Saturday, May 10, 2014

Education in the Technology Age

In light of the fact that this week was the annual Screen-Free Week, I'd like to share some of my thoughts and observations on the use of technology at our school. With educational technology being all the rage these days, it seems schools have become eager to tout how "connected" their schools are in the technology age and use this as the hallmark of a quality education.

This school year, being at a school proud of its 21st-century facilities and its ability to develop students' "digital citizenship," I was very curious to see how technology is used at a school that has more resources for the latest technology than most American public schools and boasts a 1:1 student-to-laptop ratio starting in the middle school. More importantly, I wanted to see how technology actually helps students to learn, progress, and excel. But after having worked with and observed many classes from grades 2 to 12, I've actually come away with more questions than answers about the effects of technology use in the classroom.

One of the first things I noticed was that too many of the students, particularly at the middle- and high-school levels, aren't very good at critical thinking at all. Whenever they're asked a question, the first thing they do, at least 90 percent of the time, is to reach for their laptops to look up the answer, regardless of the subject matter and even when there is no definitive or correct answer. There are entire classes of eighth-grade students who are incapable of writing persuasive essays and expressing their opinions without conducting online "research." I've been told by 12th-grade, IB-level students asked to write a critical analysis of a passage that they "would find something online and copy and paste it." (Sadly, many teachers at the school, including my husband, have to use the website to prevent students from plagiarizing.) These students seem unaccustomed to thinking about anything on their own or performing critical analysis.

However, it's been pointed out to me that part of this inability may be due to another factor -- the culture. As with many Asian countries, the cultural norm here is to teach kids to follow directions and to accept things as they are told to them rather than to question the "why" or the "how" of things. That would explain why these kids are so uncomfortable when things aren't clear-cut. So, while it is the pride of the school that every middle- and high-school student has his/her own laptop, I find that it actually has become a crutch for most of the students, who are only too eager and too used to turning to the internet to get answers about anything and everything. Many of these students just aren't used to having to problem-solve on their own and aren't comfortable with having no definitive answer. They are excellent at turning in beautifully packaged products, but the process of creating that final product is oftentimes lacking in depth and substance.

Something else I've noticed is that having the students learn the technology itself often detracts from the main point of a lesson. Take, for example, the use of scientific calculators. I've not used a scientific calculator since my college years, and these calculators have become even more complicated than they used to be. Many times, a teacher ends up spending a lot of class time teaching the students how to use their calculators just to get to the lesson of the day. By the time the students master how to operate the calculator, they have lost sight of what it is they're supposed to be learning.

Moreover, even if the students know how to use a calculator or a computer program to perform the function they need, oftentimes they have not learned or understood fully what it is they're doing and the logic of the process. Rather, they have merely learned to follow a series of steps and manipulation to obtain a certain outcome. I've had students who become completely lost about what to do once I change the wording of a problem or question, which shows me they don't understand what is going on. This is why I don't believe that allowing young children to play on electronic gadgets will lead to a deeper understanding of how they actually work later on.

Then, of course, there's the problem of distraction. Cellphone usage is widespread here; it seems that everyone has a smartphone (except my husband and me), from the very young to the very old, the very poor to the very wealthy. Even many of the younger elementary kids have their own iPhones, and of course, all middle- and high-school students have their own laptops (and smartphones and tablets goes on and on). Yet, there is no school policy about the use of cellphones during class! More often than not, students will have their cellphones out on their desks during class to monitor incoming texts and social media activities. They also often have their laptops open to listen to music (through ear buds) or surf the internet while their teachers are lecturing. I've seen students engage in all kinds of online activities online during class -- play video games, online shopping, and of course, chatting with their friends. Teachers actually have to specifically ask their students to put away their laptops and pay attention! (Don't even get me started on the students' horrible note-taking skills; basically, it rarely happens. Some students will take photos of their teachers' notes on the board with their cameras, but that's about it.) It's extremely annoying and frustrating to me. Whoever thought that every middle- and high-school student needed a laptop obviously did not know children.

At the elementary level, technology usage in the classroom is more limited. The students have iPads to use in their classes, as their teachers see fit, and go to the computer lab every few days. But most of these kids have access to the internet anyway because they all possess smartphones, and their access is unlimited because there is no supervision from their parents. The children here seem to have very few boundaries imposed on them.

Of course, I think technology can be wonderful and open up worlds when used correctly. Many of the teachers here have advanced degrees in educational technology and have used it to great effect. I've seen students, including my son's class, use computers and iPads to create lessons and videos to show their classmates and teachers their understanding of lessons and skills taught. My son's art teacher has done some really creative art projects with her students using tablets. I think technology can be a fantastic supplement and is great to use for reinforcing or extending a lesson or practicing skills already learned. But I'm old-school and feel that, when learning to do something for the first time, students should still do it on their own, using their own brain power and processing the information on their own, so that they can have a true understanding of what it is they're learning.

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