Friday, September 03, 2010

Responses to Questions on Technology and Schools

Responses to a questionnaire for a Spanish News Agency.



1. How are the new technologies revolutionizing education, especially at schools?

This is a very large question with no simple answer. It depends very much what technologies are being discussed and what school system is being discussed. As well, the impact of new technologies outside schools is having a pervasive impact within schools.

If I had to generalize (which I really hate to do, because there are always inherent inaccuracies) I would venture to say that new technologies are making schools more open. By that, what I mean is that the barrier between school and non-school has become much more permeable. What happens inside school has become much more public, and what happens outside school has had a greater impact in school.


2. In your opinion, which of the new teaching tools have produced more positive results or had a bigger impact on teaching?

This again is a very general question and depends very much on what we mean by ‘positive results’. A lot of people think ‘positive results’ mean ‘better test scores’, for example, and I’m not sure that any technologies produce better test scores, nor do I think better test scores are very worth pursuing. Generally by ‘positive results’ people mean something like ‘more learning’, but learning is not merely (or at all) cumulative, and far more important is a sort of learning that is balanced, adaptive, and conducive to a good life.

In that regard, the technologies most conducive to a good life are probably those that allow individuals to be expressive and creative. This is where the most learning occurs, and more importantly, where the best learning occurs. Expression and creativity presuppose a community or audience, and so social creativity probably produces the greatest benefits, whether they be open source software contribution sites, artistic sites like Deviant Art or Flickr, blogging and discussion sites, or repositories like YouTube or SlideShare.

Are these ‘teaching tools’? Your evaluation may vary. But they are certainly ‘learningf tools’, which in my view is more important.

3. Has active and visual-based learning and teaching proved to improve the learning level of students at schools?

This question suggests two different sorts of contrasts. On the one hand, it may be looking to define the difference in result between different schools of pedagogy, contrasting more traditional transmission-based and instructivist pedagogies with contemporary approaches such as discovery learning or constructivism. On the other hand, it may be seeking to differentiate between different learning styles, contrasting text-based or language-based (audio or oral) learning styles with visual or kinaesthetic learning styles.

By ‘learning level’, by contrast, I take the question to be referring to grades received by students, or test results, or some such evaluation.

The difficulty here is that different systems of student assessment measure for different types of learning. A typical testing regime, for example, may presuppose that learning just is text-based or language-based knowledge – the ability to recite formulas, names, dates, places, and perhaps poems. Materials based in visual learning styles or constructivist pedagogies will do little to improve such test results. But rather than conclude that these materials did not improve learning at all (which is sadly all too common) we may want to conclude that the testing was inappropriate for the sort of learning being attempted.

For this real, I prefer not to evaluate the effectiveness of learning technologies based on test results. The lessons learned might never appear on the test, yet may be far more important than anything that was tested. The ultimate evaluation of any system of learning is the quality of life enjoyed, all other things being equal, by the learner.

Do “active and visual-based learning and teaching” improve a person’s quality of life? Sometimes. And sometimes not. Is there a useful generalization we can make about them? No. Does this mean they are irrelevant in the individual context? Also no. For people who prefer active and visual-based learning and teaching, these are critical. For others, who prefer oral or text-based learning, content transmission, or direct instruction, active and visual-based learning and teaching may actually produce worse results. That’s why, in the end, what is most important is *personal* learning.

4. How can teaching materials be more effective by using new technologies?

It is most important, I think, to move beyond a conception of ‘teaching materials’. We typically think of new technologies as inert, like a book or an exercise guide. They may be things that are used or consumed by learners, but they are essentially static, products, things that can be created ahead of time, stored on a shelf, and applied as necessary.

This view is not an appropriate representation of new learning technologies. The best learning technologies are immersive. They create an environment in which a student learns. This environment may be a game or a simulation, or it may be a workplace, and arena or a social network. The idea is that the learner is placed within the environment, and then learns by interacting with entities and objects within the environment.

This creates a requirement of a dynamic, fine-grained and very reactive ecosystem of learning systems, communications, resources and supports. Instead of trying to design an entire system ahead of time, it is better to define a minimal framework and then let students, authors and automated processes fill out the details. This means that learning providers, instead of creating texts and workbooks ahead of time, work within this immersive environment and fashion resources and communications on an as needed basis, acting as models or examples for other participants within the ecosystem rather than providers of context learners are expected to memorize.


5. What is your vision of the school of the future?

I once created a diagram to answer this question.



The answer is: not a school at all.

The end point of new education technologies is that society as a whole becomes the ‘immersive environment’ I was talking about in the previous question.

What new technologies will enable is the possibility of taking education outside the school, to have children and young adults learn by participating in the functioning of social functions – everything from taking weather reports to creating community maps to documenting community history and more.

6 comments:

  1. In the past seven years of supply teaching, I have noticed an increase of technological tools in the classroom. There are more computers, laptops, SmartBoards, and digital cameras in the classroom. The equipment is increasing. There is better access to up-to-date resources that come from all parts of the world. Students and teachers do need to learn how to think critically when they view information found on the web. I would ask you to go to this website so that you can look at it critically: http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/.

    The students do still use textbooks for many of their subjects. I do think that in ten years, the textbooks will be web-based and interactive. The students don't have access to iPads or anything similar in the classroom yet.

    One problem with internet technology is not having access to different websites. In my school board, YouTube and FaceBook are not accessible. As a teacher, I do think that I can get a special account to access these sites. The students can't. Yes, there is a lot of garbage on YouTube. However, there is plenty of good stuff also.

    I don't think that formal schools will disappear are they are community centres where students learn to interact with each other. With improvements in technology, it won't matter as much that students memorize different information such as grade-four students memorizing the provinces/territories and their capitals. Yes, they will need to implicitly know them. It will be more important that they can explain the significance of particular provinces and major cities such as "Why is Vancouver important to British Columbia and Canada?"

    I do think that technology will make learning better for both students and teachers. Will it make us any smarter? I don't think so--at least not exceptionally smarter. I do think it will make us more creative in our learning as we can read information, watch videos, and input various kinds of data so that we can view and interpret the outcomes.

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  2. can you post a higher def picture of your drawing?

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  3. All versions of the drawing are available here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_downes/268691876/

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  4. I am particularly intrigued by the answer to the question about which of the new teaching tools has had more positive results on learning. Thank you for bringing up the fact that "positive results" don't always have to do with test scores. Test scores should not be the only measurement of what is successful in regards to learning tools. The idea of test scores being the only measurement of success for students has always bothered me. You mention a students' "quality of life" as being the ultimate measurement of success. To this I would definitely agree with you. If a student feels good about what they are doing and how they are doing it, then the end result should not hold as much weight.

    Technology offers many ways for students to engage and "put themselves out there." You mention being expressive and creative as being an important part of "positive results." To that I would add that while many students do enjoy being expressive and creative in a traditional classroom setting, many are very shy, and the online learning environment allows for these students to engage and still remain somewhat anonymous.
    You also distinguish the difference between teaching tools and learning tools. If students are learning who cares where the teaching comes from?
    The artwork that illustrates the idea of the school of the future is fabulous. With the advancement of technology, the "learning environment" of the traditional classroom can be expanded to include a mountaintop in Switzerland and underwater coral reef diving. Professional resources that can be consulted via the internet alone actually make the teacher's job to be one of guiding rather than instructing. HMMMMMMM>

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  5. Hm, I have to say that I appreciate your approach to technologies in the classroom. With all of the recent hype in the media about technology use in the classroom (esp. in the Toronto District School Board), I find that many educators today are getting caught up in the idea of finding ways to use technology in the classroom that they forget what they should be using it for (i.e. to help students learn). I think many of us today are mesmerized by the flashiness of these gadgets and we are trying just so hard to keep up with them. Is it enough to keep up? I don't know if that should be the goal (or whether that goal is even really possible today, considering how quickly these things change). I know that technological advancements help us to find faster and more exciting ways to do things, but sometimes...perhaps it would be best to consider that not everything needs to be done quickly or in a flashy way. I think, realistically, the lure of technology in the classroom is that it gets kids interested in the classroom. But then...are they really interested in the learning, or in the gadgets? Gah! How to tell?

    I like your comments about technology being "immersive" (ever-changing, constantly fresh and refreshed) aids in the classroom, unlike the static textbook that sits on the shelf for years until the new edition comes out with only superficial changes made. I suppose the appropriate question is....Is this immersive tool information overload for our students? Does putting the world at their fingertips take away something from their desire to explore/struggle/discover/think? If the answers and resources are never too far away, are we encouraging our students to be resourceful, rather than to be thinkers?

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  6. In response to the question regarding which new teaching tools have produced positive results, you state that by “positive results” people generally mean higher test scores. I totally agree that positive results stem more from creative expression and other areas that are conducive to a good life.
    Learning should not simply be measured by memorized material or a pre-existing set of criteria. Technological learning tools like YouTube and discussion sites provide an almost unlimited “class size.” To this I would also add that technology in the form of an online class allows for students who are perhaps introverted or lack confidence may gain confidence in a setting where the entire class is not looking at them. Students who would not participate in a traditional class setting are afforded the luxury of not being seen or even heard in some cases. Shyness, which is a personality trait that cannot be controlled, inhibits traditional classroom participation. Technology stimulates expression.
    In response to the question on what the school of the future will be like, you state, “not a school at all.” The picture actually says it all. A student in India learning about geography and a student in China studying history may participate in the same blog. The possibilities are literally endless. Technology allows students to be socially interactive with every aspect of what they are studying.

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