Reimagining Education: How Technology Is Transforming the Way We Learn

A quarter of a century ago, when we presented interactive distance learning in the public education system of Western New York State, we encountered a lot of resistance from those who had a vested interest in the status quo. Even I, as a member of the teachers union, expressed apprehension that this would result in job losses. Our initial distance learning classrooms were limited to a maximum of twelve students, when the typical class size for secondary education was twice that number.

There will always be naysayers and alarmists who forecast doom and gloom when new technologies emerge in education. I remember when an uproar arose over children carry cell phones in schools. They could call their parents without coming to the office and asking permission. Students were using video conferencing apps to communicate with each other. They were texting in class and the presumption among many was that they were cheating. Cell phones were confiscated and held in school district offices.

I thought all of this over-reaction was nonsensical and regularly lobbied school administrators to rethink their reticense and instead teach children how to use these new devices for their benefit. Eventually I was given the opportunity to do just that and in 2009 designed and implemented one of the first digital citizenship classes in New York State. Our classroom even got visited by Deputy New York State Education Commissioner John King. It was one of the high points of my career.

Here we are again at a inflection point in education with the introduction of ChatGPT and similar technologies which are deemed equally disruptive by the naysayers. “Students will cheat” they say! That’s nothing new. Students have been cheating since Christ was a corporal. Maybe it’s time to rethink how we educate and more importantly how we assess education. If your tests are multiple choice, true false and essays maybe artificial intelligence agents threaten your methods.

Maybe you ought to be testing your students at a higher level. I am licensed to drive a car. I read a book, took driver education classes and had to pass a written examination and then demonstrate that I could actually drive. I learned how to drive a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. The dimmer switch was on the floor. Later they put those controls on the steering column. My vehicle today can steer itself and has collision avoidance (artificial intelligence agent) built into the car. When I learned to drive we used written direction and maps to navigate. Now Siri and Waze aid my navigation and I don’t want to go back. My headlights automatically dim at night.

In short we’re living in a new world and our students need to know how to navigate in that new environment. We have technologies today that translate web pages. We have intelligent devices and programs that allow visually impaired folks to read books, periodicals and newspapers. I wear digital hearing aids that make it possible for me to hear better.

ChatGPT and technologies like it are going to revolutionize our education and our environment. Our students need all the opportunities we can give them to succeed. We cannot know at this stage how these developments will impact our culture but we can be certain that they will. Are we depriving students and teachers of opportunities to learn in new and different ways?

I am not giving up

This post is a response to a wonderful educator from Saskatchewan who has written a very thoughtful piece on his blog expressing his frustration with his or his district’s battle to wean students from Youtube and Facebook. Let me preface what I’m going to say by letting you know that I teach middle school students about technology and I began with a charge to teach 7th & 8th graders digital citizenship a couple of years ago.

I also teach in a computer lab that was designed by someone who wasn’t teaching. It’s got rows of computers and the chairs all have wheels and the floor is hardwood. Every time a child fidgets in a seat there is a noise. When we have 15 to 17 students in the room it can get very distracting. If I was going to redesign the room I’d remove most of the computers and replace them with bean bag cushions some iPad and/or Android tablets and a few desktop Macs. My room would be bit less noisy the students would learn more and they’d be more comfortable and it would be a space that is more creative. I’d also remove the window shades and add a couple of skylights.

I’m a lifelong learner and teacher. I started teaching my brother when we were in pre-school and when I got old enough I used to make up tests for him with my Dad’s old mechanical typewriter.  Moodle is a dramatic improvement over that arrangement. I’m curious by nature and I’m almost always reading something. In the pre-internet days if I couldn’t find a good book I’d curl up with an encyclopedia. I’ve taken encyclopedias to lunch and to the restroom with me. I had the good fortune to grow up next to a public library and I lived in that place when I wasn’t in school or doing chores around the house.

I did reasonably well in school, but unlike my brother and sister I was not a valedictorian. I failed algebra, geometry and trigonometry. I excelled at spelling, but continue to struggle with grammar. I love to read and I loved American history. I liked science but had nothing to do with computers even in the punch card days because of my frustration with mathematics. I found school interesting at times but boring much of the time and much of my day was spent looking out the window. Much of what I loved to do they didn’t teach in school.  My teachers liked me. Even the math teachers liked me. It wasn’t lack of effort in mathematics. I spent hours with my Mom who has a masters degree in mathematics. I couldn’t “see” math. I’m a visual learner and it wasn’t until I was teaching a young man geometry using Apple LOGO that I had an epiphany about that area of my life.  As an undergrad I excelled at statistics and I still find statistics are far more interesting field than other forms of mathematics.

When I went to school there was a more of less discrete body of knowledge. Information was more difficult to come by. There was no Google or Yahoo and when I wanted more information which was nearly all the time I had to spend hours in the library or write the Library of Congress which I did once upon a time.  School then as now was really about socialization. It’s about learning too but when I think back to those days at St. Pius X, Archbishop Walsh and Pioneer Central I remember people not facts. I remember relationships and common experiences. I remember Mother Emily bursting into our sixth grade classroom to tell us President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I remember Mr. Douglas’ wonderful American history class that almost everyone loved because of his wonderful stories.  I graduated from high school with a 92.5 average and membership in the National Honor Society. I had a Regents Scholarship. I had a high verbal and low math score on the SAT. Today those numbers are only memories and almost meaningless. High school and even college are terrible predictors of future success.

Education is compulsory in the United States and Canada. Our students come to us not because they choose but because they must. They come to our classes from an endless variety of homes and cultures. Some are interested in learning what we have to offer but others are not too interested at all. They come from homes and and environments that are information rich and very social. Most 7th grade students are Facebook members even though they are not old enough. They are drawn to this medium for a variety of reason but most of them are social. Bullying and violence are a part albeit an unwelcome part of life. Man’s savagery to his fellows did not begin with the internet. Youtube is titillating for a variety of reasons. Children much like myself are curious and they are fascinated with games, Youtube and Facebook. Wouldn’t you love it if your students found your class as engaging as Facebook?

Educators used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge or at least they could make a better claim to that 40 years ago when I graduated from high school. Now, K-12 is a distraction for most students. Do we teach meaningful skills? Yes, we do! Who could function without reading or basic counting skills?  We have a captive audience who are required by law to attend our institutions. If education were a free market enterprise like McDonald’s we’d be forced to be a lot more creative. We’d spend more time trying to engage students in curricula meaningful to them rather than forcing them to learn what we value. We’d spend more time asking them if we are boring them and then re-tooling the processes to ensure that they are engaged.  Youtube and Facebook are social and that’s what people are by nature. We’re social creatures.  Our cafeteria is social, the drinking fountains are social and so are the after school activities.  You can filter the internet, you can remove all the wiring from your school too. You can trying locking the doors and nailing plywood over the windows too to focus their attention on your subject matter but it won’t solve all your problems and in the long run it will create an even greater dilemma.

We need to teach children and adults how to use technology for their good. The horse is out of the barn and nailing the door shut is only a temporary solution. Students don’t need our networks. Most of them have cell phones and they can message each other without our permission. They can access Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks without our knowledge or permission. It’s high time to re-think how we educate and deliver instruction. More interactive white boards and gadgets attached to boring content is like painting a turd.

There are ways to engage students and I’m spending much of my summer preparing content that will do that. I’m glad you wrote because you’ve helped me to focus much of what I’ve been thinking about.

First week

This was my first week teaching a class in almost five years. It was fun to be back in the classroom. This is the first time I’ve ever taught this particular age group. Keeping seventeen seventh graders and fourteen eighth graders on task can be a challenge. Add to that fact is that the curriculum I’m teaching them is one of my own creation. I can draw on the experience of others in creating the course of study and I did, but there is no one who really has embarked on what I’m charged with.

My initial emphasis was on self-esteem building. I think many of today’s youth are like young people have been since time began. They’re unsure of themselves. Add to this they are really the first generation to grow up online. They have never known a time when the internet didn’t exist. In addition to the that, nearly 70% of the class own cell phones and of that number nearly all have sent text and picture messages. I handed out mirrors on my first day of class. I told them their homework each day was to look in the mirror and tell themselves that they loved what they saw. In addition to that each of the students is asked to write a few sentences about what they’ve done that day. Moodle is the software that supports this course. Each student has his/her own blog and they love to write. Some of the students have really written quite a bit this first week. It’s the most popular aspect of the course thus far.

I’m really grateful to be back in the classroom and to be working with such an exciting bunch of students. They are challenging me to learn more and to re-think how I teach. Already I’ve had to adjust my style. Today I discovered how attuned they are to video. When I’m talking, even when I try to engage them in higher level thinking, they tend to fidget and move about. Today, I showed two short videos. One segment was about seven minutes long, the other about five minutes. In each case the students quieted down and were completely engaged. Tonight I spent time finding some appropriate videos and this weekend I’m adjusting my approach. It’s fun watching people learn. I’ve loved teaching ever since I was a little boy. I used to teach my brother lessons and then make up tests on my father’s mechanical typewriter. Moodle is a long way from a mechanical typewriter but some of the same principles apply.

Sun Day

The sun is shining here today. We haven’t seen much of it this summer. Last night on my way home from South Dayton I drove through blinding rain. It was very difficult to see at times. Today, is a lovely though, not a cloud in the sky. I’ve been writing curriculum and lesson plans for the course I’ll be teaching in September. I’ve been writing a section on blogging and reading and commenting on blogs. As a blogger I’ve really come to appreciate the value of this medium for sharing ideas and inviting commentary from readers. Please pray for the development of this curriculum and lesson plans as I try to present a coherent curriculum that really invites these young students to get involved in the learning.

I don’t want to be a talking head. I want to encourage as much student participation as possible and truly be the guide on the side rather than the more traditional teacher/lecturer. I’m grateful for the sun. Thank you Brother Sun it is darned nice to see you.