The relationship between theory and application always seemed to be the quintessential chicken and egg dilemma, and one which has obvious implications for education. On more than one occasion, I've found educators labeling classes, disciplines, and even entire universities as "application" or "theory" oriented. While I appreciate that certain views of the world are indeed more applied or theoretical in nature, I believe a superior educational system simultaneously embraces both views.
An illustration of this awkward relationship between theory and application can be seen in our most recent technology revolution—a technological revolution that in the workplace, at least, went well beyond wires and boxes and transformed at the most fundamental level how we do even the most basic tasks in our everyday lives. It is my belief that we are now witnessing a technological revolution in our classrooms.
As one in the trenches, however, I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that key pedagogical issues have yet to be fleshed out. So while "technology" has experienced quite the "buzz" around campuses these days, we unfortunately have limited our discussions to hardware and software issues, and have yet to focus on the equally important pedagogical transformations that need to take place.
So what exactly does a "technology-enhanced" classroom look like?
I must admit when I began teaching four years ago, I started teaching the way I had been taught. I reasoned that since it worked for me, it should work well for my students. However, in the past three years, I felt compelled to reinvent the entire learning experience for my students. The old lines and structures didn't seem to be getting the job done. It is my experience that a technology-enhanced classroom is a more challenging environment. My classroom today is more textured, creative, and definitely more engaging.
To begin my transformation process, I threw out the old adage, "We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn." I don't pretend anymore. I know what they know and I know what they don't. Granted, the push back from students can be substantial; my enrollment has dropped since implementing technology in the classroom—who ever said accountability is a welcome addition to any environment? However, the payback in terms of quality improvement has more than offset the drop in enrollment. It's also exciting to see my new classes reflecting a broader economic and cultural diversity that more accurately represents our campus and outside community. Using technology allows me to reach students that historically have not been included in the process. I started finding success in areas in which I had initially experienced failure.
I credit the use of technology for allowing me to evolve my traditional "chalk & talk" lecture model into a more personalized learning experience.
Please note, if you are looking to see technology improve standardized test scores (including the traditional publisher-created multiple choice tests), you'll probably be terribly disappointed with this narrowly defined metric of student success. Where I have seen the most significant increases in learning outcomes has been in critical thinking assignments—specifically, open-ended writing assignments and short answer problem- solving tasks.
When I began reformatting my courses, I focused my implementation in three areas:
First, I looked for a product that added daily reinforcement to the course learning objectives. Daily homework assignments using pencil & paper would have of course achieved the same purpose as an automated one; however, time constraints made this an infeasible option. Automating daily homework with well-crafted assignments was a critical component to enhancing the learning process. Without putting pencil to paper, or in this case, mouse to mouse pad, the hard work of learning cannot take place. I also appreciated technology's ability to deliver remediation and reinforcement at opportune "teachable moments"—something that cannot be reproduced in the traditional classroom. I was no longer limiting my students' access to quality instruction; students could visit (and hopefully revisit) material as many times as was necessary to master the material.
Second, I was looking for solutions that would enhance communication between teacher and student. I could not envision working with my students one-on-one without customized student reporting. Using technology to improve communication has truly transformed the learning experience from a mass market product to a more valuable customized experience. Students don't always appreciate authentic feedback, but for the first time, I had access to concrete information that allowed me to focus communication on issues most important to the student. Technology provided me with the necessary tools to really make a difference in a student's learning outcome.
Third, and most importantly, I began using technology to assist students in moving beyond basic ("monkey see, monkey do") technical skills to learning more powerful critical thinking skills. Let's face it—time is our enemy in the classroom. Each moment we spend reviewing basic tools robs our students of the opportunity to apply these tools in a more challenging setting. Implementing technology in the classroom grants the gift of time inside the classroom to expand the scope and depth of the limited "face time" we have with our students. It's been my experience that casually adding internet "features" into the curriculum does not achieve these measurable benefits. In order to access the wealth of the internet, educators need to dedicate a significant amount of time for training and supervised practice. Adding an internet-enhanced dimension to the learning process, however, allows students who have mastered the basic tools of their craft to move into more sophisticated applications earlier in their educational career (now this is exciting pedagogically!) These types of assignments allow students to integrate all of their cognitive abilities and prior learning experiences. So once again, we see technology offering a customization benefit to the learning experience that results in students reaching well beyond traditional learning outcomes.