Education and the Technological Toolbox

By Asikaa Cosgrove

Instructor of Educational Technology

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Educational technology is the application of technological tools to teaching and learning. Perhaps the most common and basic use of technology in the classroom —verbally describing a topic while displaying related images on a screen —is a deceptively potent teaching technique grounded in dual coding theory. In the 1970s, psychology researcher Allan Paivio presented empirical evidence that the human brain processes and remembers spoken words differently from images. Most crucially for education, Paivio’s experiments demonstrated that when the verbal information correlated to the visual information and delivered simultaneously, there was an additive effect on memorization. Essentially, people process, remember and recall a combination of spoken words and images more effectively than they do if only one modality is used.

The impact on learning is even more powerful when students use educational technology—a device or service that supports or enables fact memorization, understanding or synthesis of knowledge. One advantage of educational technology is that it provides students with options for achieving goals that might not otherwise be possible, such as shooting their own documentary or 3D printing their designs for a better egg carton. Putting technology in students’ hands not only helps them learn in the moment, but also familiarizes them with the tools that they will encounter in the workforce.

Educational technology changes quickly, and nothing has brought about more change than the World Wide Web. As consummate purveyors of information, many educators have embraced the Web as a ubiquitous portal to human knowledge. For better or worse, students can retrieve information in just a few seconds wherever they are. Educational institutions are now tasked with the electronic, wireless provision of information services and more important, the development of digital literacy skills in students. Indeed, this is where our librarians are making a crucial impact: guiding students to find and evaluate the specific knowledge that is most relevant to their learning.

The Web has also enabled the practice of “flipping” the classroom. Traditionally, students learn from the teacher during class sessions and take consolidation activities home to complete alone. The flipped model uses technology to turn this on its head. Homework includes watching introductory video content on the Web, often created and narrated by the teacher (there’s that dual coding again). Online discussion boards are used for students to discuss the content with the teacher and with one another. When students return to the classroom, they are already prepared to collaborate on group projects, putting their learning into practice under the teacher’s guidance and using valuable classroom time to maximum effect.

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Over the past decade, educational technology has moved from specialized devices sold only to schools and colleges to the repurposing of more mainstream technologies for teaching and learning. Many of the devices we have in our homes and pockets are perfectly capable of supporting richer learning activities. Realizing this, some educators have found ways to break free of the school budget and use the tools that students already have, such as smart phones and tablets. The inevitable convergence of device functionality has brought us to a point where a good smart phone or tablet replaces a host of expensive or easy-to-lose pieces of hardware: the still camera, the video camera, the audio recorder, the notepad, the GPS unit, the personal organizer, the mp3 player. With each new generation, the list of functions grows. Plus, everything that the smart phone captures can be automatically backed up online, because high-speed mobile data networks have put Internet access in our pockets. The educational value of instant and mobile access to information cannot be overstated. All of these functions can enrich learning tasks using a single device that is already a central feature of many students’ lives.

Of course not all students have smart phones or tablets. We must always be sure that our enthusiasm for technology-supported learning takes place within an environment that checks for equal access. No student should ever be disenfranchised by her or his socioeconomic status or inability to interact with a particular technology. However, good teachers are adaptable and those who integrate technology into their lesson plans must always have a plan for the absence of technology, whether through failure, affordability or the student’s physical abilities.

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A hallmark of contemporary education is differentiation, where those traits or qualities that make one student different from another are recognized and considered when planning and implementing instruction. Any new teacher will tell you that differentiation is hard. Educational technology can lighten the load here, providing a toolbox to present material in diverse modalities and allowing students to exercise their preferences in interacting with their work and with one another.

Those who are hesitant about the value of educational technology often express concerns that are absolutely valid, such as the tendency for some technologies to distract from the learning objective at hand, or that technology does not make an educator better at his or her job. Technology alone cannot make a poor teacher into a good teacher. However, many studies have demonstrated that a great teacher who uses technology appropriately will outperform an equally great teacher who does not use any. Moreover, it is the teacher’s imagination, creativity and aptitude in integrating technology into lessons that has the greatest impact on whether or not educational technology is effective. To paraphrase educational researcher Robert Marzano, “What we’ve learned about teaching without technology is the foundation for deciding how we teach better with technology.”

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