Sunday, September 2, 2012

Technology and Learning

Quite recently, a swath of thunderstorms hit our area during the evening taking down trees and power lines. With power outage across a large area, the next morning was particularly challenging. Most grocery stores were closed and those that were open had long lines of customers. Not only was it difficult to get the items one needs, paying for the goods was an experience. Credit cards could not be used. Cash registers were not working. Some did not have calculators so adding the prices of the items and applying sales tax on each were not easy tasks. Somehow, times like these reminded me of my mentors who have had strong warnings against our reliance on calculators.

The problem, however, with calculators goes deeper than not knowing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide manually. In both chemistry and physics classes, it is now common to see numerical answers on students' test papers that do not make sense. The reliance on calculators has turned into a lack of sense of magnitude, a grave loss in meaning. Computers, information and communication technology are indeed tools. Tools do make our tasks faster and more efficient. Unfortunately, tools are also capable of shaping and modifying us.

I was quite amazed on how the computer keyboard helped my son recognize and appreciate letters. There are engaging computer activities out there that could really help children learn the alphabet. There are programs available for free on the internet that could help students learn to read. And there are sites that provide resources for advanced subjects. See "ICT and DepEd K to 12: Different Angles, Same Conclusion" for some examples. Thus, on one hand, it may seem that introduction of technology into classrooms is a sure winner. Back when I was in high school, scientific calculators were not yet widely available and I could not afford to have one. So in trigonometry, we were using tables. That was quite tedious so it paid to commit into memory the sine values of special angles like 0, 30, 45, 60 and 90 degrees. And knowing the sine values at these angles, one can derive the cosine, tangent, cotangent, secant and cosecant values. Having to work with these functions manually, one did have a greater opportunity to appreciate what they represent. Thus, the downside of technology is that the use of scientific calculators can take the entire picture into a black box.

It seems evident that applications of technology into the classroom need to be weighed appropriately. The following is how my computer screen looks as I type into Google "spell chegk":
The search engine can even make suggestions on what I am about to type and I do not even have to know the correct spelling. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The actual results that will come out of this search depend on the search and page ranking algorithms Google uses. This could easily have a much greater impact than scientific calculators do. Word processors can automatically correct "typos". There is a Thesaurus on the menu. One does not need anymore a wide vocabulary, synonyms are there with a simple click on the mouse. My college years were indeed horrific. I had to use a typewriter and one could not easily move a paragraph from one page to another. That would involve a lot of liquid paper and retyping. To check the spelling, I did not get an automatic red line under the word that would require my attention. Checking for the correct spelling actually involved picking a dictionary and finding the word. Obviously, it paid to know the correct spelling so that the dictionary was seldom consulted. It was likewise advantageous to have a wide vocabulary so that a Thesaurus, which could be as heavy and thick as a dictionary, was never necessary. Presentations were as challenging. Drawing a square, a perfect circle, an ellipse took patience, a ruler, protractor, a compass. Now, these are just clicks away. And with Ctrl+c (copy) and Ctrl+v (paste), making figures has never been as easy. So when my son was learning the alphabet through the keyboard, I was quite concerned that he might not learn how to write the letters. He did since we are still using pencil and paper.

My PhD mentor told me a story behind a discovery she made. In graduate school, they had weekly meetings on current advances in the field of physical chemistry. An recent article from a journal was assigned for each of these meetings. One of those weeks, the article that was assigned did not catch my mentor's interest that greatly so her eyes wandered to another article, the one printed on the next page, which inspired her to make that one discovery. There is a website called "StumbleUpon", but this is not the serendipity illustrated by my mentor's experience. There is a difference with actually handling printed material.

Classroom management and student assessment likewise have technology solutions. The following is an excerpt from Juan Williams' article "Fixing our schools -- here are solutions that work":
...The key is making learning materials from texts, tests and even assignments available electronically. That allows the students, their parents and teachers to track a student’s performance in real time.
It enables teachers and parents to identify a student who is falling behind and give that young person extra help, specifically tailored to get them back on track and moving up....
As in the other cases, it must be emphasized that technology is a tool that makes things work faster or more efficient. Having such a software or program does not guarantee a caring teacher who knows each and every student.

The use of technology must be weighed and evaluated according to its purpose. Without careful attention, we may simply miss the big picture....

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