Does technology really help learning?

I am currently working through the new Intel® Teach Program Essentials Online Course. We were asked to post a reflection on the essential question that the course hangs from which is How can technology be used most effectively to support and assess student learning? This is an interesting question and some, perhaps many, might argue that technology actually hinders learning, or at least takes so much effort to come to grips with that it is barely worth the effort required. I think this is why a lot of teachers are still not using technology as much as they should/could. The effort required to become technology fluent is just so great that they cannot see that it is worth whatever learning gains are there to be had. Web 2.0 is changing this though and moving us into a new era. It’s not just another technology change, it’s different. Let me illustrate this by taking you back to another time.

In 1968 (gasp!) I was in Year 10 and I took “Typing” as an elective. It was the first year that boys at Mt Waverly High School were permitted to take this subject, which had previously been a girl’s only domain (it was a part of secretarial studies which, as we all know, is most suited to girls!!) The alternative elective I could have done was music, which involved sitting in a room listening to a recording of an orchestra playing some classical piece (which would go on and on and on and …) after which we would have to sit and listen to the teacher rattling on and on and … about which instruments we were listening to and showing us pictures of said instruments. If we were lucky, we got to sketch them. I took Typing! Besides, I thought it might come in handy one day for, … well, typing! The teacher, Mrs Egan*, hated us being there and made sure we knew it. I spent a lot of time in the corridor instead of at my typewriter, almost always bewildered as to why. When we made a typing error it was a major pain. There was no correction fluid in 1968 – no whiteout and no tipex as yet. To correct a mistype you had to get an ink eraser and rub at the paper to remove the erroneous letter. Now typing paper was much thinner than writing paper and we boys would invariably rub a hole right through the paper. If Mrs Egan saw you doing that she would stand over you and scream at you for “destroying” her typewriters. To make matters worse, we then had to ask her for another piece of typing paper, which involved more screaming, so we usually didn’t ask and just tried to type around the hole. She would refuse to mark typing which had a hole in it as it represented an “insult to her professionalism”. (The old battleaxe was DEFINITELY off our Xmas card list!)

The point I am making here is that a piece of technology as simple as a typewriter was, for a learner, painful to use. Pen and paper was far easier and quicker. Typing required special skills and the document that was produced was hard correct even for just one letter that was in error. You simply could not cut and paste whole words, much less sentences and paragraphs as we can today with a word processor. Even so, there are new, (and for some seemingly complex), skills to learn with modern technology. There is no doubt that with this learning comes pain. Even so, not even Mrs Egan would argue today that the typewriter was superior to the work processor. We eventually become accustomed to new technology and then we sing its praises. What though about learning? Does technology really help learning?

On this I would argue that learning whether technology facilitated or not, is limited if we cannot have, or do not have, dialogue. “Typing” up reports or letters is usually a lonesome activity. Typed reports look neat, but where is the learning? With the Internet arriving on the scene we got to share our work with others. Was this dialogue? Yes and no! By creating web pages then potentially at least, everyone could see your work. To publish your work like this though, you had to learn how to use Dreamweaver or FrontPage or some other web page editor and so on. More pain! Many didn’t bother. To make matters worse you had to finds someone to host you pages and you had to upload files using an FTP program and worry about file structure. More pain! At least though, you could share your learnings and opinions and get feedback. Dialogue was possible, although mostly it was just reading other people’s work. You could email them if they left their email and people did this. So the technology has helped with learning, but what a lot to learn in order to do it. Was it worth the learning gains? Again some said no!

Now though, with Web 2.0 applications, we have moved towards the best of everything (except that we are still using a keyboard to input and this has to change). We can still have all the benefits of word processing of course, but now we do not have to know how to use FrontPage and create websites. Blogs and Wikis just do this for us almost completely automatically. We can customise how they look and work if we want to, but we do not have to do that if we do not want to – we can just use them right off! Less pain! We really only need to know how to follow instructions to set these up and then we just write and post and look forward to having others leave their comments! I only hope that Mrs Egan is still around so that she knows that she is now well and truly REDUNDANT!

So technology can be used most effectively to support and assess student learning by making sure that it is used for dialogue. This dialogue brings with it reflection, a breadth of feedback – both praise and criticism. Web 2.0 is all about dialogue. Wikis are great for presenting our work, but it is the power of collaboration, not just you editing your own work but other people doing so for and with you, that results in powerful learning. The creation of this blog for working with my students achieves just that I hope. Individuals learn and post their work, but everyone gets to see and comment on everyone else’s learning. We have a Gestalt effect simply by allowing everyone to see and comment on each others work. This also provides a guide for student in self direction as they see the work of others and compare this to their own work, goals, achievements and timelines.

How do we ensure students will make progress towards the standards/syllabus outcomes when working with Web 2.0? Getting students to dialogue with me as their teacher AND WITH EACH OTHER, is critical in maximising learning. For example, if I am off the mark here in this post, someone is going to say so in a reply on my prattlings. I get feedback. AS a student, if I wrote this response on a bit of paper, or just emailed it to my teacher, I would miss out on this valuable correction/comments. On a blog I can also respond to comments that anyone makes about what I have said, and so on. This is DIALOGUE, not merely a response to a question from the teacher. Web 2.0 is VERY cool. Anyone can use it no matter what subject they are doing.

*Not her real name

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