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Technology: tool for education or crutch for tools?

A recent post exposed the widespread dissatisfaction that many educators and students feel with the current state of instructional technology and the overall lack of analytical capability in the Google generation. This begs the question, how do we teach students to use technology as a tool rather than a crutch?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

A recent post exposed the widespread dissatisfaction that many educators and students feel with the current state of instructional technology and the overall lack of analytical capability in the Google generation. This begs the question, how do we teach students to use technology as a tool rather than a crutch? One responder to my last post (Techno idiots, huh? Then we have our work cut out for us.) wrote:

Tech is a tool, not an education, and what lies behind the use of tech effectively is the ability to make sense of the information it offers up so easily. Why isn't it working?

Exactly, right?  I responded with the following:

Do I love using technology in the classroom? You bet - I'm a geek to the core. But what I'm really looking forward to with the new round of funding we're looking at in my district is bringing my introductory algebra students into a math and computer science lab that actually works and allowing them to visualize and apply concepts. Or opening the lab to our world language teachers so that they can use interactive language software to immersestudents in conversation. Or teach a class in CS or algorithms that lets students answer that age-old question of "When are we ever going to use algebra?" The last thing I want is for all of these new technological tools to be yet another crutch on which lazy students and teachers can lean instead of crank out any kind of original thought.

Besides, students enjoy using computers.  These are tools with which they are inherently comfortable.  In fact, while my students' eyes have a tendency to glaze over while I lecture and write on the whiteboard, they are immediately excited to try out any number of activities I might propose involving the computer.  They ask questions  (often pretty decent questions) and often become engaged in ways that they simply don't using more traditional instructional methods. 

We as educators have three major hurdles to actually be able to exploit this communication tool.  First, we need to keep the kids off MySpace and all of the other distractions beautifully integrated into the World Wide Web long enough to get them curious about the lessons.  Secondly, we must learn to use the tools.  Whether simulating population growth with advanced mathematics software like Maple, or simply demonstrating the effects of changing elements of a mathematical function on a graphing calculator, an in-depth understanding of the tools will allow us to guide students through meaningful lessons rather than flounder while the kids play with a new electronic toy.  Finally, we must get past the current instant gratification mindset so deeply ingrained in these kids.  Why learn to speak fluent French when Google can just translate to English?  Why learn techniques of integration when Mathematica can crank out every useful bit of information that an integral could ever give you?

Educators know the answers to these questions, but most of our students don't have a clue. This is the clue we must give them and this is how we must approach the use of technology.  It's a set of tools to automate tedious tasks, allow easy visualization, and provide rapid feedback.  We continue to turn out students who learn to walk with technological crutches, so to speak, before they ever learn to walk.  To complete the cheesey metaphor, how can they learn to run with crutches held firmly under their arms?  Educational technology, instead, should be thought of as a car.  It's an outstanding means to get from point A to point B quickly and efficiently.  Given the right car, it can even be fun.  But (oh no, here comes another metaphor) if students don't already know the way from A to B (or at least know how to read a map), the car will just get them lost faster.

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