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A refrain you hear a lot in education circles goes something like this: It’s so hard to keep students’ interest in subject matter when they have so many digital distractions like the internet, social networking, texting (and sexting!), or the vicarious pleasures of psychopathic behavior in Grand Theft Auto. How can a teacher possibly drum up interest in physics or math or (horror of horrors) English? There appears to be a paralytic fear spreading throughout the adult world concerning the impact of digital media on young people today.
An analog to the “student motivation” complaint is the “changing brain” theory: If we don’t give students iPods, they won’t learn anything because their brains have been rewired by TV, video games and the internet. Social networking is the only way they know how to relate to other humans, so we can’t expect them to learn face-to-face social skills as well. In fact, the only way they’ll get interested in Shakespeare is if they can fabricate a Twitter feed for him. (Complementary to this theory is the “future of language” argument: Students spend the majority of their time on Twitter, text message and instant messaging services, which require short, abbreviated and highly stylized forms of language. Therefore, these forms of language ought to play an increasingly significant role in motivating them to learn about standard curricular content.)
That fear is unfounded. The ubiquity of technology and gadgetry has not rewired anyone’s brain. Human beings have not changed significantly (if at all) in their relatively brief existence on this planet. The other truth we can guarantee is that children learn in essentially the same ways now that they did “back then”. The difference is context.
Relevance is key. Some people say that what is relevant to kids “these days” (alarm bells should go off whenever you see that phrase) is the technology itself. Video games, flashing lights, buttons, and computers. These are the things that matter to students, and therefore the “21st century” classroom should be chock full of those things. By that same argument, pot smoking should be part of the curriculum, as should advanced French kissing (do kids even call it that anymore? Remember “necking”?)
On the other hand, technology is really very useful. Students can perform complex tasks, do advanced science, create digital art, music and video, research and share information, all in a way that wasn’t possible even five years ago. So why not make it the focus of school, or even of a particular lesson? As with any issue in education, there is research to support pretty much any reasonable view. Some studies suggest that students can perform better on standardized tests when they learn using computers. Of course, the objection is that standardized tests themselves are suspect, and so don’t provide sufficient reason to focus education on advanced technology. Other studies suggest that students might do worse when they spend their time on computers, but again, the measurements that are being used are either standardized or not standardized, both of which have their own shortcomings.
But before we begin measuring the effects of technology on student performance, we should come to terms with the fact that technology has begun to play an increasingly obsessional role in education reform or change or innovation. As Wim Westera points out in “On Strategies of Educational Innovation” (Higher Education, Vol. 47, No. 4, Jun 2004),
…Educational institutes are getting firmly busy with introducing new technologies. The availability of advanced technological equipment has become an interesting marketing asset against less modern competitors. Institutes bid against each other, while none of these wants to be labelled “old-fashioned” or “set in their ways”. However, various authors (Bates 1995; Westera et al. 2000) point out that the widespread adoption of teaching technologies is easily mistaken for educational innovation. At the introduction of campus-wide virtual learning environments, which top-down approach suggests a transformational change model, the emphasis is on technology per se and only little attention is paid to its pedagogic and organisational consequences. For the greater part, educational institutes seem to adopt a substitutional, instrumental strategy, while preserving existing pedagogical patterns. Technology is thus considered a mere supplement to conventional teaching. According to Bates (1995), teaching as such is not professionalised. It has hardly been influenced by research into instructional design, psychology of learning or other topics concerning human functioning. Teaching remains largely craft-based, while favouring the model of apprenticeship learning. Indeed, many teachers seem to run a one-man business, while they prepare the lessons, write the lecture notes, carry out the lectures, coach the students, design the exercises, provide feedback, examine the students and eventually even evaluate their own performance. Such a craft-based model hardly allows for any division of labour to increase the efficiency. Instead, the innovation effort is additional to regular work and readily leads to increased unit costs.
In other words, education has not changed significantly in the past millennium. With the rapid pace of technological advancement, new technology begs to be adopted (because new is better, and we are living in an era where progress is essential). In adopting the new technology, schools are mistaking technology for innovation, when what really happens is that computers and information technologies are adopted but function merely as add-on tools. The underlying methods and assumptions of traditional educational models remain intact.
The ability of schools and administrators to question their motives when mandating the adoption of new technology is crucial. The ability of teachers to realize that advanced technology is not the same as teaching reform is crucial. The real reasons for integrating tech into classrooms should be criticized, so that a meaningful cost-benefit analysis can be performed. Will this technology improve student learning? How much time will it cost the teacher to master, and do they really want it or need it? How much will it cost to purchase and maintain? Questions regarding the image of the school in the eyes of parents and the community are for administrators, but will enter into the equation at some point. Laptop schools are seen as “advanced”, and thus, better. iPods are new, advanced, and thus, better. SmartBoards are advanced, cutting edge, and thus, better.
The perception of innovation is not the same as actual innovation, and educators of all types need to realize that. There can be little doubt that technology can, in many circumstances, increase motivation in students. There is also little doubt that students will be expected to use computers and information technologies in university and the workplace beyond school. But the pie-eyed visions of the “future of education” should be clarified before teachers, students and schools are brought low by the weight of having new tools and not knowing what to build.