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Discussions on classroom technology ask wrong questions, experts say

Published: Tuesday, April 2 2013 5:36 p.m. MDT

The concept behind the analogy is a hypothetical world where writing, pencils and books do not exist. Then, when the pencil appears as an emerging technology, as tablet devices and competency-based learning programs are now, the question is whether it would be quickly embraced, or whether policymakers would call for pencil pilot programs to study their effect on classroom learning.

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SALT LAKE CITY — In the education community, there is a common analogy comparing emerging technologies and blended learning models with the common pencil.

The concept behind the analogy is a hypothetical world where writing, pencils and books do not exist. Then, when the pencil appears as an emerging technology, as tablet devices and competency-based learning programs are now, the question is whether it would be quickly embraced, or whether policymakers would call for pencil pilot programs to study their effect on classroom learning.

Richard Culatta, who serves as acting director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, demonstrated the pencil analogy Monday to guests of the Early Education and Technology for Children conference at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center.

Culatta shared statements culled from Twitter in which a particular technology had been substituted with the word "pencil," such as this one: "If we give every student a (pencil), we will have no control over the things they write."

Too often, he said, a new technology's efficacy is measured by its effect on existing practices, rather than the new learning models that it makes possible.

"Asking, ‘Does technology make a difference in education?’ is sort of like asking, ‘Does paper make a difference in education?'" Culatta said. "What you should be asking is, 'What are you doing with technology that you couldn't do before? Are we just using it to digitize traditional processes, or are we using it to really reinvent learning?'"

The idea of personalizing and individualizing education is powerful, he said. Educational technologies allow for more autonomy and individual choice as students work toward proficiency.

Culatta said the best examples of implementation he has seen include three things: the ability for students to move at their own pace, the ability for students to choose between various learning activities, and learning activities that are tied to a student's personal interests.

"You can do that without technology, but it would be really hard to do," he said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who attended the conference, said he was encouraged that the department of education had made digital learning a priority. Stephenson said the country's rankings among industrialized nations shows there is a crisis in American public education that can't be solved by individual states.

"We can't solve America's problems just by solving it in Utah," he said. "We need to assist legislators across the nation in knowing what their options are and what they ought to be doing to support local schools."

In his position in the Utah Legislature, Stephenson has been a vocal advocate for individualized learning and educational technologies. He said the 19th-century classroom, in which similarly aged students are taught or "batch processed" as a group, is insufficient to meet the needs of individual students who are sometimes far ahead or far behind their peers. 

"It's hard for a teacher to reach all of those students with a common presentation," Stephenson said. "Technology can actually individualize that instruction precisely for that student."

Stephenson said he recently visited several technology-equipped classrooms in the state with a group of educators and lawmakers. He said it was incredible seeing the students simultaneously reading aloud into a set of headsets without the need to compare their abilities with each other.

"They are moving ahead at their speed, without the tension of the reading group, and it's a joyful experience," Stephenson said.

Similar to how accountants use electronic spreadsheets or engineers use computer-assisted design software, technology is not intended to replace the teacher, he said, but instead is a modern tool to help instructors do their job more efficiently and more effectively.

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