UTC-revolution

Children at Mission Heights Primary School in Auckland help launch the new “Tech Cave” section of the Hector’s World website, which aims to empower Kiwi children aged 2-9 to teach themselves and their communities about technology.

There’s no shortage of commentators writing and researching about young people’s relationship with technology. Educators such as James Paul Gee, Stephen Heppell and Derek Wenmoth promote the benefits – even the necessity – of young people learning with technology. The acolytes of technology use a number of arguments to justify why ICT should be a part of teaching and learning. Some of these claims are more useful than others.

Digital learners

One of the most common reasons for technology in schools refers to the needs and expectations of the new generation of tech-savvy, always online, digitally native youth. Shaped by the Internet like no other generation, they have to “power down”, as Marc Prensky puts it, when they enter the classroom.

Prensky, the US author of Teaching Digital Natives, even claims that technology has changed the way that young people think and process information, although others, like cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, say there’s no evidence to support this. In a recent article in American Educator, Willingham argues that technology and multitasking have not rewired how students learn: “Laboratory research indicates that today’s students don’t think in fundamentally different ways than students did a generation ago.”

Whether it’s changing the way their brains work or not, there’s no doubt that today’s young people are having different experiences with technology than their predecessors. My nephew and niece, for example, use their home laptop most days for researching, shopping, communicating, listening to music or watching tv and movies.

They tell me that using the computer makes learning more interesting. I think ICT in the classroom resonates with their out-of-school experiences of living online and, for my niece in particular, an interest in technology itself. However, they can count on one hand the number of times in a term that they use computers at school.

Kids like it

The Ministry of Education has released a literature review exploring ICT’s impact on learning outcomes: e-Learning and Implications for New Zealand schools. It found:

  • Young people find technology engaging and motivating.
  • It provides new opportunities for collaboration and for meeting the needs of learners and the ways they like to work.
  • It can be a lever for teacher pedagogical change and more effective learning relationships.

Economic drivers

Another popular argument is that the economy requires workers to be proficient with ICT. We need to teach our young people the skills to use the tools of the contemporary workplace to communicate, research, plan, document, present, report and so on.

This argument is about more than being able to manipulate data in a spreadsheet. It’s about preparing learners for potential roles in an economy that will look significantly different in future. As Richard Riley, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Education, said of the education system in 1999: “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve problems that haven’t been considered yet.”

Super-sized learning

Other justifications focus on new approaches to teaching, such as overcoming barriers of distance and time and expanding learning beyond the classroom. ICT can provide for wider, efficient and flexible learning options through access to more information, more connections, more experiences and so on.

Examples are using video conferencing to teach subjects that aren’t available to students in their local schools, and connecting students with other learners in distant locations or with experts out in the community.

Learning can also be more varied and richer with the use of multimedia. Video, audio and interactive resources can bring a topic to life, demonstrate complex concepts and provide opportunities for students to explore and experiment.

21st century learning

All of these arguments are valid. We can use ICT to make learning engaging, relevant, varied and accessible. However, Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert say that these arguments aren’t enough in themselves. Instead, they focus on how ICT helps us develop new kinds of curriculum and pedagogy that respond to and shape our world in the 21st century.

They outline this idea in Zooming in on Learning in the Digital Age, published by the NZCER in 2006. Bolstad and Gilbert argue that our education system was set up to serve the industrial age, and that the cultural, social and economic changes that have taken place since then require a rethinking of the knowledge, skills and values that learners need in the 21st century. Consuming knowledge was the goal of schooling in the industrial age, whereas producing knowledge needs to be the goal of schooling in the post-industrial “knowledge age”.

They propose a new notion of knowledge as something you do rather than something you have. Students use their knowledge to solve complex, real-world problems, as opposed to accumulating knowledge for its own sake. New technologies, they say, “will be of most educational value when they are implemented as tools for providing learning experiences that support this new orientation to knowledge”.

New orientation to knowledge

The new orientation to knowledge is about not just knowing the world but being productive in it. An example is Point England Primary School’s book review podcasts, published on their blog.

For several years, Point England students have been producing quality reviews of books and sharing them with a worldwide audience. These students are learning the discourse of literary criticism through the act of participating in a real community of literary critics. Their reviews are making a real and valued contribution to an international community of readers.

A couple of years ago, students made a video about their podcasting, where they talk about the impact of their work, why technology is important to them and what they are learning. Their podcasting project is a brilliant example of learning that affirms the students’ interest in technology while expanding their literary horizons and demonstrating the significance of books, reading and communicating ideas.

The knowledge-age argument for justifying technology in classrooms works for me because it shifts the debate away from more limited conversations about generational differences, economic drivers and super-sized learning. It focuses our attention on what we need to do to educate young people with the knowledge and experiences necessary for them to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners in the 21st century.

Ideas worth spreading

Looking for some inspiration? TED features remarkable thinkers, including many educators, giving short talks about big ideas.