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Technology is NOT a substitute for teaching                                            

By: Dr Rich Allen

The three guiding principles of integrating technology and teaching

Infusing education with technology is a wonderful idea. Classrooms with access to the internet and mobile devices have marvellous opportunities to make learning relevant to 21st Century students. Technology offers new ways to enable and encourage self-learning, engage students with content and build capability in vital workplace skills. However, as with every other educational strategy or tool, technology is only effective when embedded in a well thought out lesson plan and specifically applied to support learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, the current mad rush to incorporate technology into our schools and classrooms (BYOD anyone?) has in many cases served to undermine fundamentally sound teaching and learning strategies. The overwhelming notion seems to be that, if we incorporate a computer, cell phone, or iPad somewhere in the learning process, then we can call it a ‘21st Century’ lesson because it is more geared to meet the needs of this generation of learners.

It’s a seductive idea – and it’s wrong.

Let’s be clear: To prepare our students to succeed in the future, we must make sure they are comfortable not only with current technology, but also learning to use new technology as it emerges. All well and good as far as it goes. And yet?

How human beings learn hasn’t changed. When including technology in the curriculum, educators must understand its place in the learning process.

Here’s a simple example: Handing a child an iPad with interactive books on it will NOT teach them to read better. The child might be more excited to hold an iPad than a book. If they don’t know the meaning of a word, they might be more likely to use the ‘look up’ function than to open a dictionary. However, an iPad will not teach the child to read. It simply offers educators another tool to implement in the long, varied and complex process of teaching reading skills.
I recently had an up close and personal experience of the misuse of technology for educational purposes. My 15-year-old daughter was given an assignment in her Aboriginal Studies class. Each student was asked to research a specific topic and create a learning tool to help their peers understand and remember the topic for an essay-based test. In this case, the assignment mandated that the tool must be a form of digital content: either a 5-minute video or a 5-minute automated presentation.

So, she went and did the necessary research, gathered the information students needed to remember on the topic and made written notes, which she turned into a 5-minute script. This took about two hours. Next came the technology part – make a movie! Except, like most the students in the class, my step-daughter had never used Windows Movie Maker before. So, to complete her assignment, she had to go online and teach herself to use the programme. Then she had to record her script in tiny chunks, find or create visuals (graphics and diagrams) to support each 5-second grab, and then edit the whole thing together. As it turned out, editing sound and images together is hard and time consuming. Making the 5-minute movie took her ten times longer than it took to research her topic and write the script.

The problem here is two-fold. First, the actual subject-relevant learning portion of the assignment (research and writing) took up a tiny fraction of her time. The additional learning (how to use the video-making software) may be valuable as a future workplace skill but, the actual process of making the movie was really ‘busy work’. Once you’ve edited images to match one 5-second audio segment, you don’t learn anything more by editing the remaining 59 segments! It was an utterly ineffective use of potentially valuable study time.

Second, the point of the assignment was to create learning tools for her fellow students to support them in understanding and memorising content. Let’s face it a video is not a great device for that type of activity. Students would have been so much better off if the information was presented to them as a mind-map, chunked into memory pegs or provided in a mnemonic device – which would have also taken far less time to prepare. As a case in point, my step- daughter has created her own set of memory pegs to revise for the test – because as she says, “I can’t remember facts from a video.”

This single example – which is being replicated across the curriculum – demonstrates the danger of adding technology to an assignment without thinking through the learning outcomes.

When creating assignments and planning lessons, it’s vital that educators consider the three guiding principles of integrating technology and teaching:

1. Technology isn’t teaching. Without a great teacher guiding the learning appropriately, and engaged students, technology is just as useless as a worksheet.

2. Technology is just one tool of many. Educators need to make sure assessment tasks are fit for purpose. Technology may not be the appropriate response medium. Even if technology is appropriate, students should be given other options. Some students still learn best by writing essays. Not everyone is a digital content producer – and not everyone needs to be. The vast majority of future professions will not require people with the ability to make a video.

3. Technology-based assignments require technology skills. If we expect students to make digital content to demonstrate their understanding, then we must first teach them the content-making skills.
The danger is that we mistake technology as a panacea for student engagement and good teaching. Yes, students are surgically attached to their devices. Yes, they’d rather engage with a Smartphone than a worksheet. Yes, some of them would rather produce a video than write an essay. But we cannot just throw a device into a lesson, or add digital content production to an assignment and assume that this will magically improve educational outcomes. It all goes back to the fundamental question – where is the learning value?

Used properly, technology can help both teachers and students learn more and achieve more. However, it can also be monumental waste of teaching and learning time, drawing the teacher’s attention away from where the real focus of the learning should be. Ultimately, the key is in finding ways to successfully merge sound learning principles with the right type of technology – when appropriate. Technology is not a substitute for teaching. We do our students and educators a disservice by pretending that it is.

Dr Rick Allen is a master trainer, with a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. His cognitive learning theory research, which provided understanding on how the brain receives, processes, stores, and recalls information, forms the basis for his radical approach to teaching, presenting and facilitating. 

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