Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Educating for Technological Literacy

Over the course of twenty years’ experience in higher education, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how technology interacts with students and faculty in an educational context, and I’ve heard quite a bit of salesmanship on the topic. I’ve come to see that most of the rhetoric is just that, salesmanship. Either someone is selling some tech or someone has bought into a sales pitch, even to the point where I’ve heard college presidents threaten to fire faculty who “don’t use technology in the classroom.”

This situation proceeds from a failure to understand how student learning works, what role technology can play in it, and how technology should be integrated into the classroom. I’m first going to suggest a way of thinking differently, and then I’m going to recommend concrete ways to implement that thinking.

I’d like to distinguish between two ways of thinking about technology and education:

  1. Students should be educated using technology.
  2. Students should be educated in the use of technology.

All of our problems come from confusing the first statement with the second.

Students do not necessarily need to be educated using technology. For example, students can receive the most important benefits of all text-based education using only a pad, a pencil, and a book. But they do need to be educated in the use of technology: what it is, how it works, what it means to use it, and how it interacts with society at large. This latter kind of education I’m calling technological literacy.

Believing that we need to educate our students using technology means we continually look for the latest new gadget that will finally replace our teachers, and that’s a misguided quest. But belief in the need for technological literacy is a curricular matter, something that considers what kind of education in technology students need for their majors and their future careers. For the most part, our applied sciences have this figured out, because the tech in many significant ways is the field, or is inextricably a part of it (AutoCAD, anyone?). But step outside of the applied sciences and the problems begin, and this distinction between educating students using technology and educating students in the use of technology becomes all important.

Requiring that we educate students using technology is, I think, badly misguided. For the most part, educational technology is always an additional barrier to learning, not only a supplement. It’s a wall between students and their interaction with the material, and anyone who has worked with educational technology knows that it always requires a learning curve (which is sometimes very steep), never completely delivers, sometimes doesn’t deliver at all, and often breaks down. As a result, we spend too much time worrying about the tech and not enough learning about our subjects and developing our skills.

This isn’t to say that educational technology isn’t a benefit. I don’t think I would want to work without a learning management system, which is an online system containing material associated with each course. These systems are just too practical in some ways, especially in giving students one place to access course materials such as the syllabus, the course schedule, their grade book, and regular communication from their instructors. But anyone who has worked with them knows all of their problems. And beyond that obvious application, there are some highly effective, specialized tools, such as computer programs that help students with dyslexia, that all students should have access to if needed.

So I’m not a luddite, but I think we need to be aware of the limitations and problems inherent in focusing on educating students using technology. There is a better way of thinking, however, which is focusing instead on educating students to use technology, or on technological literacy. We live our lives immersed in a variety of technologies that we cannot escape. As a result, we should know what these everyday technologies are, how they work, why we need them, and how they connect with the larger world. As a curricular matter, then, I think all college students should receive the following instruction as a regular part of their general education curriculum:

  1. Advanced training in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and their equivalents.
  2. A basic understanding of what networks are and how they function.
  3. A basic understanding of what databases are and how they function.
  4. A basic understanding of the internet, social media, and related privacy and access issues, instruction that should be connected to instruction in information literacy.
  5. A commitment to the application of this training and knowledge in upper division coursework.

Obviously, if we provide students education in the use of technology, we will be educating them using technology, but our focus will be completely different. It will be on technological literacy, a new form of literacy badly needed in today’s highly tech-oriented world but still very much lacking in most educational institutions.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Podcast: Are College Students Being Prepared for the Workforce?

Have you enjoyed my blogging about workforce preparation and college education? If you like listening to podcasts, I was interviewed by Tim Muma about that topic on LJN Radio.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Why You Should Take Notes by Hand

Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.

This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted while working on their laptops. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. Students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — rather than thinking about the lecture.

On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

But in addition to this difference, students taking notes on laptops are indeed distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop, like Facebook, email, and chats.

These bad practices disseminate throughout educational institution. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (a result noted in one study). School administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.

To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen. Schools then have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.

As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say, the last fifteen to twenty years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the study.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion about these ideas:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck, but this tech is continually evolving. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, so this difference may also be related to how our brains and bodies work together. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
  • There are always exceptions. Some students need the support provided by electronic devices when note taking. Let’s just be careful not to define the rule by its exceptions.

Educational Consulting, Pedagogy

Technology and Education

The chart below graphs educational spending in twelve industrialized countries as of about ten years ago, comparing each country’s spending to student performance:

Via: MAT@USC | Master’s of Arts in Teaching

U.S. Education versus the World via Master of Arts in Teaching at USC

Educational spending for just these twelve countries combined is about $1.8 trillion, representing a massive investment of time, money, and resources to educate our children. And yes, this chart is primarily spending on school-aged children. Since the cutoff point is age 23, it doesn’t represent higher education spending at the graduate level. It also may not represent our total spending on education K-16, which includes a host of para-educational  industries involving numerous vendors for everything from food to technology, the administration and scoring of certification tests, video production, spending on supplies, child care, and more, at least some of which are directly out of pocket for parents. Educational institutions are facing an increasingly aggressive barrage of vendors hyping new technologies, and too many colleges are looking for technological magic bullets — because education doesn’t seem effective enough, salesmen selling new tech are more convincing than teachers saying they would like some support, but they need it.

How is the United States doing? We’re number one in spending (of course), number three in literacy, number five in number of years spent in school, number ten in math, and number nine in science — if you recall, Obama emphasized math and science education. Now we see why.

Because we’re spending massive amounts of money already, and then trying to fix our educational shortcomings by spending even more massive amounts of money (just in new ways), I think we’re forgetting a few important things here.

First, education is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not even limited to human beings — here’s a video you may have already seen:

The most naturally occurring educational practice in nature is simply mimesis, or imitation. A mommy dog wants to teach a puppy dog how to walk down a set of stairs, so it goes up and down the stairs until the puppy learns. We learn how to do something by watching others do it. Birds and cheetahs teach their young to hunt; herbivores teach their young to run away:

Human education has been going on — has been naturally occurring — for as long as there have been human beings. It’s become increasingly specialized, of course, with the advent of print, the development of new sciences and technologies, and the diversification of the workforce, but as of the late twentieth century the only technology actually needed for teaching is something to read, something to write with, and something to write on. So — get ready for the latest in cutting edge educational technology — I introduce you to the pad and pencil:

images

Are you impressed yet? We could add a calculator too, but well into the 1970s people were still using slide rules to do some of their advanced calculations. Anyone remember slide rules?

SlideRule

Because my father was an electrical engineer, slide rules are a childhood memory for me. But, I never learned how to use one. I grew up using calculators for advanced math.

So I’ll grant you a pad, a pencil, and a calculator, and you can make that calculator the most advanced graphing calculator that you want. That’s more than the minimal tech that we needed to educate our students throughout most of the twentieth century — which was the century that began space exploration, developed nuclear weapons, invented the computer, the internet, lasers, advanced study in genetics, magnetic imaging… the list goes on. For the most part, there was no such thing as online education until the last ten years of the twentieth century. There were no MOOCs, not nearly as much educational research, and relatively little brain research supporting it. For most of the twentieth century most of our educators didn’t have degrees in education. Most students in the US didn’t even work on computers until the last fifteen to twenty years of the twentieth century. We made these advances using, horror of horrors, a host of “failed” practices, such as lectures delivered in lecture halls, but it does appear that students managed to learn.

Why? Because education is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and as it occurs in nature, human beings were teaching other human beings. Of course, some people even today are educating students with a lot less than what most people reading this blog have now.

What I would like us to do is forget for a moment about education as an industry, and education as an institution, and think about education just as a naturally occurring human activity. You might remember sitting in your mother’s or father’s lap as they read to you. You might remember learning how to throw a ball. You might remember enjoying a good book, learning how to draw, finally understanding math. The point is that learning is fundamentally pleasurable. Learning is one of our great natural sources of pleasure.

It can be that way in school, too. I would like to encourage students reading this blog to try to extend the pleasures of learning to the classroom, and I’d like to encourage teachers reading this blog to consider how we can encourage the pleasures of learning within institutional settings. I think this change will require thinking very differently about education, though — in some cases, it might mean completely changing our thinking about education.

What I think kills the pleasures of learning is the fact that we’re forced to go to school for twelve years or more, and then once we go there, we’re made to do work, and that work is then graded — which feels like being in state of continual judgment. I would like to suggest adopting three attitudes that will help us recover the pleasures of learning in the classroom, and they mostly affect how we view the grades that we earn in school and the work that we do in school:

  • First, students do not work for teachers. Students work for themselves, and teachers work for the good of students. Students are not the teacher’s employer, however — teachers are employed by and accountable to a system, but their work within that system is for the benefit of students. When students think of their teacher as their employer, their time in school is nothing more than putting in time. What I tell my students, though, is that their minds are like muscles: when they work them, they get stronger, and when they leave them alone, they atrophy. In practical terms, every time teachers assign reading or writing or any other kind of homework, they are creating work for themselves. Assigned reading is reading the teacher needs to do and assigned papers are papers that the teacher needs to grade. Teachers don’t receive any personal benefit from grading student work — trust me on this. Teachers who assign meaningful work and provide meaningful feedback are working for their students. Teachers who do not are working for themselves. The doing of the work and the grading of it is all for the student’s benefit.
  • Next, teachers grade student work, not students. I quit letting my students tell me that “I gave them an A on this paper” a long time ago. First, I didn’t give them anything — if they received an A, they earned an A, and I try to help them understand their grade by reviewing and explaining my rubrics and applying it to their papers consistently. But more importantly, I didn’t give them a grade of A. I assigned that grade to their paper. I’m not grading the student, I’m grading the student’s work.
  • Furthermore, teachers grade student performance, not student ability. Did you write a really bad paper? Did you write it the night before it was due? Do you really think that’s your best work? Of course not. But, sometimes it is, and sometimes our best work is bad, but even then, doing bad work is part of the learning process. Since teachers don’t grade students, but student work, grades are at most an indication of student’s progress on that specific assignment, not a global assessment of their future potential. An F grade does not necessarily mean an F student.

My suggestions here have to do with developing productive ways of thinking within the system, not with changing the system itself. I do think the system needs to change, and in a lot of ways. You can read my ideas for systemic change in other blog entries.

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