about redefinition is like trying to discuss Einsteins theories before learning about Energy. Here we also need to think about those teachers who might be trying to embrace change but have little resources to help them. These people grew up in a world where there were not computers, and they were 35 by the time the internet was in main stream use. Now we dont even teach IT to students anymore its so ubiquitous. Its in every lesson (except that teachers). So we offer no PD, staff have little time to help themselves and thus the teacher has little inclination to change. These aren’t hard skills. Moving from writing on paper to redefinition can be as easy as just writing on a blog instead, and eliciting student replies to other students posts- we aren’t talking about teachers being programmers, just knowing how to be happy and confident researching and learning new tools on their own.
Lets even consider digital storytelling. What is the difference between telling a story on a screen and by reading it out? If we simply put a story on a power point as opposed to on a sheet of paper or script, this is substitution (or at best augmentation). If we are going to tell a story worth telling – lets use Google Maps to track the story, have students collaborate on a power point to build the story themselves, or use Scratch to actually make the story interactive like a game. If its just a small part of the lesson then lets act it out and make it a bit of fun! Redefinition doesn’t have to happen everywhere, but it does need to happen if we are going to use technology in our courses, and particularly if we intend to use technology to improve the learning experience of our students.
On the SAMR model, the move from chalk to pencil is little more than substitution, and for some making the change from pencil to computer is little more than substitution. What we need is a philosophy of improvement for all teachers, and moving the level or expertise in technology from whatever level it is at, to the point where teachers are confident redefining what it means to learn in their classrooms.