Monday, July 27, 2015

Technology and "Meaningful Engagement" in Learning

My friend Dan Beerens (@DanBeerens) teaches a course in our M.Ed. program, and for the past few years he's asked me to crash his course for a bit to talk about technology and education and how technology is impacting school culture. I'm always up for stirring the pot a bit, and it's a fun time to hang out with Dan and connect with students that I will have when they take a course I teach later in their program.

During the hour or so I was with his class, Dan snapped a picture of me and tweeted it:
Always a good time!

In the course of my pot-stirring, we talked about tech tools, and just what do we mean by "technology," and a bit of the history of education, and ideas for confronting misconceptions, and the idea of students being "digital natives" and their teachers being "digital immigrants." And, of course, we focused on learning. Because that's really the point of school, after all!

Sometimes we (I) get hung up on the "Ooooohh...shiny!" aspects of technology, and forget that the point of selecting technologies for teaching is...that they should help students learn.

So as part of my presentation, I shared this graphic:

I really wish I had a citation for this image. I've seen it flying around Twitter
every once in awhile, and I have yet to find an original source. If you can
direct me to the original creator, please do so; I'd love to give proper credit!

The typo in "Meangingful Engagement" aside (ugh), I think this is a helpful graphic for exploring what makes for a truly meaningful learning environment for students:
  • The teacher makes her/himself available for an authentic relationship with students
  • The student is able to find the content personally relevant to his/her life
  • The teacher exhibits her/his expertise in mastery of the content
When all of these elements are present, can we ensure that the kiddos will be meaningfully engaged in learning? Yikes...the word "ensure" is challenging, isn't it? But I can't help but think that this sort of environment would provide all sorts of opportunities for students to engage in learning that matters beyond passing a standardized test.

Now remember, I shared this image as part of a discussion of how technology is impacting education. But...the word "technology" doesn't appear here at all. I posed this question to the group: "Where does technology 'fit' here?"

The class was quiet for a few moments, and then one woman spoke up, " could fit anywhere...couldn't it?"

<I'm pretty sure I broke out into a grin at this point...>

I said, "Please tell us more about that."

"Well..." she began, "Teachers can continue to learn more about the content through technology. Students can learn more about the content through technology too. And, well, is it okay for students and teachers to connect through technology?"

I turned this back to the group, and there were a lot of nods and murmurs of agreement.

That is NOT to say that technology is the only way to develop relationships between students and teachers, or for students to find relevance with the content, or for teachers to develop further expertise in their content. But technology is one avenue for these things to take shape.

As our conversation went on, I suggested that technology often has benefits as well as drawbacks--in the EdTech field we sometimes talk about this as "affordances" and "constraints"--and I brought up the idea that adding a new technology often changes the existing culture.

For example, there are technologies (social media?) that can definitely help build relationships between students and teachers, both in class and beyond the constraints of the school day. many schools and districts have policies restricting the way teachers can connect with students via social media?

Or take cell phones in schools as an example: how many students are basically carrying a computer in their pockets with them everywhere they go? What an opportunity that could be as a learning tool--possibly an avenue for building relevance between students and content? But how many schools have policies basically criminalizing students' use of cell phones in class?

One more example: what shall we do with Wikipedia in school? If you need to learn a basic understanding of a topic you know nothing about...would you use a free, online encyclopedia? Even as a teacher? (Yep, I would. And I have. Even for a tool in preparing a lesson. And...c' probably have too, right?) The problem: we have a double-standard, don't we? Teachers may use sites like Wikipedia for supporting their learning (developing expertise?)...but how about students? My experience with many educators suggests that Wikipedia is forbidden as a source for students. But isn't that a little disingenuous? If it's okay that the teacher uses it for her/his own background knowledge...shouldn't we teach kids how to use it well for their own learning?

In each of these examples, digital technologies that were not any part of school life ten or fifteen years ago have become very real opportunities/challenges for teachers. They shift the culture. They provide benefits (affordances) and have drawbacks (constraints.) Adding technologies to the mix changes what is possible in education, but also what is appropriate in education. And we need to be mindful of the changes afforded by the possibilities, and we need to be discerning about changes brought on for the appropriateness.

In the end, I recognize that I am becoming a little more critical of my own use of technology as an educator. Is digital technology always the best option for teaching? Certainly not. But to decry digital technology as an impediment to meaningful engagement in learning? Well...that's just silly in this day and age.

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