Understanding the Potential of Ed Tech: The Eyes Don’t Have It

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

According to Kyle Webb, at yesterday’s Lane Community College (Oregon) Board of Education meeting, the dean of academic technology, Brad Hinson, “presented the state of online education and its potential future.”* Webb quotes Hinson: “Faculty [need] to understand ‘the demand is there. It’s modern education. It is what the students demand.'”

Hinson’s observations are enlightened, but they didn’t push me to the keyboard to write a comment. The shove came from concerns by two of the board members. Gary LeClair, according to Webb, “said there seems to be more ‘social isolation due to more computers.’ LeClair said he already notices students glued to cell phones and computers as it is, and that he is concerned that students with college-issued iPads might increase this social isolation, thus impeding their educations.” Webb also quotes Jim Salt, LCC’s Education Association president, who, along with LeClair, “voiced concerns about the potential loss of student-instructor connection.”

These two concerns, about the causal relationship between personal communication devices, on the one hand, and social isolation and deterioration of student-instructor relationships, on the other, are the issue. They’re reminders that, in most disagreements, the root is not in what we actually observe but with our interpretations. We’ve all witnessed the first scenario where students share the same geographical location, e.g., a cafeteria table, but are oblivious to one another because each is engrossed in her/his smartphone or tablet PC.

They appear to be socially isolated if we base our conclusion on the scene before our eyes. But if we base it on what’s “really” happening beyond the reach of our five senses, we realize that they are far from being isolated. To the contrary, they’re connected and connecting to the almost infinite social world made possible by the internet. If they’re not communicating online with others in sync (real time),  then they’re doing so in async; and the “others” could be individuals or sources of information constructed by others.

In fact, some of the people they’re communicating with may be sitting across from them on the same table — as well as thousands of miles away in different parts of the world. In other words, time and place are irrelevant when interaction via internet technology is factored into the picture. This is where an understanding of personal learning environments and personal learning networks is critical. Personal communication devices, whether smartphones, tablets, or notebooks, extend our networking into the virtual world, allowing us to interact with people who don’t share our physical space or time.

The concern about personal communication devices disrupting the teacher-student relationship is also a matter of perception. On the one hand, when students in a classroom or lecture hall are paying attention to their iPhones and iPads instead of their teachers, the connection between the two seems to be broken. However, this is true only when we view the teacher as the source of information. When we view her as a facilitator or guide, then we realize that the students may be engaged in constructing knowledge from information that they’re gathering online.

In this interpretation, what appears to be a disconnect or disruption is really the extension of teaching and learning into the virtual dimension. In other words, the teacher has unbundled her role and reconstructed it to include the online dimension where the sources of information are nearly infinite and skill in searching for and processing information is critical. In a world where students, with their personal communication devices, can learn 24-7 from anywhere and anyone, the teacher’s role must either change or become irrelevant. To remain relevant, she must take on the role of facilitator, someone who teaches students how to use the latest technology to optimize learning in her field.

Perception is critical in making decisions about technology in education. In this case, the point is that we can’t always trust our eyes. We have to look beyond what’s in front of us to a new world that we can’t see — a world that our students are comfortable and at home in, a world that provides anytime-anywhere communication with countless networks of people and sources of information. If we’re not careful, we could condemn and dismiss this exciting constructivist extension to learning in the name of a teacher-centric model that no longer reflects the world that is.

__________
* “IT Briefs Board of Ed on Moodle Revamp,” The Torch, 2.9.12.

6 Responses

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  3. Both sides of this issue may be jumping to conclusions. A 2009 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (“Social Isolation and New Technology”) challenges the assumptions like the ones from Gary LeClair. Communications scholar Namsu Park published similar findings in 2010. On the other hand, it may be optimistic to think that students are using their devices to learn from a wide and diverse ocean of information. Most research shows that teens and young adults use social technologies to socialize with a core group of people that they also know off-line and to gratify pleasure-focused needs. In other words, they’re bored, so they text their friends and surf the internet because it’s fun.

    In the book “Models for Interdisciplinary Mobile Learning,” Tim Brown and Amanda Groff argue that students might have a hard time accepting instruction or coursework offered through media they associate with fun.

    The problem (and solution) may have less to do with the role of the teacher as knowledge source or knowledge faciliator, and more to do with the motivation to engage in a learning behavior. If students believe a behavior or task to be fun, they will engage in it. This could even be passively receiving information, if the delivery is particularly entertaining.

    Of course there are all sorts of other reasons to argue that the role fo a teacher should be mroe like a facilitator. But without also considering student engagement and motivation, that shift may be fruitless.

  4. I just have to second Jim’s comments. Well said, Jim. I agree completely and couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Perception is not just what your eyes see but also what your mind is prepared to see. Prejudice is not just about age, race, and gender. Those who see increased social isolation prefer (at least subconsciously but often consciously) to see that. Overcoming such prejudice can be a big problem and may require a changing of the guard in some instances.

  5. “In this interpretation, what appears to be a disconnect or disruption is really the extension of teaching and learning into the virtual dimension. In other words, the teacher has unbundled her role and reconstructed it to include the online dimension where the sources of information are nearly infinite and skill in searching for and processing information is critical.”

    Kudos, JIm. Honestly, to view these technologies as a distraction is a disservice to our students. We should be teaching them to harness them in the pursuit of their educational goals. Will some still use them to dink around? Yes. But we can’t encourage digital literacy and good decision-making if we don’t model some of those skills ourselves.

    “Perception is critical in making decisions about technology in education. In this case, the point is that we can’t always trust our eyes.”

    A funny story on this… I’m 34 years old and a PhD student. One of my PhD professors gave me a 3.5 in my course, and still doesn’t like me. Why? Because I took notes in Google and he “could tell I wasn’t paying attention.” Really? That “not paying attention” resulted in my passing my comprehensive exams with flying colors due to searchable notes. So, I’ll take that 3.5. :-)

  6. Ben, thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking comments. I agree that the issue is complex and there are no easy answers. Recognizing this complexity, I believe, is the first step toward meaningful change. Part of this recognition, though, has to be an openness to the possibility that the perceptions guiding our decisions may be based on assumptions that are less than true or no longer valid. In this environment, it may be useful to re-examine the “truths” that we take for granted.

    Harry, you’re right about bias and self-fulfilling prophecies. And this is, as you’ve said repeatedly in your articles and comments, the reason for learning science as a basic and essential critical thinking skill, as a crap detector, as an approach to reality testing. Minus an objective procedure (or mindset) to test claims, we’re left with half truths and outright lies. This is true as much for physical phenomenon as it is for determining the impact of technology on learning or, for that matter, the effect of imagery in a poem.

    Jess, your vignette is a reminder to teachers that times have changed. Digital information is the most useful and flexible. In analog, information may as well be carved in stone tablets. The live lecture is analog, too, and for all practical purposes also carved in stone. At the least, all lectures should be converted to digital formats and distributed prior to a live lecture. This way, students won’t have to take notes but can simply annotate the notes they already have in their smart phones, pads, or netbooks. In fact, during the lecture, they could be “discussing” the info via back channels with classmates and others thousands of miles away. Of course, in this scenario, students have to wonder why they need to sit quietly and listen to a lecture in the first place.

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