(Preamble: In this post, when I refer to students, I am referring to middle school-aged students in a rural-suburban area of Western, MA that I teach but I suspect that others may relate to my experience with regard to students and tech. use. I submit that students are NOT as tech savvy as most ed. tech enthusiasts would have us believe. The Digital Native Argument is alive and well but in my experience it is erroneous. After spending 3 years of my life as an Educational Blogger blogging about the need to change how we teach to accommodate ‘digital natives’, I have had to stop in my tracks and retreat from my position based on the real students before me. Their lives, experiences and even their interests were not in sync with the Digital Native Argument-a very seductive argument, indeed. So, here's my first blog post from the other side of the fence so to speak. With apologies to Marc Prensky whom I greatly respect.)
How do you make the case for technology integration?
How do you make the case for technology integration? Is it because kids are incessantly using technology, including many multifunctional mobile devices and they ‘demand’ that our pedagogical choices match their ‘digital learning style’ ‘in the 21st Century’? Are they really wired differently?
Most of what I read (and view) on the web regarding the why’s of tech use in education makes this argument. I’ll call it the Digital Native Argument. Videos are put up (copycat versions of original videos) that star ‘wise’, ‘tech-savvy’ children confronting an (apparently) ignorant non-tech using teacher. The claims are that kids spend countless hours immersed in media, texting, 'surfing', etc. and if teachers aren’t allowing them to do the same at school, they are out of touch and, well, ‘bad teachers’. These videos would have us believe that all this time spent doing media is all good. Unstructured, undifferentiated time but time well spent! Hmm.
Here’s where I fight a serious case of cognitive dissonance. I want to believe this is true. It’s tempting to believe in the past 9 or so years that students have suddenly and spontaneously evolved new brains; that they are wired differently and we should teach them accordingly. There is something to this but making blanket claims that ALL kids experience this type of engagement with technology all the time is simply untrue. That the time they spend using media is all ‘good’, ‘productive’ and ‘educational’ is seriously misleading, too. I know this is NOT true because I actually teach real, live, students not 'actors' on You Tube Videos repeating words scripted for them by adults. I teach in a technology lab. In the last 5 years, in a class of 20 students, maybe 5 have what I would call basic technological competence. They do not know the difference between a file, a software program or folder let alone the myriad uses and learning potential of blogs, wikis, podcasts and social learning networks. They do not know how to change the volume on a computer and they do not know how to do a basic Google search, let alone fire up a web browser other than Internet Explorer (to get to Facebook). Most, however, have handheld gadgets like cell phones or ipods and/or ipod touches. So, many otherwise technologically illiterate students have the ability to open i-Tunes and use it to sync music to their players.
When students do use technology, what do they use it for?
The middle-schoolers I teach (as did middle-schoolers 20 years ago) have one over-powering objective: socialization and connection with fellow friends and classmates. So guess why they love their gadgets? SO. THEY. CAN.CONNECT. WITH. EACH. OTHER. Once connected, they can spread the rumor about the pool on the third floor or the story about how Mr. Jensen tripped over a dry erase marker 3rd period. Or make plans to play or ride bikes. In other words, the majority of tech use by the majority of students is decidedly low tech. They are simply using tech to do what they have always done offline: connect, cajole, connive, and sometimes create. (future blog post). Mostly, students text or talk into a device that could be considered a tech device. Texting, of course is just typed talking. (Tsup? Nthn. Gowin 2 the game? Na. K. Cya. l8ter).
What’s the other thing students use technology for? MUSIC. Consuming (and making) music. Teens and music have always gone hand in hand. Thanks to technology, they can bring ‘their’ music with them wherever they go and 'share' with friends digitally (remember the mixtape?). There is an element of education and learning going on with all the music downloading and sharing which is encouraging and provides a good starting point for tech use in the classroom. We can examine how students find, download, consume and share music and use that as a model for how they can find, identify, examine, synthesize and share information related to our subject matter. Skilled i-Tunes use, however, does not qualify a student as a Digital Native. But, interestingly, the reason they have become skilled at i-Tunes use despite being decidedly technologically illiterate is that they want access to music and learning the basics of surfing, finding, downloading and syncing with i-Tunes had to be learned to get at it and then have it (music) as their own. Kids are fully and enthusiastically engaged in these processes. There is more to this which deserves another blog post but it illustrates the point that tech use is just a tool for achieving what students want. It's not about technology use for it's own sake. That is a good thing. We can learn from this. We adults DO get to caught up with the technology itself. In an education setting, tech use should rarely be about itself but about the subject matter at hand and increasing engagement and learning objectives through it's use.
So, how do you make the case for technology integration? I submit that one can justify technology use in the classroom for these reasons:
1- Cultural Competence
Technology is here to stay-both gadgets and software. It has become embedded in our social and cultural norms. Businesses are using technologies routinely and require tech. competency in a global climate. Individuals rely on personal computers and devices to absorb, synthesize and transmit information. As educational institutions we should be the ones teaching how to use technology for the highest possible purposes of investigating, researching, creating, thinking, reflecting, writing, documenting, connecting, collaborating, and remixing and synthesizing. In short: learning.
It is becoming increasingly evident without the need for the Digital Native argument that young people are truly engaged when they are using technology. Student engagement is the number one priority of any educational institution. Sadly, of course, it is lacking in many classrooms which look and feel irrelevant and outdated to young people (whether or not they use technology). Well planned technology use appears to be a cure for disengaged, "bored" students since having a hands-on experience using technology suddenly feels like the "real world" to students.
3. Individuation and Differentiation
I have written before that there is no such thing as a "class". And if a teacher actually utters those dreaded words, "Now class...." they immediately become Charlie Brown's teacher. No student sits in a classroom and identifies with the notion that they are part of this nebulous thing called a class. They are Julie, or Michael, Cesar or Alycia. And they want nothing more than to engage in activities that they can do as an individual...even if they might ultimately contribute to a larger group. Technology, makes this a reality for students-especially in 1:1 environments where students can complete tasks (learning objectives) using a computer, laptop or tablet PC. Once students are working on their own (individuation), we as teachers have the ability to differentiate learning activities as well depending on student capacity. The possibilities for differentiation using technologies are enormous and not limited to one mode (students can read, write, consume and create stories and media among other things).
FINAL WORD: Flip the Digital Native Paradigm
Our curricula and learning objectives should always drive our efforts at tech integration. Not the other way around. But, as teachers, we need to know what is out there. What website, software or app would enhance/enrich a student’s experience with your subject? We must always be on the lookout. Always learning (RSS feeds, anyone!).
We can be the Digital Natives for Education. We should stay ahead of the curve and know what’s out there and how it can best be used in our classrooms to support already existent educational aims, content and objectives.