Talking Technology

I had a great conversation with an early-career teacher a few weeks ago. She was a “digital native”—armed with smart phone and ready to tweet. I admit, I’m a “digital immigrant” who re-examines every new device in order to evaluate whether it’s worth the price to buy and the time to use. We talked about polling in class. She uses an APP; students respond to questions during her classes from their seats with their phones. I use post-its—admittedly a bit Luddite, but as I argued, the students have to actually stand up and walk to the front whiteboard, and while they do they usually engage in conversation. Neither of us were sure we had the final answer, but the questions we raised remained with me for a long time.

Thirty years ago NSTA participated in the first major grant initiative to explore how computers could be used in science classrooms. The site was a family-friendly environmental camp; the tools were Apple IIes. Teachers spent long days trying to develop Basic and Logo programs that could help with review, experimentation, data analysis and simulation. The project leaders moved from station to station, with suggestions for problem-solving. So did my 8 year old son. When we encountered problems we couldn’t solve, one of the teachers would say: “My money’s on the kid.”

Using computers as instructional tools was a new idea then. Teachers proved very reluctant to accept their help. One of the underlying factors was the realization that there was a significant difference between the ability of young learners and the ability of their teachers to adapt.

Most of today’s science teachers are “digital immigrants” like me. (This term was introduced by author Mark Prensky, whose works on the topic are easy to find and valuable reading.) We may be enthusiastic and capable of learning new tech, but it doesn’t come naturally. And for most of us, it’s awkward to plan a lesson and simply “put our money on the kids.” By contrast, digital natives have never experienced a world with limits on where they could go or what they could explore on the Internet so they are not intimidated by perceived barriers.

For several decades there was very little research to back up the use of technology in classrooms. Now there is a body of empirical evidence that can guide even the most reluctant immigrant to create better learning environments with tech tools. That’s why I’d like to propose a series of blogs here to share both the possibilities and the evidence we have to guide our own work. Questions like the one at the top deserve thoughtful consideration. Hopefully, you’ll join in the discussion.

Teaching the Y’s and I’s

Each generation is influenced by both society and technology. We look back to the “Silent Generation” of the Great Depression, the “Boomers” who were born after WWII, and their children dubbed “Gen X” who benefitted from the economic growth post-war and the technologies that wartime research provided. There are differences within each group, of course, but they share many attitudes because of their common experiences.

Beginning with the “Gen Y” and “Millennial” generations (born since the computer invasion of the 1980s) we’ve seen not only a change in social and economic factors, but significant and measurable changes in how people learn. Here’s just one example: When I began teaching, there was a lot of emphasis on eye tracking and fine motor skills in language arts. We drilled reluctant readers in left-right tracking, spent hours on penmanship. Today’s GenY readers have significantly different skills and preferences. They like big graphics, less text, clickable hyperlinks. I first noticed this difference when I began to teach online coursework. The over-40 grad student was likely to expect a reading that could be printed on paper (so they could see how far they had read). The younger students wanted the reading online. (There are other differences in how they see that go beyond the space I could devote in the blog, but are embedded in the development of devices like the Kindle™.)

There’s even a new term for our elementary students today—the I Gen. (Some call them “screenagers.”) They were never alive before Facebook™ or YouTube™. You see them playing with smart phones in their high chairs in restaurants. They have never had to use a stand-alone calculator, a rotary dial phone, or a paper map. They are never out of touch with one another or the world at large. They spend more than 5 hours a day before screens, and consume enormous amounts of information in the process. Many of the “dogmas” we learned in our education courses, like the idea that virtual experiences are not real to young children (Piaget), are simply not true any longer. In Educational Leadership, Larry Rosen talks about Teaching the IGeneration. “Researchers also are studying how preschoolers and infants deal with media exposure, both made for them and the exposure they get when parents or siblings are in the same room, using video games, TV or other content.” He reminds readers that children who used to begin with books now are exposed to electronic media first.

Earning Our Citizenship

For veteran teachers, the challenge of the Ys and Is isn’t just learning new software. It’s learning to see the world through their eyes. We need to not only add 21st Century Skills to their curriculum, but cut the lessons they no longer need—and that’s the hardest part! But Rosen and other researchers are optimistic: “…once teachers relegate much of the content dissemination to technology, they can spend class time more productively—helping students analyze, synthesize and assimilate material.”

In the blogs that follow, I’d like to raise questions like these:

  • Living through an Avatar: Can children learn real-world skills in virtual environments?
  • Navigating the Jungle: How do we teach children to evaluate and discriminate sources on the web?
  • Dumbing and Dumping: Why do we now talk about “Death by Power Point?”
  • Social media: Can we use them for instruction?
  • Platforms: Online, hybrid, and supported face-to-face models
  • Sense and Safety: How to select what you need and ignore what you don’t.

If you have other topics that you’d like to explore, please write me at Juliana.texley@nsta.org

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