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Technology in the classroom: Fad or foundation for learning?

From cell phones to laptops, technology tools are becoming standard equipment for many students, raising questions about how they're being used.

GreatSchools Blog

By GreatSchools Staff

In some classrooms, iBooks have replaced textbooks. In others, students prepare video yearbooks that can be delivered to their classmates' cell phones. In still others, teachers ask students a question, and they punch in their answers with clickers that look like TV remote controls.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent getting computers into U.S. classrooms, and teachers and students around the country are using technology in new ways. That raises two important questions for parents: How is technology improving learning? Are students developing the skills they'll need to understand and use techology in the future?

Pointers for parents

It can be tough to assess a school's use of technology. There is little research to go on since many of the tools and techniques are new.

Here are three pointers to help assess how technology is being implemented:

1. Ask the teacher or principal how technology is aligned with grade-level goals.

Parents might be wowed by an 8-year-old's ability to produce a PowerPoint presentation without looking closely at the thinking that went into it. While students need to develop technological skills, it should be in the context of thinking and learning to solve problems. That means the technology needs to be aligned with learning goals, says Shelley Pasnik, senior researcher for the New York-based Center for Children and Technology.

"There needs to be a vision on the part of the instructional leaders at the school," she says. "The content should lead; the tool should follow."

2. Ask your child how he or she uses technology when doing assignments.

If, for example, your child worked on a multimedia presentation about the Lewis and Clark expedition, ask why he or she chose certain elements. You'll find out pretty quickly if technology was used for its own sake or because there was thought behind it.

Pasnik explains, "If your child says, 'I was able to use not only my words to describe Lewis and Clark's journey, but also a picture' or 'I chose this font because it looked like something Lewis and Clark might have used in the 1800s,' you'll see that technology was used to give deeper meaning to learning."

3. Volunteer in the computer lab.

Pasnik also encourages parents to help out in the school's computer lab to see how technology is used. When you're visiting the school, ask the teacher why the computer was used in a particular lesson. If he or she says, for example, that students posed questions to experts in the field via the Internet, that's a sign that technology serves a valuable purpose.

Using technology in inspired ways

Headlines about innovations in school technology disguise a key fact: The way technology is used varies widely from classroom to classroom. While many computers sit unused much of the day, some schools are harnessing technology in creative ways to engage students and teachers.

Bill Carey, a Tennessee author and history buff, is a case in point. Working with the state Department of Education and teachers, Carey created Tennessee History for Kids, which came about because there are so few textbooks available on Tennessee history. The site includes grade-by-grade curriculum on state history, geography, and civics, and Carey hopes its interactive games will inspire students to challenge each other in a game of Tennessee trivia.

Elsewhere teachers are experimenting with classroom blogs that introduce multimedia skills to children and help them polish their writing skills. Mr. Roemer's Fifth-Grade Polar Bears in Tampa, Fla., also keeps parents informed about what's going on in the classroom.

A few districts, such as the one in Vail, Ariz., are giving students laptops instead of textbooks in a step toward an all-digital curriculum. It's a solution that addresses the problem of outdated textbooks and bulging backpacks. But, as critics have been quick to point out, it's expensive.

First used in college classrooms in the late '90s, classroom clickers have become less expensive and more common in public school classrooms. Teachers use these devices to find out if their students are understanding — or paying attention to — the material being covered in a lesson. Here's how they work:

  • Using a computer keyboard, the teacher displays a question on a large screen in front of the class.
  • Students point to the screen with their clickers and punch in an answer.
  • The answers are sent to a receiver either through radio or infrared signals, then fed into a computer.
  • A summary of the results is displayed on the screen instantly, giving teachers real-time feedback.
  • The answers of individual students can also be tracked by the teacher.

There is no solid research yet that indicates whether clickers improve teacher or student performance, and they are costly tools because every student needs a laptop to use the technology.

More tech tools

Educational service providers, schools, districts, and entire states are experimenting with ways to use the Internet and gadgets to teach students:

  • Help by cell phone or iPod. Teachers in New Hampshire post class assignments and homework on HomeworkNOW.com, and students check the site with their cell phones. For those wanting to gear up for the SAT, test-preparation company Kaplan offers tutorials in mathematics, reading, and writing for the iPod.
  • Online assistance. All students in 4th through 12th grade in Alabama can now get free online homework help from 3 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Tutors are chosen by the company Tutor.com, which screens and trains current and retired teachers, grad students, and professors. In Georgia, every high school student has free access to online SAT preparation.
  • Online courses. More districts are offering Web-based classes, from basic requirements for graduation to Advanced Placement. Even PE — yes, PE — is offered online in Minneapolis. Students fulfill the requirement by documenting their heart rates and workouts online. While these can be cost-effective ways for schools to add extra classes and for students to fit classes into crowded schedules, some critics say video dissection of a frog is just not as effective as the hands-on version.
  • Testing technology literacy. A group of colleges has been working with the Educational Testing Service to test technological literacy. The test is designed to measure whether students can use technology as a tool to find, evaluate, organize, and communicate information. An online demo is available at The Information and Technology Communication Literacy Assessment.

 

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/3/2012:
"Sometimes children just need to learn how to use PowerPoint. Yes, eventually, they need to understand what goes into making a successful PowerPoint presentation but at the age of 8 just let them explore the software. Teachers will assign kids projects to create presentations about themselves, a set of instructions, or their favorite vacation. This lets kids have fun and really enjoy learning. Once they are older, yes, they should have a more structured learning on how to create a PowerPoint presentation. Otherwise kids are just going to get burnt out. "
12/12/2011:
"There is misleading information in this article. In the section on using "clickers", the author states that the students all need laptops to use this technology, which is wrong. The students all need their own "clicker", which at the elementary level is provided by the school. The teacher uses one computer to ask the question and receive the answers. Recent research does suggest that these improve both teaching and learning in the classroom. Most of this research has been done with older students, but I am currently researching the use of Student Response Systems (clickers) in the elementary classroom. The author of this article doesn't seem to understand that the children of today need to have technology incorporated into their daily activities because that is what their future holds. Computers are not used as merely word processors, the best practices described here are the norm in most schools. "
12/1/2010:
"Technology is very important life skill.Inorder to prepare for life and success, children need tolearn more, not less. Including tchnology it means learning more, in my opinion and equipping them with a valuable skill, they will use and need to be familiar with. If teachers are overwhelmed it shows they are oboslete, but they can re-train and need to. We do not keep the children behind for such reason."
08/24/2009:
"Today, not every student needs a laptop to use the clicker technology. SMART Technologies (makers of the SMART board, an interactive board) have a product called the Senteo which allows students to respond without the use of individual laptops. You do need one computer to run the program though. I have used it and found it extremely engaging for the students. "
10/21/2008:
"Not everyone needs a laptop to use clickers. "
07/17/2008:
"I would like to learn more about the clickers, companies, costs etc. Can you provide the details? CB"
03/17/2008:
"Our elementary school (Namaqua) is one of the leaders in the district in acquiring Prometheus/Smart boards for the classrooms. Our parent committee partnered with the administration to raise money for the technology, and to purchase training for the teachers. At a demo given for parents, we saw how the use of this combination white board/computer/internet tool allows teachers to engage students using all their senses. The kids are eager to use it, and the teachers are learning ways to use it to really enhance learning. It's exciting to see, and there are lessons on-line that teachers can download to help them use the technology most effectively. It's just a tool, but used properly it has amazing potential."
03/13/2008:
"Thanks for this great article"
01/16/2008:
"This issue was quite useful. It gives me some context with which to view computer use in the schools. Thanks."
09/26/2007:
"I think technology can lead to a deeper understanding. It has to help to see where Lewis and Clark explored or terrain they had to cross, this is one way the internet can help us. I think the kids will be excited to learn if its not just a lecture."
10/4/2005:
"I have taught in a classroom of 5th graders for five years and we all had laptop computers to use at school and home. We learned from each other and created many wonderful projects. But the greatest fact was how these kids became problem solvers and what they learned has 'stuck' with them long after they left the classroom."
10/3/2005:
"There is a lot of emphasis on high tech, and I see little praticle application. The automotive industry is a high tech area and most highschools have closed their auto shops, and do not even give an introduction to the second most expensive item most people own."
10/3/2005:
"I’ll tell you the problem with using technology at such a young age. Children will learn to take short cuts and not really be able to appreciate what they learn. The analogy of the Lewis and Clark power point is more accurate then anyone thinks. One must learn to walk before they can run. If you go to a university to take the Calculus sequence you are not permitted to use any graphing calculators, you must understand the fundamental theorems in order to apply them. Why should elementary school be any different? If a kid can Google, highlight, copy, paste and whala they have a report done, they’ve learned nothing. Further more, as far as dependency on technology goes, if for any reason it quits working people are lost. You need to understand the nuts and bolts of what is going on. "
09/29/2005:
"Good article. I think all parents need a detail of the controls in place when working in technology in classroom situations. Many teachers are overwhelmed and overworked with little to no training in computer education. Many technicians were teachers first, and not engineers in the field. Computer based work needs to come from an engineering side rather than a 'teacher add on'. Does our Superintendant have any background in computer technology? If not, how would he/she know if classes are being taught correctly? Where is all the money going?? As a parent, I see no 'good' use of this exchange especially when high schoolers enter college without proper skills, including sound keyboarding practice. As an engineer and college professor, we need to get in the game."
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