The Reflective Educator

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What are the characteristics of properly used technology in a mathematics or science classroom?

Here is a question posed in my class this week.

What is a good use of technology in the math and science classroom? What would such a learning experience and environment look like? What would be some characteristics of what it is and what it isn’t?

Here are my thoughts in no particular order.

  • The technology is being used seamlessly in the lesson. Students do not need to spend 5 or more minutes learning the technology because they know how to use it already. This means that new technologies should be introduced separately from their use if possible, or be so easy to use that they require no special instructions
  • Technology should be used to provide simulations or examples which are either difficult to do in real life, or time-consuming. Its purpose should be to demonstrate an idea or help handle repetitive tasks as part of a bigger picture
  • If it is possible and easier to use a non-technological solution to presenting some information, this should be used as experiences grounded in what the children know are preferable (see constructivism).
  • Use of technology to facilitate communication that is above and beyond what is normally possible in the classroom is also an example of an acceptable use of technology. This can be used to extend instructional time outside of the classroom, by providing a classroom blog for instance for students to post questions, comments, and summaries of what they have learned.
  • The people implementing the technology (the teachers or instructional aides) need proper training first, no technology should be implemented by people who are not experts in the technology first. Otherwise, when problems occur, valuable instructional time will be lost when the teachers/aides cannot fix the problem quickly.
  • The technology needs to work without too many major bugs, it needs to be easy to use, and it should run quickly.

A good learning activity would have students using a web applet, for example, or a simple desktop application to run a simulation, and then analyze the data given by the simulation to come to some conclusions about what they have seen. Students would be engaged not by the technology, but by the simulation itself.

I guess that the use of technology should not be simple because it exists, but because it is much easier or less time-consuming than trying to make the same discovery using non-technological tools. I feel like under these circumstances, technology can actually be a useful replacement for a real-life experiment. It could also be useful if an experiment can be done under ideal circumstances in a simulation, and then confirmed in the less than ideal real world

One of my colleagues in the class, Tris says pretty much the same thing.  He gives some different examples though which are worth mentioning.  Specifically:

  • This could be by extending or enhancing a students understanding of an area of content (using a computer simulation or model)
  • speeding up a process (using a graphing calculator to graph functions rather than pen and paper)
  • improving a students grasp of basic concepts (using a computer game [to] memorize timestables)
  • increasing the number of learning styles or intelligences being addressed in the classroom, or reducing the cost of education (making content available online rather than purchasing textbooks – this being a hypothetical argument assuming no copyright issues)

– Tris (posted in the ETEC 533 discussion forums)

His ideas pretty much mirror mine, but I’m including his examples because it provides more ways of using technology in a thoughtful way. I particularly liked how refers implicitly to Howard Gartner’s multiple intelligences theory as a reason for using technology, which I think is excellent. Pretty much every teacher has noticed that students learn differently, and that providing multiple forms of representation of the material you are trying to cover is going to benefit your students. I’ve noticed that my use of daily classroom summaries seems to have helped reduce the gap in achievement between my ESL students and my other students. I should do some research to see if this actually the case, or if I am just imagining the gap closing.

Ian, another of my classmates agrees with me in one point, so I’m going to quote him here, since he says it better than me.

"Ironically, the use of technology in classroom teaching should endeavor to focus as little as possible on the technology as possible…" – Ian

A photocopier.This is a good observation to make since so often it seems technology is just used because it exists. If we think of older technologies, we can see that the ones that have been successful have followed this credo. I’m thinking of the overhead projector, a word processor running on a PC, the photocopier, etc… none of which people think of as "fancy technology" but which have made an enormous improvement on our profession. Can anyone imagine a school with no word processors, no photo-copiers and no overhead projectors?

 These old technologies are just seeing a resurgence in their development actually because of the green environmentalist wave that is sweeping across our society.  So maybe they aren’t so taken for granted as I think…

 What new technologies do we see in use today will become the norm for classrooms for the future?  Is every classroom going to have a smartboard?  Every student with a tablet PC?  Are wireless interfaces going to change the way we interact with technology?  I think the answer is that the same properties that made the older technologies (like a photocopier) so useful are going to be the properties which determine which technologies survive for the future.