The promise of technology in the classroom

Computers can help teachers individualize instruction, but they are seldom used effectively

January 01, 2012|By Mark C. Blom

It's getting harder for a public school teacher to reach excellence. By "excellence," I mean being responsible for helping each student significantly develop his or her knowledge or learning capacity. This increased difficulty is not the fault of teachers. Rather, teaching now requires mastering two seemingly opposite responsibilities: developing the best and the brightest to regain America's educational standing in the world, while ensuring that each student learns the basic competencies assessed by state and federal testing — and applying them to classes increasingly diverse in a host of educational factors.

Teachers are looking at a Venn diagram where circles of student diversity, core competencies and higher-order thinking have slight overlap. Under circumstances where it's difficult to be even proficient, much less excellent, teachers need help. Technology can be part of the solution. Technology is a tool that can help those circles become concentric.

School boards have spent millions on technology but don't have any solid evidence that it has improved student learning. Technology has been more of a resource for teachers than an influence on learning. Perhaps the only major facet of our life that has yet to be transformed by technology is education.

Excellence in education requires individualization in instruction. This is not merely virtuous; it's the command of "No Child Left Behind." Individualization requires a teacher to differentiate instruction to a group of students, each with unique levels of knowledge and industriousness, and unique learning styles. A fairly magical task. Computers, on the other hand, are expert and limitless in their ability to differentiate. Children are fascinated with computers — but how often, by contrast, do we hear students calling a teacher fascinating?

There's a progression to learning. We know that learning occurs in hierarchical steps: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Many of our students don't get to experience the top of the hierarchy, and too many of our teachers have to spend their time focusing on the bottom.

Technology can help students learn and teachers teach. It can impart facts and knowledge as well as connecting comprehension and application, and do it successfully through individualization and using a comfortable, friendly medium.

A number of commercially available instructional software programs promote individualized learning by using real-time assessments of a student's work, then adapting instruction to either increase rigor or strengthen areas of weakness. These programs also present content in various formats, to reach students with various learning styles. Using this assistance, teachers would then have time to teach students critical-thinking skills, as well as time to provide extra support to students in need.

Currently, teachers do not have sufficient time to individualize learning. By using technology as a teaching tool, we add a resource that easily individualizes, and we free teachers to differentiate as well.

Let's take a history lesson as an example. Students should learn about Joseph Goebbels, his effective use of propaganda, his contributions to Hitler's influence and power, his role in the Holocaust, and his impact on World War II. These aspects of learning are examples of knowledge and comprehension, and they can be gained through technology-based teaching.

But there's more to learn. Students should also analyze how Goebbels' propaganda sparks ignited human psychological needs at the time, learn that certain psychological needs are universal and timeless, and evaluate whether and under what conditions propaganda can again greatly influence public discourse and decision-making. These aspects of teaching are examples of higher-order learning and are examples of "great teaching," which most teachers are capable of if they had the time. Using technology, teachers can assume a range of roles — monitor, coach, tutor, instructor and sage.

Technology programs can also help students with homework, assistance that some parents may be unable to offer. By providing instant and correct feedback, students practice the "correct" way, limiting the opportunity for incorrect approaches to become habits of thinking. Technology can also help provide a class for students when there otherwise would not be one. Schools cannot offer classes when only a small number of students are interested, due to limited staffing. Technology, though, can pool students who are geographically separated but united by interest, and create a class "out of thin air."

Technology has other helpful learning applications, available to us when we see technology as an aid to learning and to expanding a teacher's instructional versatility and capability. That enhanced capability can synchronize those foreign circles in our educational Venn diagram, helping teachers achieve what we want from education and for all children.

Mark C. Blom is general counsel to the Howard County Public School System and former assistant superintendent and in-house counsel to the Frederick County Public School System. His email is mark_blom@hcpss.org.

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