Rethinking how we use technology for teaching and learning – part 1

(Thanks to my friend David Mulder, technology director at Sioux Center Christian Schools, for sharing this blog post. Look for part 2 next month.)

Part 1 – What is the problem and how did we get here?

Do you have a computer in your classroom?  (Silly question in 2011?)  I want you to think about how you use the computer in your teaching practice.  Does the computer allow you to do things fundamentally differently?  Are you able to do things in your classroom using technology that you simply could not do otherwise?

Here’s the thing:  I’ve become convinced that the way we use technology in schools has to change.  And I’m further convinced that this change is going to be a big, big shift for most teachers and most schools.

I want to set the stage here by describing what we have going on at Sioux Center Christian School, which will perhaps help frame the conversation.  Beginning in the mid-1990’s we began adding computer technology to our school in a deliberate way.  By the early 2000’s, we had network cables pulled to every room in the school from a central server case, a computer in every classroom, two computer labs with about 25 desktop computers each, and regularly scheduled times for “computer class.”  (Depending how long you’ve been in the profession, I’d guess this sounds familiar to you, either as a teacher, or perhaps as a student.)

Fast forward a decade or so, and several cosmetic changes have happened.  We have largely gone wireless, with a wireless network throughout the building and several mobile computer labs (25 laptops on a cart, so the lab comes to you!)  Teacher laptops have replaced classroom computers and we’ve installed video projectors in most classrooms around school. In the past two years, we’ve also begun to add interactive white boards to some classrooms—the next big thing in technology.  Whatever your school’s level of technology, I’ll bet you can relate to the story so far to some degree.

Here’s the thing: I think these changes (adding laptops and SMARTBoards) are “cosmetic” changes, because while the tools and their availability may have changed, the way we used the tools fundamentally did not change.  We have been implementing what I now call the “Tech-on-the-Side” model.

Here is what the Tech-on-the-Side model looks like in practice:

  • A designated space for using technology, whether that is a separate room (a computer lab) or a part of the classroom (the computer corner).
  • A designated time for using technology, which might be a specific time each week when the class goes to the computer lab, or perhaps “computers” as a separate school subject.
  • A focus on learning how to use specific applications, such as web browsers, word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools (i.e. – PowerPoint), and media-editing tools such as iMovie or MovieMaker, regardless of how these tools might be used to support classroom activities.
  • Tightly controlled access to technology, because the tools are limited, so we need to share and play well with others.

Does this sound familiar?

Now, I want you to think for a minute about how people use technology outside of school, in “real life.”  In almost every way, Tech-on-the-Side is the opposite of how technology is used life outside of school:

  • Rather than a designated space for technology, we use laptops, smartphones, iPads and the like wherever we go.
  • Rather than a designated time for technology, we use computers and other devices whenever they suit the task at hand—whether work or play.
  • Rather than learning specific applications foisted up on us, we tend to learn how to use the apps, sites, services, and devices that are most useful to us, most productive, or most enjoyable.

Tech-on-the-Side may have made sense a decade ago—even five years ago—but the world is changing.  The problem is that the Tech-on-the-Side model doesn’t really address the changes that have happened (and continue to evolve) in how we use technology in the 21st Century.  The Tech-on-the-Side mode of thinking incorporates technology in ways that simply replace current activities with ones that add a computer-based component, but the task itself remains unchanged.  Next month, I’ll offer some concrete suggestions for how to begin shifting from Tech-on-the-Side toward a more transformative way of thinking about using technology in schools: Tech Integration.


Filed under change, classroom, staff development

12 responses to “Rethinking how we use technology for teaching and learning – part 1

  1. Trevor J. Collazo (@tjcollazo)

    Great post. You very succinctly articulated a major need in Christian schools. We need a major paradigm shift. In our effort to keep up we are getting left behind. What will happen is we will achieve our “technology goals” in the next few years, only to realize that our goals placed us 15 years behind.

    I can’t wait to start a “Bring Your Own Device” at our school!

  2. I have questions. Why do we “do” technology in the classroom? Does technology enhance learning? Do studnets need technology in the class room to learn? Does technology enhance faith perspective? How does technology bring students closer to God?

    • Larry,
      Thanks for your thoughtful questions. You may wish to read a post I made last year related to your questions.

    • kimberly Lindsay

      Our world is a technological world that can be seen in almost all social and commercial industries. It is in our schools, churches, and even grocery stores. To think that this fast paste mechanism is taking us away from God is a serious question. Students are so much more engaged in multimedia than ever before. With that said the ability to see, and hear different christian artists, pastors, and authors on utube, and itunes is amazing. Technology is a door that can be open to so much more for students ability to see things in a new way. For small schools with restricted resources the use of tecnology is a gateway for creativity. Furthermore, it is the way students communicate. Most young adults don’t bring their bibles to church they bring their smart phones with their bible app. To engage young minds educators must relate to students in their world

  3. Larry,
    I think we have to do technology for two reasons, both of which enhance learning, classrooms, and faith walks.

    The first reason is this: technology empowers us to learn in the best possible ways. It empowers us to practice classroom techniques that we always knew were better, but impossible to manage in large classes and small budgets. This power to make something better with less resources in the story of this century and our classrooms need to reflect that.

    Second: technology is the way to world works today. Here is the best example of this that I can share. I teach at a school with one to one laptops. We get new teachers from the colleges that have no clue how to teach in our environment. They have Facebook and smart phones, but being on the other side of the table and leveraging these tools as the producer rather than the consumer is completely foreign to them. As Christians we know that everyone has something in them to offer the Kingdom of God. Literally each of us has some piece of the image of God that only we can share with the whole world. Technology is the way we produce this today, and as Christians we need to have our children expressing themselves and proclaiming the glory of God to a world in desperate need of that message.

  4. Tyler Knobloch

    I have practiced this tech-shift first hand. As a fairly “new” teacher (two years experience), I can easily relate to how the 21st century student learns. This day and age, students are so visual and hands-on in their daily lives outside of school, and they can’t change who they are inside of school. Technology is something that meets both of the needs of the students. I honestly believe our future will be so technologically driven that paper, pencil, and textbooks will be non-existent. I want my students to be able to use technology as much as possible because of this.

    I just see so much positive in the use of technology as a teacher that I wouldn’t ever revert back to the “good old days” of paper and pencil.

  5. Patrick De Jong

    Fantastic Article. This is precisely why I have been somewhat resistant to the expend vast amounts of our limited resources on technology when we have really addressed how it is to used. It is odd to me that outside to schools we have no issue of when and how we use technology but within school we try to box it. If technology is to be use to technologically replace the overhead I would ask why spend the money, use the overhead.
    However, if we are going to transform our delivery model and empower students to be become better learners through greater access and availability of information I would say, go for it.
    At MVCS we are attempting to teach students to become better at inquiry. Students are being intentionally taught to become better researchers. We want them more adept at researching things for themselves.

  6. “Augmented reality” is one name for the seamless computing experience where data is pushed to you intelligently or summoned as simply and naturally as opening a book or asking a teacher. As this happens, concerns about the harm of our digitally mediated reality will probably be less focused on the harm of distraction, lack of focus, loss of sociability and and eyestrain because those problems –due to primitive computing technologies like the PC– will have been solved.

    I’ve always thought Star Trek: The Next Generation modeled the future of human-computer interfaces because the devices they used were so efficient and practical, even the androids and cyborgs used them. Steve Jobs seems to have had the same idea.

    * Embedded voice controls for everything with a switch, knob, or a handle — doors, music, lighting and doors.

    * A small, mobile touch tablet computer for quiet individual writing, reading, and research that can be shared or collaborated on with others across a network. Usually the tablets are quietly perused with finger and thumb controls.

    * Most powerful of all, a realistically limited artificial intelligence you can tap for facts or analysis from a massive repository of data. By using it to focus group problem solving, you make the AI a partner in human learning.

    These were efficient and practical interfaces on Star Trek because they did not get in the way of the constants of individual and social behavior. They aided private thought and reflection as well as group problem solving, and they handled all menial tasks like service people would. The ship computer was also the invisible doorman, bellhop, and room service.

    Moving classrooms, homes, and workplaces in this direction will be a big improvement, but more serious problems will be worried about:

    * The dangers of a system failure.
    * The lack or deficiency of manual controls and non-electronic fallback control and information systems, especially as libraries discard most of their print collections.
    * The loss of knowing how to do without the ubiquitous machines.
    * A perceived lack of independent critical capabilities and “thinking outside the box” creativity among young people raised in an augmented reality.
    * Reading reduced to searching, skimming, browsing and gleaning — the final extinction of ponderous, meditative reading that’s been linked for thousands of years to the Classical and Judaeo-Christian experience of the transcendent.

    The last one concerns and interests me most. Sometimes the medium really is the message, or it inculcates a particular reading practice and a particular type of reading community. Relative solitude, silence, and focus on a *book* substituted for excursions into the wilderness and allowed a key discipline of the monastery to enter into common life and private space. Think Augustine, Luther and so many others. I imagine future generations looking at their civilizational past through thick glass, cut off from it on the level of shared experience. You can lose things by not teaching them anymore (classics, languages, penmanship) and by making them into relics of a dead technology.

  7. Paul Triemstra

    I am concerned about the extent to which we feel driven to integrate technology into our education. The technology is not neutral. It comes with a great deal of cultural baggage much of which is suspect from a gospel perspective, in my estimation. First, I would say that the technology is incredibly wasteful. It takes a great deal of energy and resources to manufacture this technology and its redundancy rate is increasing all the time. We should also be asking what the real cost of this technology is, not just the purchase price. To what extent has the cost been driven down by outsourcing the manufacturing to places where labour and environmental laws are much more lax? To what extent should we participate in this endless round of purchasing wasteful products? To what extent should we participate in an economy that is driven by such wastefulness?
    This gets to my second concern. We in our North American culture seem willing to subject ourselves to endless rounds of sales pitches. Because of the high redundancy rate of high technology, the sales pitches are ever more urgent. We might get left behind!! In such a context governments start to see their citizens as little more than producers and consumers. Ministries or departments of education see it as their role to ensure that schools graduate competitive producers and wealthy consumers of ever more products. There is more than a whiff of idolatry here. At the very least there is a “chasing after the wind.” To what extent do we want to participate in this consumerist extravaganza? To what extent do we want to encourage our students to be participants in it?
    Third, the world our children live in is vastly more mediated that the ones their parents and their grandparents grew up in. Our children and their parents spend a lot of time in front of screens and on phones or with ear phones on. Can this in any way be considered an advance in our appreciation or understanding of this world? Does this level of mediation increase or decrease our intimacy with and understanding of image bearers of God and God’s very good creation? This is not to say that the technology can enhance some understanding about God’s world. But what is the trade off? Would it be better to spend more of our time and resources getting closer to creation in unmediated ways?
    Fourth, consistent with our culture, the technology tends to emphasize speed and ease. Perhaps one of our jobs as educators should be to remind the students how much time it takes to produce something of real lasting value? Does the use of this easy and quick technology detract from that?

    Having said all that our school is not about to pitch out our computers and projectors. Our students live in this world and we are responsible to ensure that they acquire the skills necessary to navigate in this world in a faithful way. But I think we should have a much more developed philosophical framework before we subject ourselves and our communities to yet more sales pitches.

  8. I would like to pick up on the third item that Paul Triemstra mentions. The mediation of our culture by technology is a divisive thing. At a practical social level the exponential growth of the mechanization of technology segregates rich and poor, begging the question, how will Christian schools fill that gap? While technology seems to make life easier the history of the impact of technology on the dynamics of human society has been to separate us. Read any of the many histories on the impact of the industrial revolution and you will see that fact quite clearly illustrated. I think we can agree that we are living in the middle of a tech revolution. At the very least shouldn’t we take a look at what we know from the past and apply that knowledge to how we proceed? If there are studies on the integration of faith and technology I’d like to see them. (BTW the while I am a star trek fan I do not think Christian’s should accept the “Gaia” faith perspective that motivates the Hollywood producers of the show.) There are voices in our society right now that are saying that information technology is segregating us, economically, socially, and I would add spiritually to that list, at a much faster pace than ever before. While we can connect and “friend” other people very quickly the old proverb “a mile wide and an inch deep” applies to most of those connections. Anecdotally, my two teenage children prefer to loose themselves in their “I-book” world rather than interact directly with others. This begs the question, how should Christian interact with our culture? More importantly, how do we impact culture for Christ when the tools we use segregate us? Scripture suggest that we are meant to be counter-cultural, correct? You may see where I am going with this by now. If technology only brings us together at a superficial level, and if technology has an ultimate impact of causing social divisions, are we in the Christian school movement helping or hindering our students and children to find a deeper relationship with God and others when we adopt technology as the medium for education? Without some real effort at critical thought, and mitigation of the impacts of technology that history illustrates, and that our current experience validates, my original question remains unanswered, why “do” technology in Christian education?

    • Larry, I really appreciate your concerns here! Without tipping my hand *too* much for part 2 of this piece, I’d argue that you are exactly right when you assert that we are in the midst of a tech revolution. I would NOT advocate that every lesson we teach ought to have a technology component, but I do think we need to consider the world our students are living in. (Even when–and perhaps *especially* when–it’s one we don’t fully understand.) Teaching for discipleship in a tech-heavy world is a challenge, and one that we must not take lightly.

      I’m glad to see these sorts of questions being raised here! Hopefully they’ll spill over into the staff room at our schools as well.

  9. Loretta Anderson

    Thanks so much for this blog on technology. It caught my eye because “technology” has been a hot topic at conferences and in the staff room! I have really been thinking a lot about how we as a Christian school should be implementing the use of technology in our classrooms. I believe technology is a tool. Just like a match is a tool. A match can light a fire and be used in great ways: to cook food and keep warm. However, when used in wrong ways, it can do extensive damage. I believe that technology is the same. When used well, it can really enhance learning and provide great experiences for students. However, we all know that there is a lot of “junk” out there. “Youtube” has a lot of things on it that I never want my children to see. Facebook has damaged a lot of relationships and hurt a lot of feelings. The way teenagers now communicate is primarily through texting which means the way people are communicating is much different than ever. What I am suggesting that instead of concentrating so much on having the latest and greatest technology in our schools is that we don’t forget that we need to be teaching students HOW to use technology properly. I don’t think it is extremely important to teach them how to use it (because, believe me, they will learn without our help…sometimes they are the ones teaching us how to use it!) However, I think it is extremely important that we as teachers (and parents) teach our children to use technology is ways that are “lovely, pure and admirable”!

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