How are computers in the classroom really doing?

By , posted on Monday, November 22nd, 2010 at 11:31 am. Modified on Monday 22nd November, 2010 at 1:53pm.

This weekend, I was hit by two interesting finds in my Twitter feeds. The first takes a look at what the Alberta Teachers Association – ATA –  (via @joe_bower) thinks needs to be changed to get computers in the classroom to “actually do something (my words)”. The second is a comment from Alan Kay who goes over some points as to how computers in the classroom have actually failed. Looking to Alan’s points first. He likens what has been done with computers in the classroom to people playing Guitar Hero – players experience the fantasy of being able to play, but in reality learn nothing. Going further,he is frustrated that schools, and society at large have yet to really make use of the technologies made available through the computer to be intellectual amplifiers, rather it seems that computers, specifically consumer computer technology has essentially become the “next legal drug”. Kay suggests that evidence for this can be had if you take a look at how education, which is supposed to (in his interpretation) create a sophisticated voting public, has not been able to deliver on its mission. It seems that many of his frustrations are around the inability of those involved in any given stage of the computers in education process to focus on the curriculum.

The ATA, in its new report looks at changing from the “new chalk” approach that has seen new technologies be used in old methods to shifting to a more problem based curriculum that might encourage new ways of teaching out of necessity. The use of technology to merely create and process more administrative data is also called into question, as it seems to enable the conservative nature of education rather than encourage its ability to change. Technologies in the classroom should be used to create knowledge that is unique to each student and emergent of the situations that the student is presented with as opposed to funneling student responses into a standard score. Finally, it looks at something that the University Academy has started to realize now as well, the distinct and often fiercely independent disciplinary domains of knowledge that have been used for the past hundred years or so are indeed part of the problem and should be revised to recognize the connections rather than the distinctions.

All this was certainly interesting reading. I found that Kay was a bit too gloomy, and the ATA, a bit too optimistic. For my money, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I would love to be able to read more about what Kay has done with respect to technology integration, as a trade article is not really representative of his body of work (I think the only reason it came to light is because of the iPad/Dynabook comparison). I also hope that in some way I can help to effect change within the province and bring forward what some of the ATA has said. There is hope on that front. We now have some schools that are open year round, something that only took perhaps decades. The change of curriculum from Bio/Phys/Chem to Science to the Art of Science hopefully can be done in less time. I think it would be really cool if by the time that my daughter and her cohort hit Div II, that they only have three subject – Art of Science, Science of Art and Human Motion.

Edit: And of course, at it often happens, later in the day, I find another interesting resource that talks about the same thing – this time Mashable‘s take on how computers are helping in Education – part of their Education Tech Series. Some of the points, specifically when it comes to Kay vs Mashable, I would say that with the exception of ebooks and more efficient assessment, Mashable’s list is pretty good. Showing how computers have been used to extend the capacity of students to be able to take in and manipulate data and then synthesize it in novel ways and with others who are not physically in the same location. I would however have to agree with Kay with regards to this list. These examples are the exceptions, not the rule when it comes to computers in the classroom. Even though every school in a district may do the same thing, without the ability or structure within the school and the society within which it exists, students are not really using the computer for what it could do. They are jumping through hoops to meet a standardized assessment (hence not agreeing with all the Mashable points) and only providing the impression that they are capable, ala Guitar Hero. Some students are of course going to be able to transfer the skills and knowledge in spite of the school and the society, but these are few and far between. So perhaps the next question should be… do we really need all students to understand computing and the ways and means that it can extend capacity in the same manner?

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