How teachers can leverage themselves using technology

What is good learning? That may be a prejudiced question. But it’s likely that many educators would give answers that fall in the same ballpark… …students collaborating and discussing ideas, possible solutions… …project-based learning, designed around real world contexts… …connecting with other students around the world, on topics of study… …immersing students in a learning experience that allow them to grapple with a problem, gaining higher-order thinking skills from pursuing the solution… To many educators, these notions are music to their ears. Would it seem terribly strange then hear that students indeed are doing these things regularly outside of their classrooms? While Timmy or Susie may not be running home from school saying, “What fun, deeply engaging learning experience can we do today?”, they are engaging with new technologies that provide them with the same opportunities. 

Every day, many students are spending countless hours immersed in popular technologies—such as Facebook or MySpace, World of Warcraft, or Sim City—which at first glance may seem like a waste of time and brain cells. But these genres of technologies—Social Networking, Digital Gaming, and Simulations—deserve a second, deeper, look at what’s actually going on. ~~~ When you hear “MySpace” or “World of Warcraft,” what do they bring to mind for you? What emotions do you associate with them? Have you heard of them before? Your students have, and they almost certainly have strong opinions about them. You don’t need to be a teenager to use or understand these technologies or to use them in your classroom. Market research data indicates that many a normal, middle-aged adult1 uses these technologies with frequency. The fact is, you can be 17, 35, or 60, and when you begin to engage with them and observe what’s really going on, you can begin to see that these technologies are more than just entertainment. 

These technologies are already demonstrating how they impact the way we think, learn, and interact—and they are also demonstrating the tremendous potential they have in these areas as well. The emergence of social networking technologies and the evolution of digital games have helped shape the new ways in which people are communicating, collaborating, operating, and forming social constructs. In fact, recent research is showing us that these technologies are shaping the way we think, work, and live. This is especially true of our youngest generations— those arriving at classrooms doors, soon to be leaving them and entering the workforce and society-at-large. 

Our newest generation – currently in K-12 – is signifying for us the impact of having developed under the digital wave. These adolescences have been completely normalised by digital technologies—it is a fully integrated aspect of their lives (Green & Hannon, 2007). Many students in this group are using new media and technologies to create new things in new ways, learn new things in new ways, and communicate in new ways with new people— behaviour that has become hardwired in their ways of thinking and operating in the world. Green and Hannon give an excellent example of this, “Children are establishing a relationship to knowledge gathering which is alien to their parents and teachers” (2007, p. 38). Not surprisingly, this “transformation” has serious implications for us in the space of education. Nearly all institutions – business, industry, medicine, science and government – have harnessed aspects of these technologies for decades. Games and simulations have been a key component of training doctors and military personnel, but even businesses like Price water house Coopers used a game about a mining company in outer space to teach its employees about derivatives. Although that may seem a bit “off the wall,” the fact is major corporations, the Department of Defense, and the medical community would not use these tools if they were not highly effective. Although these examples are mainly centred on training purposes, there are deeper educational benefits to digital simulations and games. Yet educational institutions have been reluctant to embrace these technologies. Likewise, where schools have often shied away from giving students an online identity in a digital networking platforms to increase opportunities for learning, professional organisations are leveraging networking technologies to increase teamwork, knowledge-sharing, and production amongst their employees. Traditionally, education has been impeded by the security and other potential dangers of employing social networking technologies. 

These concerns should not be ignored; however, neither should these tools due to these concerns. Advances in these technologies continue to afford us new ways to manage the potential dangers. Simulations, digital gaming, and social networking technologies have all definitely suffered the same public relations problems that all new technologies do. However, there are countless examples of these technologies demonstrating their educational value to other industries, confirming the powerful learning opportunities and advantages they afford. It is our position that these technologies are safe, valuable tools schools must take seriously. Of course, changing instructional approaches is no easy task, particularly when technology is involved. Adopting and integrating technology-based instructional strategies has a long history of challenges, but with it has come a great accepting of how to achieve success with them.

- Dr Nitasha Bali, email

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