Technology is not a teacher

In a crowded classroom, students are playing an interactive web simulation to reinforce math concepts. Each time they answer a question correctly, they are allowed to progress within the game. My colleague and I squeeze between desks to watch the students work.

After the classroom observation, my colleague asks how I would describe the activity in terms of the ISTE Standards.

“Using models to understand complex concepts,” I reply.

“I didn’t put anything,” he says, “because I actually watched the simulation.”

The weakness of web tutorials

What my colleague had observed was that when students got a wrong answer, the game let them try again once. Then it gave the correct answer and moved on, even if the student had not succeeded. Those who were poor at math but good at interpreting machine behavior realized that the most efficient way to play was to avoid engaging with the problems and simply click the mouse as rapidly as possible.

During the past year, web-based tutorials and simulations have become the most common application we see in classrooms. The web applet seems to have replaced PowerPoint presentations as the entry-level technology to incorporate in lessons.

On the plus side, these types of activities help teachers avoid the familiar trap of turning boring chalkboard presentations into boring digital presentations without any change in cognitive engagement. But is it necessarily progress to replace teacher-created exercises with exercises created by others and delivered on the web?

Taking responsibility for technology

I argue that teachers shouldn’t give up any prerogatives when adopting online resources. Rather, they should make these tools their own and take responsibility for the content and pedagogy. Technology doesn’t engage students in lessons. Technology engages students in technology.

In the example above, our suggestion to the teacher was to change the assignment from playing the math game to figuring out how to cheat the game, which teaches pattern matching and algorithmic thinking. (The teacher’s suggestion to her peers was to actually play any game before using it with students — also excellent advice.)

Automation does not equal individualization. That’s why the ISTE Standards at all levels emphasize the selection of appropriate technology. Even with the best software, the technology is not the professional in the room.

Talbot Bielefeldt is a senior research associate at ISTE. How do you evaluate online tutorials for classroom use? Let us know in the comments below!

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