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Geoff Johnson: School technology begins profound changes

The first commercial automobiles were marketed in the 1890s, and by 1906, steam-car development had advanced to the point that steam cars were among the fastest road vehicles in that period.

The first commercial automobiles were marketed in the 1890s, and by 1906, steam-car development had advanced to the point that steam cars were among the fastest road vehicles in that period.

Nobody could have guessed that the ensuing profound changes to our way of life would include changes in employment patterns, social interactions, goods distribution, the use of non-renewable fuels, the disconnection of communities, and generations of air and noise pollution.

Who knew? And had they known, what difference would it have made?

The same could be said of the long-term unimagined consequences of the first untethered human flight by the brothers Montgolfier in Annonay, France, in 1783 and then, 120 years later, of the world’s first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, on Dec. 17, 1903, by the Wright brothers.

No one at that time could imagine where that was all going to lead or the profound impact any of this would have on our 21st-century way of life.

No one then could have begun to imagine YVR as an international hub of everyday travel.

Which brings us to the genie in the bottle labelled “educational technology” and its potential for the reorganization of formal learning. This genie is all but released now, but what are our three best wishes going to be, and should we begin imagining the long-term impact on what we thought was just a neat piece of magic?

Research analyst Vanessa Vega, a researcher with the Center for Learning in Informal and Formal Environments at Stanford University, has put some thought into this. Writing for the George Lucas-funded website Edutopia, Vega identifies three key principles that aid successful technology integration into teaching and learning.

These are situations in which students play an active role in their learning and receive frequent personalized feedback, where students learn to both critically analyze and create media of their own, and where teachers connect classroom activities to the world outside.

Successful classroom technology integration is achieved, she suggests, when the technology is routine and transparent, accessible and readily available for the task at hand, and supportive of both curricular goals and also providing multiple paths for students to reach those goals.

It’s a start.

Researchers suggest that classrooms with limited access are more likely to remain teacher-centric, while more fully equipped classrooms will power the kind of change where the teacher’s role evolves toward providing leadership in guiding students in how to find current primary-source materials and to develop new ways of collecting and recording data.

Teachers and students both will accept new ways by which students can demonstrate understanding and revise their traditional perceptions of both teacher-devised assessment and of student self-assessment.

In these early days of classroom technology, the best stuff seems to be happening when students and teachers don’t even stop to think about the novelty of using a technological tool — an iPad, desktop computer, interactive white-board or some other platform — because using the technology has become second nature for everybody, especially the kids.

Some strong arguments are being made that technology will enable teachers to reach students who had rejected all previous efforts to involve them in learning. Now, through the use of an iPad, kids demonstrate increased attention spans, a willingness to persevere with a problem, even a new willingness to try different approaches to solving a problem — all because the technology is nonjudgmental, is endlessly patient and is leading the student to an experience of personal success.

And there is a big difference for some kids between being the only kid in the class who doesn’t “get it” and being someone who just needs a bit more time to find a different way to understand the topic. No need to make your mistakes in public.

Twelve years ago there was no iPhone, no iPad. Like the horseless carriage and untethered manned flight, the role of technology in the evolution of how kids learn is taking us all toward some kind of new, and as yet undefined, world order for public education, not tomorrow, not even next year, but sooner than today’s kindergarten kids will graduate from high school 12 years from now.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.