Technology In the Classroom

As everyone around the USA begins to head back school this month or next month – one of the topics that frequently comes up with the universities we are working with is how best to integrate technology into the classroom – both for students and teachers.   It’s a critical question since we know that regardless of whether we are talking about education or business settings, technology just for technology sake is almost always a losing proposition.

I’ve written in previous entries about we at IBM strongly advocate for colleges, universities and other learning institutions have to focus on developing students with t-shaped skills.  The focus across so many markets on STEM skills complements this notion – we need stronger skills in science, technology, engineering and mathmatics – and they need to be complemented by industry knowledge, or strong commnuication skills, or IT/computer science skills.  As part of our focus on helping colleges adapt their curriculum we’ve even provided $500K in teacher grants to for innovation and development of courses  focused on solving some of the world’s most difficult challenges.

As students head back to the classroom, there is a natural discussion at many schools about the use of tablets and e-readers in the classroom.   In my own hometown or Raleigh, North Carolina one local school is making headlines by deploying e-readers, and many other schools around the world are taking similar approaches.  And as one would expect, tablets such as the iPad are also making their way into the classroom given their ease of use and wide range of multimedia capabilities.   Some advocates dream of replacing textbooks with e-readers, and others hope for homework on iPads to replace book reports and projects.

However, while technology in the classroom can certainly have it benefits – the jury is still out on their effectiveness at enhancing learning.  As Nicholas Carr points out in one his postings  — the largest study to date on the concept of e-readers replacing textbooks showed that “…the findings suggest that e-readers may be deeply flawed as replacements for traditional textbooks. Students find the devices cumbersome to use, ill-suited to their study routines, and generally underwhelming. Paper textbooks, it seems, may not be quite as obsolete as they appear.”

During the past academic year, a University of Notre Dame pilot of iPads in the classroom showed that student enjoyed the flexibility of using the tablet for more interactive learning.  Pilots at other schools showed similar results.  At the elemenary levels of education iPads are being used a whole variety of ways, but as Mark Bauerlein points out in his recent review of this subject – the science of how one reads and retains information is very different when consuming from a book vs a tablet or e-reader.

So how should schools cope with the demands for greater technology – and especially the use of e-readers or ipads  — in the classroom?

Our experience at IBM points to five key principles that should be followed to avoid the technology for technologies sake trap —

1)  Learning plans and content have to drive the use of technology, not vice versa.  Content and lesson planning are still the hallmarks of great teaching and always will be.  Technology is just another delivery vehicle that can be used to engage and excite students.   The key is the thoughtful integration of the technology with the pedagogy.

2) Schools and administrators must plan carefully for how it will be provided first to faculty and staff and how their professional development will be supported long-term.   It is critical to provide our educators with the time and training it will take to get comfortable with any new technology and provide them the training and resources on how best to integrate it into the classroom.

3) Schools must think carefully about how the technology will be deployed & maintained.   This can span everything from network planning for bandwidth requirements, to ongoing support resources for the classrooms, to the security and privacy issues that might arise from having student data on highly portable devices.

4) Success of technology projects needs to be carefully assessed with learning instruments.  As I pointed out just above – the jury is still out on the actual learning impact of the latest devices.  Measuring the effectiveness of the improved learning outcomes is critical.

5) Each technology project must incorporate training to ensure it is being tailored very differently for the targeted student leaner and their cognitive skills – e.g. usage by a 3rd grader is far different than by a 7th grader.   While most of the press has focused on the tremendous impact the tablets can have on elementary school environments – in fact the impact has the potential to be broad across all grades, if designed properly.

Based on the all the available data I’ve seen from pilots so far, it’s clear that e-readers and tablets can enhance the classroom and get students more engaged, but they are just another tool for teaching.  Great teachers and strong lesson plans are still the key to success for students.


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