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What is the purpose of educational technology?

I am reading Larry Cuban’s book, Teachers and Machines from 1986.  In the book he calls instructional technology “any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher’s voice.” (p. 4).  Now, having read other works by Cuban, I believe he may be setting up a straw man argument – time will tell.  Yet, the definition got me thinking.

I like the definition because it expands our view of educational/instructional technology far beyond digital tools.  Knowing that technology expands beyond electronics is an important aspect of technological literacy.  However, I find the goal of efficiency problematic.  I am hard-pressed to think of a context in which I believe student learning should be efficient.  Let me rephrase: If students are actually learning, the process is not likely very efficient.  Learning is difficult, contextualized, and unpredictable.  These characteristics do not often come to mind when I think about efficiency.

Cuban also notes that the technology can aid in “stimulating” students.  I prefer the word “engaging”. We must ask ourselves “with what are students engaged?”

This morning, my science methods students were highly engaged in an activity in which they had to make a clay boat to float marbles.  They were using higher-orders of thinking, they were working collaboratively and being creative – all worthwhile goals.  However, when I asked them what they had learned about sinking and floating, they clearly saw they had learned nothing.  We referred to this as “activity-mania”.  While hands-on science activities are great, the teacher must take great steps to encourage students to mentally engage with the science principles.  Otherwise the kids have a lot of fun, but don’t actually learn anything about the science content.

In the above paragraph, my methods students were not engaged with science content, but they were engaged.  To identify this subtlety takes a very critical eye.  We must turn this eye on the engaging effects of technology.  We have to admit that students might be engaged with the technology without being engaged with the content we are attempting to teach.  If student engagement is with technology rather than content, we have likely undermined student learning rather than enhanced it.

If efficiency and engagement are both problematic uses of technology, what might the purpose be? Ira Socol has taught me about how technology can provide access where access was once limited or non-existant.  For example, a student who cannot read did not have access to certain kinds of information – but audiobooks and digital audio readers have opened many closed doors. Yet, what purpose might instructional technology carry for teachers?

I have found my favorite use of technology is to make students’ thinking more transparent.  That is, I can use technology to gain greater access to students’ ideas and interpretations.  When my students have a discussion on twitter, I can revisit the discussion later – giving myself time to reflect on what students might be missing or how I might help them make a missing connection. When my students blog, I can pour over their writing and examine the comments they leave for each other.  When they create concept maps using mindmiester.com, I can see how they connect disparate ideas.  Yet, I could do each of these things without the use of computer technology.  So what is the purpose?

I am left with making each of those things easier to document, access, and share.  The technology makes something easier, but it does not make them better.  None of the things mentioned above will help my students learn content better than a 20th century version of the same task (ex: making a concept map on paper is not less beneficial than making one on mindmiester).

So as far as student learning and thinking are concerned, it really isn’t about the technology. What an interesting conclusion.

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Author : chazrich

Charles is an English for Special Purposes (ESP) instructor for the US Government with experience in computers, technical writing, design, and of course, English instruction and with a Master's degree in Technology in Education. Charles can help you with a variety of things like copy writing, planning, and technology selection. He has experience with various LMS and LCMS systems and can help you decide if one is right for your needs. He's also the webmaster for this site.

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