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The Implications of New Technology in the Classroom

Jordan Catapano

I was surprised not too long ago at the end of a long class discussion that involved lots of hand-raising, sharing, and writing notes on the board. When the bell rang and students were leaving, about half of them stopped in front of the blackboard and took a picture of it with their iPads. The next day, I had asked them about this, and many of them informed me that they had not taken any notes at all during our class. Instead, they just took a quick photo of the board.

To many of them this seemed like a perfectly logical, work-saving behavior. After all, they said, it’s a lot easier to click a button rather than personally handwrite the notes. Right? Easier, yes -- but something about this didn’t quite sit right with me. Something was missing, I thought.

It took some time, but eventually I turned to Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which clarified what I was feeling. Postman – a teacher and education advocate himself – discusses how new technology and mediums of communication automatically change the way information is received and understood. His lengthy discourse primarily focuses on television entertainment, but it made something click for me about my students: Their taking a picture of notes was not the same as them actually writing down their own notes. They were receiving and understanding the information differently.

I use the term “differently” because I do not believe that this is inherently positive or negative. It is just different. But it makes me realize something more important about the integration of technology in the classroom. It makes me ask: “Do I think about it?”

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When I look at technology in the classroom, I try to think through what changes and implications it all might have. My concern is that I might inadvertently allow harmful habits or unintended consequences on learning into my classroom. When I arbitrarily fling technology at students without a consideration of its opportunities or drawbacks, I am potentially putting my students’ learning in harm’s way.

Here are a few more common incorporations of technological enhancement of education that have been steadily introduced over the past decade. While I would never say that any of these are inherently harmful, it is worth asking how they might create a slight difference in information and learning.

  • Audiobooks. A common way of accessing books in addition to or in replacement of actual reading. How does hearing a book (from a recording) differ from reading it oneself?
  • Digital books (via Kindle, iBooks, etc.). Now that books can be downloaded and read on e-readers, how does having an electronic copy differ from holding a physical text? What are the advantages and limitations in the ways students can annotate them? What new features are offered from a digital text, and what old physical features are now inaccessible?
  • YouTube. The world’s largest archive of videos; more than 1 billion videos are viewed daily. What can students now see for themselves that they couldn’t see before? How does this change the ways students receive information, are entertained, or get to personalize their media consumption?
  • Electronic notes. Now that notes can be recorded on tablet apps instead of pen and paper, how does this reshape the way students’ record notes? What differences contribute to how they interact with the information they’re recording?
  • Digital Photos. Not too long ago we used to “develop” photos and put them into an “album.” Now we can take thousands of photos and publish, edit, or share them immediately. How does this create advantages, dangers, and opportunities we didn’t have before?
  • Facebook / Twitter / Social Media. The world is intensely more “connected” than ever before, and students tend to be much more savvy with their digital communication tools than adults. Although they communicate in more ways than any other generation, are there any downsides that play into electronic communication? How does briefer but more frequent communication have implications for engagement, grammar, depth, and so on?
  • Class Websites. Teachers and students can create their own websites and populate them with ample information, links and resources. How can this be leveraged to amplify learning? How might it change the nature of how instructors and students engage in discussion and exchange information?

Within each of these and many more technological uses lies great opportunity. When each medium is well-understood and the advantages, pitfalls, and nuances are thought through, then teachers can more powerfully maximize student learning. We shouldn’t be against the further incorporation of technology, but we should be wary of automatically assuming the best about it without critically thinking through all its implications.

Asking myself questions about each of the above areas – as well as many, many other areas – has helped me more fully understand how students are utilizing new technologies to help them become smarter and faster. It has also helped me identify potential problems (like in the case where they took pictures of the chalkboard instead of writing notes – gasp! – and we shared a good chat about how they can best record notes from lecture, discussion, and their own thinking in addition to taking a photo).

And so I challenge you with the same question I ask myself. Do you think about it? Are you aware of what different forms of technology you are bringing into the classroom, and how those forms change the nature of information, communication, and learning? Technological incorporation in the classroom is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, but it may produce unintended consequences when left unexamined.

So what do you think? What observations or decisions have you made about technology in the classroom that we can benefit from? Share your thoughts here so we all can learn!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. Jordan also owns ACTWritingTips.com, a website created to give students additional support for the writing section of the ACT.