Too much technology?

Can students have too much tech? asked Susan Pinker in an opinion column in the New York Times last January. She criticized what she called “drive-by education”, wherein an adult hands a device to a student and then walks away – a practice that studies showed to have a detrimental effect particularly on at-risk populations, such as African American boys. Technology is only useful, she concluded, if it is specifically designed for the task at hand, and we should instead focus our reform efforts in improving teacher and training rather than wiring up classrooms.

Exactly!” exclaim the imaginary guardian spirits of the MAET program at Michigan State University. Wiring up a classroom  but then leaving the teachers with little or no training – handing every child a tablet and assuming that they will teach themselves – sitting everyone down in a computer lab for a period of silence so the teacher can grade tests – is exactly how we should not approach integrating technology into the classroom. But while they would share her criticisms, they would even more enthusiastically refute her cynicism and her conclusion.

Technology should not replace human connectivity, but enhance and expand it, as J.P. Gee demonstrates in his discussion of online affinity groups in Digital Media and Learning: A Prospective Retrospective And both teachers and students should develop in the new media literacies, as H. Jenkins shows. These literacies – which include skills such as developing good judgment, collaborating, and networking – are in fact skills which do not even require the use of technology, but which make technology a powerful tool in the hands of one who has developed those skills. And as for waiting around for someone to develop a tool specifically for educational purposes, Dr. Punya Mishra has one word to answer that: TPACK. TPACK suggests, why don’t we empower students and their teachers to be the adapters and creators of content? That sounds like a whole lot more fun rather than waiting around for someone else to make it for us.

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As a world language teacher, I have already found technology indispensable in expanding the reach of my classroom. Language, after all, shares a common purpose with many technologies: increased connectivity across the globe. And so instead of relying solely on the edited audio recordings produced by a textbook company, I can introduce my students to the wide diversity of Spanish speakers, accents, and cultures via YouTube, Spanish-language periodicals, music and websites. I can then encourage my students to explore and express their own ideas in Spanish and then share their work online – perhaps even to be read and responded to by Spanish speakers across the globe, thus making their experience of language authentic, rather than contrived.

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Of course, in the midst of integrating technology into my classroom, I still face unanswered questions: How can I teach my students well when when they are tempted with infinite opportunities for distraction (or worse, cheating)? How can I work with my colleagues who have spent their entire careers working from textbooks, and have little interest in change? How can I adapt lessons when, inevitably, the Internet crashes or the video stops working? Am I doing my Creative Commons attributions correctly? And, most importantly of all, is there a robot that will grade my writing tests for me?

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(…something something about the importance of human connectivity and personalized feedback…alas.)

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