24 Jul 2011

Technology and Educational Leadership

Guest post written by Lindsey Wright

Some fear technology in education, while others praise it to the rafters as the saviour of students. However, neither side has quite the right view of things. Just as in any other field, technology in education is only beneficial when properly used. Technology is a resource, just like a book, a DVD, or a board game, that can be used to enhance the educational experience of children or and help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the world. Just as basic literacy is fundamental to student success, so too is computer literacy now an essential component of adult life. In an age where more and more students are opting to get their degrees through non-traditional methods, like at an online school, introducing students to this invaluable resource just makes good sense.

Negative Views

Stories abound of how technology is changing students’ mental abilities. Their attention spans are shortening, their literacy rates seem to be declining, and their desire for entertainment is insatiable. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that talking heads use to support their assertions that technology shouldn't be integrated into the classroom.

One need only look at an account out of one high school English teacher’s one-woman war against the insidious infiltration of technology. An article in the Kennebec Journal details Sarah Schmitt’s daily battle against technology. Get caught texting? She’ll toss your phone in the trash, and you can retrieve it at your own risk.

Smartphones, it appears, have wrought the single greatest change on classrooms since the advent of the chalkboard. Kids are totally connected at all times now, and it shows in how they respond to teachers. Instead of giving instructors their undivided attention, students are distracted. Off-task behavior seems to have become the norm in some classrooms, and educators are constantly battling to reclaim student attention from the digital menace.

Other changes, like worsening penmanship, are also attributed to the pervasive infiltration of technology. Likewise, students' vocabularies seem to be diminishing as texting limits how they express themselves. One student in Schmitt’s class even described Hamlet as a “girly man” who was prone to “freak out.” Hardly the expressions of a brilliant linguistic, but it’s not just the fault of technology.

Positive Views

Although Schmitt is guilty of tossing cell phones, at the same time she has embraced technology as a way to combat its more insidious effects, understanding that technology is a resource that can be used to create new avenues of learning. In Schmitt’s classroom, every student has a laptop that can be used for research and writing, part of a statewide program begun in 2002. In addition, she uses computerized whiteboards to help engage students and maintains a web page for homework and other pertinent class information.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way World Learns, authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson explore why technology matters in education, and how innovation can change how technology is employed in the classroom. Yes, the book uses business models to make its point and treats students as consumers, but in a manner of speaking, they are. Students are consumers of education, and as such, innovation is needed to meet the every changing needs of the learner.

What Disrupting Class proposes is looking beyond the negatives of technology, from its ability to distract to the lack of computers in classrooms, to the positives that can be created by using technology in innovative ways. Rather than tossing out smartphones, teachers should encourage students to use them to do research. Another review of the book, this time published in Education World, discusses the fact that teachers are now facilitators of learning. Rather than standing at the front of the classroom and imparting wisdom to the eager ears of students, teachers now assist students in seeking out information. This doesn’t mean that teachers no longer impart information, it means that teachers have assumed another role in the classroom: that of mentor. In this arrangement, the instruction of teachers provides students with the tools to carry out their own research, and their guidance allows students research in an effective and safe manner.

Technology hasn’t destroyed education. It’s become another tool in the educator’s toolbox for facilitating student inquiry and learning. It allows teachers to target the different learning styles of myriad students. The authors of Disrupting Class argue that the innovations presented by technology are one of the greatest weapons to combat the creation of disaffected learners, and they’re right. These days lecturing and writing on a whiteboard isn’t enough to reach most students. The development of a tool that can be customized and tailored for each individual student, the way student-centered inquiry through technology can, is proof positive that technology should be embraced in the classroom as a resource to help budding minds reach their fullest potential.

Today’s classrooms must be wired to the digital age. Students are expected to be computer literate by middle school and to demonstrate high levels of computer competency when they apply for jobs. They’re already primed for digital communication with smartphones, iPods, and tablets. They keep social media sites up to date and spend their spare time texting friends. Educators should take advantage of this natural propensity to teach not only academic competencies related to technology, but also to reinforce the fact that moderation is an important aspect of technology usage. It’s no longer enough to assign students homework that requires a computer. Now, the computers need to be in the classrooms and in the students’ hands. They need to be instruments of inquiry and facilitators of information in the same manner as other educational resources — even those stalwart information resources of old, books.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

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