Friday, February 6, 2009

Technology & Education: Article Assessments

For the technology component of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Alaska Southeast we read several articles about the use of technology in the school environment. These articles, which I review below, were both thought provoking and informative and raised interesting questions about the place of technology in the classroom.

Article 1: The Overdominance of Computers by Lowell W. Monke

The focus of Monke's thoughtful and incisive piece is the rethinking of the notion that technology should play a central role in education simply because that technology plays such a central role in modern society. Monke points out that the realm of the computer is a "purely symbolic environment" in which users work "with abstract representations of things, never the things themselves." While these synthetic models most certainly have value for organizing and working with data and concepts, they also separate the learner from the concrete world which they are studying. This is, in both Monke's and my own view, problematic when we consider the extent to which today's youth are already engrossed in digitally synthesized environments when they interact with their peers and play. Monke cites a study showing that the current generation of elementary age students have 30% less face to face interaction than their peers in previous generations. Given the importance of face to face interaction in learning and developing positive relationships with others and the world around them, this statistic is troubling.

Having seen that the current generation of students already spends much of their life immersed in digital environments, the challenge of education becomes not to further inculcate students in the use of technology but rather to balance technology's use with real world learning, hands on activities, and personal interaction. This is especially true when we consider that technology is, by itself, neither a positive nor a negative force. Before students learn to interact in the impersonal, abstract digital world we need first to help them develop firm foundations in what really matters in education:
  • Positive and caring relationships with both peers and adults.
  • An understanding and appreciation of the natural world, its processes and inherent value.
  • Hands-on, physically engaging, and in-depth exploration of the core subjects (mathematics, science, history, language arts, etc.)
  • Creative thought and expression, tempered by respect and responsibility towards others.
  • Critical thinking, introspection, and reflection.
To rephrase Monke, the essential guideline for technology use in the classroom is that its use should be limited to those situations where it provides, in a way that other resources cannot, genuine opportunities for in-depth exploration and analysis of the content being studied. To use technology simply because it is so prevalent in modern society shortchanges students by introducing a layer of abstraction that is in many cases unnecessary and distracting. In short, technology needs to be balanced with traditional learning, face to face peer interaction, and hands on instruction. Technology can be appropriately used when it genuinely enriches the curriculum and once students have a firm foundation in both the subject matter and the underlying values of respect, compassion, and responsibility.

Article 2:
Assistive Technologies for Reading by Ted S. Hasselbring and Margaret E. Bausch

Modern schools are founded on literacy. Books and other written materials are a wonderful storehouse of knowledge and the written word remains the most prevalent means of retaining and passing on knowledge. Given this reality, the ability to process written material -- to read and write effectively -- is essential for success in the academic environment of today's schools. However, statistics cited by Hasselbring and Bausch show that about 10% of U.S. students have learning disabilities and as many as a further 80% of these students "have reading problems so significant that they cannot read and understand grade-level material." Nearly half of these students spend most of their time at school in inclusive classrooms where the required reading is far above their own level. Traditionally teachers would have made accomodations and provided learning disabled students with text at their own level. This had the positive effect of enabling all students to access similar materials, but the readings and information would, of course be different and the exact material could not be matched. Now, however, new technology may enable learning disabled students to access the same reading material as their peers.

The most practical technology for inclusive classrooms is perhaps text-reader software, which uses computer synthesized speech to read aloud highlighted sections of texts, allowing the reader to follow along with the specific words and phrases being read. Use of this system requires that schools have access to computer-readable school texts. Hasselbring and Bausch reference the success of text-reading programs in Kentucky schools, where learning disabled students have made significant gains in reading and writing skills and where the state has made accomodations to testing whereby learning disabled students are able to use assistive technology when taking state assessments. Students also appear to show greater improvement using text-reader software than they do when teachers simply read aloud to them, perhaps because the software allows students a degree of independence they would otherwise not have. Combined with skilled teaching, accomodation, and supportive parents, technologies like text-reader software have the potential to make grade level reading materials accessible to more and more students. As the technology improves, it will be interesting to see how schools and teachers incorporate it into the classroom to make learning accessible to everyone.


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