New Technology and Old Thinking: Why Classroom Technology Falls Short

When teachers describe various classroom technologies, we often hear comments like, “it’s just like X only better,” with X describing whatever they are accustomed to. For example, a smartboard is “just like” a whiteboard, only better. In other words, we have installed an expensive, more complex, less durable whiteboard with an extra convenience or two. Many teachers will not even take advantage of the added features, feeling that the technology is too complicated, cumbersome, unreliable, or whatever, and the smartboard will end up being nothing more – and sometimes a little less – than a standard whiteboard.

There is plenty of blame to go around for failed classroom technology. Teachers may be unwilling or unable to integrate the technology, support departments may be understaffed or undertrained, network infrastructure may be inadequate, the benefits of the technology may not be matched to the intended outcome. The list goes on, but at the core is the simple fact that change is difficult and we prefer to continue doing things the same old way and continue thinking in the same old way. This is both a predictable and an understandable reaction. After all, what we have been doing has been working, more or less, and even if we admit that instruction could be better there is no guarantee that adopting a new technology will be the key. In fact, it is certain that no matter how well trained the teacher is, no matter what techniques and tools are applied, all instruction will fall short in some way and no amount of training, testing, regulation or funding will change that. Good teachers recognize the limits of the profession, but they also continually search for ways to increase the impact of education on their students.

I fully believe that most teachers are continually looking for ways to improve the effectiveness of their instruction and it is this relentless search that allows new classroom technologies to gain a foothold. But, without exploring the merits or failings of any specific technology, I submit that greatest hurdle for most teachers is not the technology itself, rather it is how we think about it and what our expectations for it are. I do not personally find most technologies to be that difficult. As a network administrator/electrician/teacher I see, configure, install, and use technology all of the time and I am comfortable with most of it. Still, I find that actually integrating this technology into my classroom is a real challenge.

This year, I have been experimenting with a couple of technologies that were, in my mind, simple and minimally disruptive to the sacred “how we have always done it” altar. I have increased my dependence on Moodle (I have been using it for a while, but this year I am delivering more content), I have adopted a pen display and projector in place of using a whiteboard, and I have been using Socrative for formative quizzing. In theory, all of these technologies are just electronic versions of standard classroom fare, but in practice, they have been more challenging.

Nearly every aspect of both my teaching philosophy and practice have been touched by these three “simple” tools. For a while, I didn’t understand why such seemingly small changes were creating so much work in order to be effective – isn’t technology supposed to make my life easier! What I failed to account for was the fact that technology represents a fundamentally different medium. It is as though I had been working with oil paint and switched to watercolor. One could argue that the end result is the same – a painting – but even a child recognizes that the character of an oil painting is very different from that of a watercolor. What I had been doing was like trying to make a watercolor look like an oil painting. No matter what you do, you can never get anything that looks better than a bad imitation. Does this mean that oils are fundamentally superior to watercolor? No. I simply mean that the two are different. They require different techniques and have different strengths and weaknesses. A portrait can be painted with either, but they will not – and should not – look the same even though they ultimately accomplish the same goal.

In the end, this means that sharing my inspiration with this new medium will require a lot of perspiration. It will require real commitment to acquire the right technique and to adapt content to take advantage of the most effective medium. What is more, as I begin to work with other technologies (collaboration, video, etc) I will likely find that each of these represents a different medium. It is a lot of work, but so far the feedback from my students is encouraging and feel more like an exploration tour than just a long, hard walk. As I explore, I am growing more convinced that I am on the right path and that each new technology will require teachers to adapt in order to take full advantage and I am confident that the vast majority of educators are up to the challenge. It’s time to commit and change the world.

Why I Love Formative Testing

Everyone hates tests, right? OK, maybe not everyone, but a certain amount of test anxiety is pretty universal. The anxiety stems from the fact that all of the work you have done, all of the study, and ultimately your success or failure in a class comes down to your ability to answer a few questions the way your teacher wants them answered. For a student, this means that there is a lot riding on the exams, in other words they are high stakes assessments. But what we generally think of when we say “test” only describes one type of evaluation, the summative assessment. Summative assessments are usually given at the end of a study unit and are typically high stakes since they are trying to evaluate whether or not you have successfully learned the material in the unit.

I realize that some kind of summative assessments must be done, but I don’t really like them. Summative tests tend to be classic written exams or papers (though other methods are occasionally used), which often do not effectively assess the student’s understanding or the effectiveness of the instruction, yet they are used to determine understanding and ability. Generally, it is assumed that the instruction has been adequate to prepare students, but I think we all know this is not always the case, and often, even in a rich instructional environment, students do not pick up on what the teacher feels is the most important (and, therefore, what ends up on the test).

Although I do not really like summative tests and find them to be imperfect at best, I do acknowledge a need for them; however, I believe that there should be many low stakes opportunities to evaluate progress along the way to that final evaluation. This is done by formative testing. Formative tests tend to be very low stakes (I try to make them just valuable enough for students to care) and are given throughout the study unit allowing both the teacher and the student to gain insight on both the effectiveness of the instruction and the depth of the developing understanding. Furthermore, formative testing allows several opportunities for the student to understand a teacher’s “testing style” allowing them to study more effectively. The best part is, formative testing can even be fun. While formative evaluations can take the form of quizzes and short papers, they can also be done with games, demonstrations, activities, etc. Even if the formative activity ends up being a quiz, these can be made more fun by using tools such as Socative or Kahoot to make the quiz more interactive and more likely to foster effective questions and discussions.

As I have gained a better understanding of both summative and formative testing, I find myself looking for opportunities to include formative exercises in my lessons. I believe doing so helps me to identify struggling students, unclear concepts, and ineffective instruction (and all teachers know some days are better that others) and better prepares my students for the “big” exam. I think all instructors owe it to their students to at least consider formative evaluations. To my way of thinking, formative testing makes the summative test easier (tests are only hard if you don’t know how to answer), guides improvement to my instruction, results in an overall better class experience, and leads to a higher success rate. Remember, when a student fails, neither the student nor the teacher look good. I like it when everyone can look good and I love having formative testing as a method of reaching that goal.

My Educational Philosophy

 

Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.
–John F. Kennedy

This post outlines some thoughts I have about education. I will likely add to and edit this list from time to time. My opinions are my own and have been developed over the last 20+ years of training apprentice and journeyman electricians, attending corporate training and taking college courses.

  • School is a prescribed amount of work that must be done in order to demonstrate “progress” and to receive advancement. It includes satisfactory performance in things like:
    • Attendance
    • Homework
    • Quizzes and Tests
    • Labs
    • Classroom Participation
  • School is a range of expectations that can be considered the minimum academic requirement placed on any student. The requirements of school are met by regurgitating what the instructor (or institution, governing body, etc) wants to hear – orally, “right answers” on tests, etc. It is a job that must be done if one wants to receive credit for education.
  • The goal of school is to bring about education, but progress and advancement can be achieved without engaging in significant education.
    • Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. –Albert Einstein
  • Opportunities for education (real learning) happen all of the time. To excel, one must embrace those opportunities.
  • Instructors can present information, explain, answer questions, coach, etc; but they cannot force the student to learn. Students must share responsibility for education with the instructor.
    • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. –Albert Einstein
  • No one knows everything and everyone knows something. Mutual respect goes a long way in the classroom.
  • Grades are not that important so long as learning has taken place. Forget about the medal and go for the win.
  • To understand a concept is more important than memorizing facts.
    • Education is not the learning of facts, but training of the mind to think. –Albert Einstein
  • Nearly anyone can be taught how to do a task. Proficiency requires development of skills that allow the task to be done well each time. Mastery requires that we know how to do a task, become proficient at doing it, and understand why we do it.
  • Programs and processes are created to serve people, not the other way around.
  • Enthusiasm is usually more important than ability. Enthusiasm will find ability, but ability will not always find enthusiasm.
    • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. –William Butler Yeats
  • It is important to balance knowledge with creativity. All of the knowledge in the world cannot solve a problem until someone imagines a solution.
    • To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. –Thomas A. Edison
  • Assessment can take many forms (tests, essays, presentation, demonstration, etc), but before the assessment can take place, one must decide what one wants to assess.  For example, understanding is often assessed with a written test. In some cases this is the best method, but one might also allow a demonstration, project or portfolio. Any method is fine as long as it can actually assess that learning has taken place. Too often, we are satisfied when a student simply demonstrates the ability to complete the assessment (usually a written test) without bothering to confirm that they have learned.