Thoughts on Education – 2/12/2012 – Is Technology the Solution?

I haven’t had much time to sit down and think about education since Thursday.  It’s funny how the weekends slip away from you.  I do have a big backlog of articles after having not done them on either Thursday or Friday, so I’m going to stick with more reviews today.  I haven’t quite figured out what’s a good mix here, more of my own stuff or more article reviews.  Of course, even in the article reviews, I am including a lot of my own thoughts as well.  Right now, I’m doing article reviews when I get 4-5 articles I want to look at.  However, I do look at so many places for information through the week, that it is honestly quite hard not to have that many articles to examine.

Using Technology to Learn More Efficiently

OK, so to start, just ignore the large Jessica Simpson lookalike on the page there, as distracting as her stare is there.  I was interested in the article from the title, which is what gets me to save most of them for review later.  So, often as I’m sitting down here to write about them, I am reading them for the first time as well.  Sometimes they are so irrelevant or don’t do what I want that I simply don’t do anything with them at all, such as this one today.  This one almost got a delete as well, but the concept is at least interesting, even if it links up to an older style of learning that I don’t want to encourage in my own classroom — flash cards.  The article profiles a company that is digitizing flash cards and remaking them to encourage better retention and more honest use of flash cards.  The more compelling idea is the creation of a schedule and the push for accountability to the students to complete their work.  As the article notes, this is really an attempt to reduce the unproductive cramming before an exam and open up a broader studying schedule.  However, the ultimate limitation here is the students.  They are the ones who have to make the decision not to cram at the last minute, and I have a feeling that the students who would do this with this program would be the same ones who would be least likely to put off all of their learning to the last minute anyway.  Still, I’m all for accountability, especially if it could be integrated with that idea from yesterday on using Google Docs to gauge student progress.  So, maybe as a tool that an instructor could put together and release to the student, this could work.

The Gamified Classroom (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

“Today, students are expected to pay attention and learn in an environment that is completely foreign to them. In their personal time they are active participants with the information they consume; whether it be video games or working on their Facebook profile, students spend their free time contributing to, and feeling engaged by, a larger system. Yet in the classroom setting, the majority of teachers will still expect students to sit there and listen attentively, occasionally answering a question after quietly raising their hand. Is it any wonder that students don’t feel engaged by their classwork?”

This, again, goes back to the issues I’ve talked about in several other posts, especially the last one.  If we are talking about student engagement, then I think we are failing with the lecture model, especially to the most current generation of students, which is who this article series concerns.  I just have to look out at my own classes on lecture days to see the problems, with maybe 1/3 paying active attention, 1/3 paying occasional attention, and 1/3 completely disengaged from the material.  Of course, is gamification the answer?  Of course not.  But can we learn something from this educational trend?  Very likely.  Perhaps it can bring in greater engagement and even foster creativity rather than rote learning.

The role of technology can both help and hinder learning.  The article refers to a number of ways that technology can help engagement, through having the students involved in project based learning and higher levels of engagement, using both apps and clickers.  What is interesting is what the author sees as one way that technology is reducing that engagement as well, the smartboard.  I’ve not seen that criticism before, as the smartboard is often held up as one of the prime ways to engage students.  “Unfortunately, our classroom is often filled with technology that only exists to better enable old styles of teaching, the biggest culprit being the smartboard. Though it has a veneer of interactivity, smartboards serve only as a conduit for lecture based learning. They sit in front of an entire classroom and allow a teacher to present un-differentiated material to the entire group. Even their “interactive” capabilities serve only the student called upon to represent the class at the board.”  I have been suspicious of smartboards as a save-all, but I had never really been able to figure out why I didn’t like them.  I find this argument compelling.  From my own point of view, they seem to just be a new version of the chalk board, offering nothing more than you can find with the method.

“In schools, our students should be using technology to collaborate together on projects, present their ideas to their peers, research information quickly, or to hone the countless other skills that they will need in the 21st century workplace–regardless of the hardware they will be using in the future. If we’re just using tech to teach them the same old lessons. . . we’re wasting its potential. Students are already using these skills when they blog, post a video to YouTube, or edit a wiki about their favorite video game. They already have these skills; we have to show them how to use them productively and not just for entertainment. This is where Gamification comes in. Games are an important piece of the puzzle–they are how we get students interested in using these tools in the classroom environment.”  I agree.  Ha!  What I always tell my students not to do, present a big quotation and say they agree, but I guess I’ll hold myself to a lower standard than them.  Still, I think this is an insightful look at the problems with just throwing technology at the problem.  You can’t just hand teachers technology and expect them to transform everything.  Technology is not the solution, although effective teaching with effective technology could be part of the solution.

The last two Parts of the series deal with how this might take place in practice.  I’m not going to go through all of that here, as the information is diverse and hard to summarize.  So, check it out if you’re interested.  I think what is most interesting is the push for self-pacing and self-motivation for students.  Tying completion to rewards beyond simple grades and pushing the students to do more.  This is an interesting idea, but I do wonder if our students are ready for this.  That is always the problem with these articles, that they project these things into an ideal world where students are not motivated because we aren’t motivating them.  Yet, the real problem is often much more complex.  Our students are as varied as can be, and the reasons for motivation or lack of motivation are varied in the same way.  How do you motivate students who are working two jobs, taking care of kids, sick, taking care of sick family members, in school only because their parents think they should, in school only because they think the should, and so forth.  In other words, when students aren’t required to be there, such as at college, how does this push differ?  Something to think about.

The loss of solitude in schools

And, I’ll close for today with an opposite view.  Here, the author is warning against the push for project-centered education, one where we emphasize interaction and group work over individual absorption of material.  She makes the case that education is inherently a solitary process, where we engage with and absorb difficult material until we learn it.  As she says, the emphasis on group work and interaction produces students that “become dependent on small-group activity and intolerant of extended presentations, quiet work, or whole-class discussions.”  In other words, they forget how to learn on their own.

She also notes that the push away from the “sage on the stage” can be just as damaging for students.  “Students need their sages; they need teachers who actually teach, and they need something to take in. A teacher who knows the subject and presents it well can give students something to carry in their minds.”  I have never done much with small group work, so I can’t say one way or another how this works.  I have generally done either lecture or discussions.  I don’t know how to evaluate small group work, and so I have not done it.  Perhaps this is short-sighted of me, but I just don’t know how to give a grade for group work that is not just on the end project.  In other words, how do you hold everyone accountable?  I know, from talking with my wife and remembering my own experiences, that group work is inherently unequal and very frustrating for those who want to do a good job, as they generally end up doing most of it.  I don’t want to put students in that position, and have never been much for this idea.  I could be convinced otherwise, but I am skeptical on the idea of small group work.  I know that many of the changes I’m looking at making involve small group work, but I just don’t know what to do with it.

Anyway, enough for today.  Please let me know what you think or if you have any responses to the ideas I’m presenting, as I don’t want to be working in a vacuum on this.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of three, student of life, owner of a parrot, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all around guy.

2 responses to “Thoughts on Education – 2/12/2012 – Is Technology the Solution?”

  1. Andrew R. Proto says :

    First off, I’m really glad you’ve enjoyed my series about “The Gamified Classroom”. Knowing that you’ve put so much thought into the things I wrote is really an awesome feeling. Thank You.

    Now to address some of you’re points.

    ~~ “is gamification the answer? Of course not. But can we learn something from this educational trend? Very likely. Perhaps it can bring in greater engagement and even foster creativity rather than rote learning.” ~~

    You’ve nailed the reason I set about writing these pieces right on the head. I don’t believe that Gamification is a magical panacea to fix our schools; but I do believe that studying basic Game Mechanics can provide a wealth of tools that teachers can apply to their classrooms. Games are some of the most motivating things mankind ever invented. Las Vegas wouldn’t exist unless we had used Games to make people think slot machines were a good investment.

    ~~ “the smartboard is often held up as one of the prime ways to engage students.” ~~

    Since starting this series of articles one of my biggest surprises is in how many people agree with me about SMARTBoards. To me this is a case of the Emperor having New Clothes, no one dares speak ill of the big white screen the school just spent $6,000 on per classroom. Whenever I’ve come out and said how I feel about them, I usually find people agreeing with me. But not only teachers, administration too! I want to make it clear that I am very well educated in their use, I just don’t see their value. Especially when for the same price we can have 3 or four desktops in a classroom attached to a projector.

    ~~ “Tying completion to rewards beyond simple grades and pushing the students to do more. This is an interesting idea, but I do wonder if our students are ready for this.” ~~

    Gonna have to disagree with you on this and say that I think they are. The thing to keep in mind is that Gamification principles aren’t just sprinkles added on top of the sundae. they need to infuse the class from day one. Are they ready for this? They’re as ready for it as they are for any other class. Every year our students have to adapt to their teacher’s different styles and if we let Motivational Design be there with them from day one, the students will be there ready to learn.

    I’ve rambled on enough though. Let me just leave you with two book recommendations. Check out “Teaching Digital Natives” by Marc Prensky for more info on how to design meaningful 21st project based lessons, and read “The Multiplayer Classroom” by Lee Sheldon to see an example of a Gamified College Classroom in action.

    . . . and next month’s chapter of The Gamified Classroom is going to be an interview with some teachers using game principles in their elementary school classroom. Hope you enjoy it.

    Andrew R. Proto
    twitter: @MisterProto

  2. Scott Williams says :

    I will certainly check out your recommendations on books. I’m always looking for more resources, and those look interesting.

    I found your series quite interesting, and I would have given the 3rd and 4th part more of a look here, but I just couldn’t figure out how to summarize them without basically repeating them, as there was a lot of good information there. And, as a note, when I was referring to “our” students there, I really meant mine, from a community college. There is something different about our resource level (minimal) and our students (not required to be there and often less motivated in general) that makes a leap into something new like this challenging in a different way (I was going to say more challenging, but that’s not true, as each type of teaching is challenging in its own way).

    But, I do agree with what you said that they are ready if we are. What I’m not sure is if we (the teachers) are yet. I think I could pull it off, but I also imagine the resistance that I would get at the departmental level for doing something different. That’s not going to stop me, but I know it’s something that’s always sitting out there. We are dependent on the students choosing our classes over other alternatives, and it quickly becomes apparent when you are doing something the students don’t like. While we all say we don’t care about pleasing the students, we really do, and change is one of those things that students can rebel against in my setting much more than in a K-12 setting. I guess in a roundabout way, what I’m saying is that I look forward to trying these ideas, and I hope to overcome any resistance from the students and my colleagues as I experiment with it.

    Keep up the good work there, and I look forward to your future articles.

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