EWA spoke with Lisa Guernsey, director of the New America Foundation’s early education initiative, and a former reporter for the New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education, about how schools are incorporating technology once thought best reserved for entertainment purposes into the classroom. (Click here to watch “Getting Schooled By a Third Grader,” a conversation with Guernsey, educators and technology experts. The event, held Aug. 9 in Washington, D.C., was sponsored by Arizona State University, Slate and New America Foundation as part of its Future Tense project.)
1. There’s plenty of discussion about schools buying iPads in bulk. What is one of the more promising new technologies you’ve seen implemented in a classroom that you think deserve more attention?
My focus is on education for younger kids, pre-K and elementary schools, and while touchscreen tablets have some amazing capabilities, I would look critically at a school that has purchased them in bulk without involving teachers in how they could be used in the classroom to augment lessons. The same would go for any “promising new technology,” whether it is e-book software, a digital camera or a smart board. Once a school has a critical mass of proven teachers asking for a specific kind of technology and getting excited about how they would use it to enhance or improve their teaching, that’s when a particular device or piece of software deserves more attention.
2. For reporters covering these stories, what would you suggest they look for when they visit blended learning classrooms? Are there hallmarks of successful initiatives?
I would encourage reporters to observe. Are technology-based lessons triggering learning (questions, curiosity, exploration) that goes beyond the screen? Can you see evidence of the content or skill being learned deeply enough that it is having an impact offline, too? Are teachers helping to take kids to the next level, probing what they are or aren’t learning and providing them with new challenges? (Are there new opportunities for extending conversations into the home about books and stories, curiosity-sparking ideas, science experiments, social interactions?
3. Following up on the previous question, what are some red flags that might suggest technology isn’t being used appropriately as a learning tool or to supplement instruction?
If you see teachers simply showing children how to login or pick a font color, I’d question how much value that teacher is truly adding. Another test is to ask: Is the technology merely allowing for an electronic form of printed worksheets or homework assignments, or is it enabling kids to do something they couldn't do without the technology? In preschools, I’ve seen teachers use electronic white boards to do things they could have easily done with an old-fashioned felt board.
4. Research suggests the achievement gap among minority students and students from lower-income households is being compounded by a technology gap. How might these multimedia tools help address those issues?
I don't know of research that comes to that exact conclusion for elementary school children, but there is a well-founded theory that children will be at an advantage in parsing and using online information if they grow up with parents who use computers themselves and who show them how to think critically about what they see on-screen.
I’d urge reporters to look more deeply into the technology gap and digital divide issues and try to assess what families are doing with technology, not just whether they have access to it or not. Also, the landscape is changing fast, and some data show that smart phones are being adopted by low-income young adults at a similar rate to higher-income young adults. Some of those young adults are no doubt parents or soon to become parents, and so they may be more likely to have access to digital information in the future.
5. What’s surprised you about how technology previously reserved for “entertainment” purposes is being used as a learning tool?
I’m surprised, and heartened, by the fact that a growing number of educators are examining how to better engage students by employing strategies that work in video games. For example, games such as Minecraft (a building-blocks game) enable users to seize control of their destinies and create tougher challenges for themselves. I’ll be interested to see how MinecraftEDU, which is now being tested with 50 teachers around the world, might re-shape the learning space for young children, tweens and teens.