Leveraging Technology to Transform Education
Is it Magic or is it Technology? Enchanted Spaces and Enchanted Objects was the focus of Karlen Chang’s presentations at the recent Toronto Mini Maker Faire (2014). His company creates situations that provoke social emotional relationships between technology and people, through things like his interactive kinetic sculpture, and his sound-sidewalk that plays like a piano. His presentation reminded me of the relationship that many face with technology (Mixmotion.com, 2014). For some it brings a sense of wonder and possibilities, while for others it brings a sense of fear and worry.
After watching this presentation, and thinking more on the ideas of digital fluency, I began to rethink how digital technology could be better leveraged to transform the relationships and roles of learner, teacher and content.
Students, teachers, parents, administrators and politicians, generally all want to see improvements to education. While each of these perspectives is not necessarily unique, they do bring elements that are distinctly their own, which in turn can affect the speed of reform. Educational reforms and practices appear to be evolving at a slow pace, encumbered by tradition, a rigid curriculum, red tape, special interest groups, various perspectives, and a general lack of understanding of what the future goals of education should be.
Technology itself, is changing at an exponential rate. People sometimes fear technology as they become more dependent on it. While we need to consider technical, social, informational and epistemological features, the possibilities technology provides for education are almost limitless.
In this paper, I hope to explore how digital technologies can be best leveraged to transform education, examining digital fluency and issues regarding the fear of technology in our society.
In much of our world, we have a traditional industrial model of education (Robinson, 2006). Students are lumped into age specific categories, put into rows, in classes, with one teacher at the front. In Ontario, there is a Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum, with little mention of digital technology. Standardized tests are used to make sure that curriculum standards are being met, along with teacher written report cards. While there is discussion around 21st century learning skills, there is little implementation at this stage in classrooms, as our educational institutions have not reached any consensus about the meaning of 21st Century learning. Students often use personal devices ubiquitously outside the classroom, but the utilization of personal devices in classrooms to support learners (BYOD) is often classroom specific. School computer labs can be used, but sometimes are not large enough to house an entire class or are hard to access due to time limitations. In many schools, there are structural issues, such as space or the age of the building, that impede the use of technology effectively (Graham & Richardson, 2012). At my own school, there is limited access to electrical outlets, and the cost of adding more is expensive (~$1000 for one).
To move effectively into a 21st Century learning model, there are a number of problems that need to be overcome. How can digital technology be used to influence transformational change in learner-teacher-content relationships from traditional to those of 21st Century learners, given technological issues, anticipating future societal needs and expectations through the lenses of all interest groups? Can e-pedagogy/e-andragogy meet 21st Century individual needs of learners to help them into the future? Can we move to more Techno-pedagogical competency? Can we use technology to make sure that there is accountability in learning opportunities? Can we use this technology to address social injustice? Can we use technology to reduce resistance to itself in education? So many questions, with varying answers.
In examining these questions, there appears to be a lack of focus about technology in education and fear about its use.
At Provincial Schools several years ago, my students participated in active research on Reading Fluency for comprehension (Sickkids, 2014). Fluency was being examined as a measure of comprehension. Students sounding out words will not have the same comprehension as those with strong sight vocabulary. While I enjoyed studying French in highschool, I found I could not think in French. I had to think over my words in English and then translate them into French. I may be somewhat literate in French, but I will never be fluent, unless I fully immersed myself into the French culture.
While Wang, Wiesemes, and Gibbons (2011), suggest that digital fluency is a “developmental process” where a user develops their understandings through personal interests, purposes and the limitations of their mobile devices in their setting, I believe that this can be the case for all types of technology as well. Learners and teachers alike can become digitally fluent in the competencies of educational technology including the use of hardware and software, the ability to efficiently retrieve information, to interact with others online, and to be able to create online problem solving opportunities (Desjardins, Lacasse, & Bélair, 2001).
If our society set a goal for all of our teachers and learners to become “Digitally Fluent”, we are more likely to see a transformation in the roles that the learner, teacher and the content play in education. The line between learner and teacher would blur, as the learner would be the teacher at times, and the teacher a learner. The content would shift along with the learner. Thinking about the SAMR Model, digitally fluent teachers would be able to more easily see opportunities for redefining learning with technology, than the more typical substitution practices that are often seen in classrooms.
To help support learners to reach technology competency, individual/ differentiated learning opportunities need to be put into practice. Kitchenham (2006) who looked at transformative learning theory examined the development of teachers in education with respect to technology. He found that the four main factors that supported this “perspective transformation” were: “collaboration on all levels, administrator support, time practising ICT skills and strategies, and funding targeted in consistent ways the teachers saw as important.” He also noted that “the presence of a gauleiter (someone who is authoritative, overbearing, and megalomaniacal), an absent or weak infrastructure, and administrator pressure to engage in ICT for reasons other than the promotion of student learning” negatively affected this transformational process. The “EdCamp” model, recently gathering in Peterborough, Toronto and Barrie (September, October 2014), might be an excellent way to facilitate that, allowing staff to choose what they want to learn. This model might help to motivate more students to utilize technology for learning as well.
As part of this digital fluency goal, technological criteria could added to the criteria used for hiring new staff. Universities could ensure that all teacher candidates were very technologically competent, as opposed to making technology an elective.
A big obstacle of educational transformation by digital technology is fear of technology, by educators, learners and society in general. In considering fear, we have to consider factors that might affect teachers and learners more specifically, and what might help them move towards digital fluency.
Mordini (2007) in his paper, “Technology and fear: is wonder the key?” discusses how humans have long been afraid of new technologies throughout human history. He shares the story where people were once afraid that light bulbs might blind them. In 2012, a number of teachers in Barrie were concerned about health risks with respect to wifi in schools. Even though health units and scientists have indicated low risk with wifi, it remains a fear for some teachers and families as reported in media (Brown, 2012). Mordini (2007) observes that people respond better to technology when narratives are used to help integrate it into their culture and society, addressing “symbolic meanings, rather than relying on pure rational arguments.” To combat the fear, he suggests using wonder and curiousity as well.
In investigating “wonder”, I found one article that examined wonder as a learning approach in contrast with behavioural approaches. L’Ecuyer (2014) stated that “learning would start from within…”. In this approach, she also notes that repetition is not necessarily better for the learner. Ecuyer made me think further on the anthropological ideas of nature versus nurture, where learning is based on the internal workings of a person, and influenced by a person’s surroundings.
Gupta et al. (2012), states that we need to examine our relationship with technology as we become more dependent upon it. They suggest that sometimes we are influenced by what we perceive as threats, and not what is really risky. Other researchers have also reported that computer anxiety adversely affects the using of technology and can include avoidance of use (Sivakumaran and Lux, 2011). I know that I have met a number of teachers that avoid technology use as much as possible, saying that they don’t like it. While I understand that school technologies are not always accessible and reliable, I have recognized anxiety as a factor.
Societal fear of technology is also a factor. Technology has to be seen by all as a tool that supports and enhances learning. It is not just a fad. It has to be seen as a way to improve the future prospects of individual students. This also has to be seen as measurable. Hopefully, it will be seen as something less fearful.
To get things started, big technology based pilot programs could be done and the results shared, so that eventually it would spread to all. Advertisements by ‘big’ names in the technology world, such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, or Bill and Melinda Gates, could use social media, digital media, online learning opportunities, and provide funding. They could also help create community technology spaces, including Makerspaces and they could showcase technology related events, such as Maker Faires.
Availability and accessibility of resources still need to be addressed in this model. Crowdsourcing to get funding for schools at low or no cost to the province or school boards; a massive reuse and recycling program to get more technology into schools, complete with tax credits; leveraging free opportunities through open-source, free web 2.0 tools, and utilizing and supporting Creative Commons (based on discussions with UOIT peers, 2014).
Beyond Digital Fluency
As we move towards digital fluency, other issues such as the use of standardized testing and the social divide could be addressed more readily.
Authentic assessment would be done in the form of digital games, which would accurately measure student performance, share results with families and schools, and would engage, not stress the learner. Assessment would be ongoing, and throughout the year as students were learning new concepts. These games would be programmed to consider learner experiences, to make connections with them, and remove biases based on lack of understanding by lack of experiences. Serious Educational Games or Digital game based learning, “can allow learners involved in the game to accomplish specific learning goals and learn effectively” (Chen et.al. 2012). We would also need to advocate for a culture that values more than marks as part of this process.
Ideally, education should meet the needs of all learners – whether teachers or students. It would meet Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (McLeod, 2007) for learners – allowing for “cognitive needs”, “aesthetic needs”, “self-actualization needs”, and “transcendence needs”. Students/teachers could think critically about their own learning and set goals for themselves. This could be accomplished more effectively with technology, though it is important that pedagogy and technology work together, and that technology does not come before the pedagogy (Graham & Richardson, 2012).
Connecting with the world outside could see the creation of Educational Learning Centres, where the community could share the resources at the school to facilitate the technological proficiency of the community members and increase their acceptance. It could also lower social divides.
The traditional role of teacher-student-content would be significantly altered with the use of technology allowing many possibilities. Self-directed learning using mobile devices, elearning, blended learning, flipped learning and other forms of evolving education models, allow the teacher to be a facilitator of learning. Students become directors of their own learning, and the content becomes more personalized, meaningful and connected. We can use digital technology to influence transformational change in learner-teacher-content relationships from traditional to those of 21st Century learners, by setting goals to be digitally fluent, addressing technological fears, and supporting educators and students. Hopefully, the educational world will look at things through technological lenses of wonder.
Thank you to my course group, Bridgette Atkins, Colin Ng, and Andrew Peacock, along with my classmates, and our professor, Francois Desjardins, for their thought provoking ideas and discussions which contributed to this paper. Additional thanks to my reviewer, Alissa Bigelow, who gave numerous ideas in a thoughtful and supportive manner.
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