Technology & Information

I received this comment the other day on a recent weblog called Our Schools are Leaking. Rather than burying another comment in there, I thought I would just comment here in a separate article, because what this writer says is quite important.

Interesting thoughts. There is no question that kids are connected these days. I teach high school in a small rural Kansas town. All of our students have lap tops and the whole school is wirelessly enabled. I’m intrigued by this idea that all of this access means that our students want to learn with technology….

I’m going to break in here and rant just a bit. This is not aimed directly at the commentor, but at all of us. We have been so focused on “technology” that we have a sense of two worlds: a classroom that integrates technology and one that doesn’t. Now this limiting mentality isn’t a part of our planning and deep discussions about modern teaching and learning. However, when we use phrases like “integrate technology“, it implies that the focus should be on the tool, and less on the curriculum, content, or outcomes.

Alan November describes this well, when he distinguishes between automating and informating education. The difference to me is that automating is simply swapping out the old tools for the new, without really changing the process, while informating focuses more on the information. To put my twist on it, informating means reflecting on the changing nature of information, and then adapting what and how we teach and learn to the new information environment.

Let’s get back to the comment.

I teach high school math. Most of my efforts to integrate technology into real learning activities has been trial and error. When I asked my classes today what they had done on their computers in the last year that really helped them learn – none of them could come up with a single thing. Was interesting. I thought we had done several things that would help them – they don’t see it that way. It was an eye opening discussion for me. Kids are connected more than ever, and they like it. They want to be connected. Trick is, using for learning, not just recreation.

I want to respond to this idea. I do not know the author of the comment or the classes he is describing. But the idea intrigues me. I have to say that I am not surprised that the students could not itemize what they have learned using technology. In fact, in my humble opinion, if they could itemize their learning, then we probably aren’t integrating the technology to its fullest potential.

It’s like vacation. When you were young and went to the beach or mountains on vacation, could you have listed things that you learned while playing in the sand dunes or along the mountain trails. Yet, in your adulthood, you know that you learned a great deal during these activities of exploration. Now I’m not saying that technology use in the classroom should be a vacation. It should, however, be play. The key is getting students to play the information. If you prefer, you can say “Work the information,” but it’s all the same. When kids are interacting with the information, then they will learn.

The idea that all kids will learn better outside the container is as silly as the idea that all kids used to learn well inside the container.

True enough. Again, it isn’t either/or. I’m saying that we need to punch some holes in our containers so that the tentacles of our students growing attention stream (their computers, mobile phones, IM, etc.) can freely extend out into the world that we are teaching them about, within the context/container of curriculum. But grant them enough freedom to learn by playing the information environment.

If you are teaching history, then visit an online museum, and IM or even speakerphone one of the curators with questions. In math, find someone in your community who uses math skills that you are teaching, and IM or speakerphone them periodically. Go out on the Net and find authentic data for your students to calculate, and then have them write up conclusions and publish them in print or online. It’s about the information, not the technology. It’s about taking advantage of the networked and digital nature of information.

4 thoughts on “Technology & Information”

  1. Back before Katrina & the start of school twisted my head around a few times, I had a little rant of my own that we need to stop with “integration of technology” buzzword junk. It’s overused and has completely lost it’s meaning.

    David, let me build off your last thought. “It’s about taking advantage of the networked and digital nature of information.” I guarantee that WalMart doesn’t get together and pat itself on its back about how it “integrates technology into the checkout isle” of your local supercenter. Like it or hate it, WalMart is in that position because of technology. Spend some time understanding Thomas Friedman’s description of what it means to be a global supply chain. From the RFID tag tracking of merchandise to the headphones in the ears of forklift drivers reminding them where they are in relation to their hourly quota of moving x and y. Getting beyond the tired notion of “integrating technology” is what sets WalMart apart from everybody else that sells stuff.

    More alarming, but equally as powerful, is when Friedman points out the extent to which Al Queda is a networked, global supply chain. Want to talk about “taking advantage of the networked and digital nature of information”? It’s rough to tag terror as “success”, but here’s another group that goes beyond the notion of “integrating technology” and makes their mission successful based on understanding and using digital information, not the technology.

    Enough. You get the point. We need to get beyond “integration of technology” and just start using it. We are only hurting ourselves when we talk about technology like it’s extra credit.

  2. We are pilot-testing software for teachers to help them get out of the “container” that you mentioned. From my experienece, I think part of the problem is that the container is known, safe, and provides a barrier to change that could disrupt the already hectic classroom life of an educator. The students are already punching holes in the container, however. The digital network is becoming so pervasive in our world (and the US is incredibly far behind countries like S. Korea and Japan) that the “leakiness” that you describe is going to be an all out break in the dam in just a matter of time.

    Disruptive technologies are disruptive because they generally grow from the bottom up – the user is influenced by those in his immediate network usually by word-of-mouth. Employing a top-down policy of enforcing a contained classroom is doomed in my opinion.

  3. Great comment, Paul. I do agree that the leaks could break wide open. We underestimate the capacity that the kids have for affecting change. Just consider IM-Speak. They invented this brand new grammar in just a few year — in mass collaboration. This is an unparalleled feat. What if these kids decided, in mass, to simply stop paying attention to us. What if they decided to stop playing school?

    I fear that this is the nature of the deadline we face.

  4. I think that kids _want_ to pay attention, however. There are a number of outlets for the freeflow of information but as yet, nothing quite puts that in context like the direction of an educator (and I will extend that term to include parents). If anything, the wonderful tools that are at our disposal will increase our apprehension in a world inundated with information if the internal filters for what messages should be pursued, what messages should be questioned, and what messages should be ignored are not strengthened. That happens at school. But walk into a classroom where the leader, the teacher, is clueless to the new “appendages” that a student has (cell phone, pda, laptop, _knowledge_ of blogs and web-based social networks) and my bet is that students will not take that leader seriously. It would be as though I never looked at you as you were speaking to me. But walk into a classroom where a teacher is prepared not only to ackknowledge those “appendages” but show students how to use them in entirely new ways, and pushes them to do so – well then we might have a recipe for success in creating an entirely new substrate for learning.

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