April 9, 2015

Making Technology Work In Elementary Schools

By Brent Anderson

Making Technology Work

Since its invention, personal computer technology has radically changed classroom instruction. At the very least, teachers recognize that computer literacy is an essential skill for the 21st century, and so mandatory computer classes have been added to the middle- and high-school curriculum in schools across the country. Ideally, these classrooms employ 1:1 technology, giving each student his or her own computer to work with. But the potential benefits of computerized learning are not limited to computer literacy alone – digital resources can also be of help to students in areas as diverse as mathematics, foreign languages, and even social studies. At the same time, there are obvious drawbacks to giving each student a personal computer during class time. For today’s teachers, then, integrating 1:1 technology presents a serious challenge and an unprecedented opportunity. Nowhere is this more critical than in elementary schools. Just like foreign languages, computer skills are best learned at an early age; but increased screen time may detract from children’s learning of social skills and personal communication, which are traditionally among the main goals of elementary school education.

The Problems with Technology

Any parent knows that problems can arise when young children spend too much time on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. For one thing, interacting with these devices is a physically passive activity: it requires very little movement. As a result, too much time with technology may mean too little time exercising and moving their bodies. This is unhealthy for a child’s developing body, and also may have detrimental psychological effects, leading to hyperactivity and irritability. Computer programs also stimulate the brain’s “reward” centers through bright colors, satisfying sounds, and constant movement. The possibility for instantaneous gratification is heightened with a computer, and so children may not learn the skills of patience and self-control. Children who spend too much time in front of a computer may grow accustomed to this instantaneous gratification, and may be easily bored or distracted as a result. Constant electronic stimulation can even have an addictive effect, leading children to neglect all other activities in favor of the computer. Finally, students sitting in front of a computer are probably not interacting with each other or with their teacher, which prevents the development of essential social skills.

The Benefits of Technology

On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the prospect of 1:1 technology in elementary school classrooms. The most obvious consideration here is that students enjoy learning this way. Although electronic stimulation is detrimental and potentially addictive in large doses, it is certainly very enjoyable! Because kids enjoy interacting with computers, they will be more motivated in their studies and more likely to continue learning outside of class. 1:1 technology also gives teachers the opportunity to personalize students’ assignments based on their own level of preparation. For example, a math app could be programmed to learn what tasks students have the most trouble with, and adapt itself to focus on those tasks. Or a social studies app could periodically quiz students on their knowledge of history, and automatically link back to information that was not retained, allowing for an automatic, tailor-made review session. The computer can, in some ways, act like a personal tutor for each student.

How to Capitalize on Technology

Is it possible to get the best of both worlds? Can a classroom be designed so that children get the benefits of technology without its risks? Perhaps. If such a system is to work, though, its approach will have to be:

  1. Balanced: Technology in a classroom is not a bad thing unless it becomes so dominant that it crowds out other activities such as exercise, personal interaction, and dealing with physical objects.
  1. Fun, but not too much fun: Obviously, school will be more productive if students enjoy learning than if they hate it. But students must also learn that not everything in life is fun, and sometimes they must patiently work through something difficult in order to reap the rewards at the end. Thus, computerized learning must not be too heavily dependent on games and other fun activities – challenging, even boring material is an essential part of the curriculum.
  1. Interactive: Even if each student has an individual computer, this does not necessarily mean that they are all working separately. Educational programs can be designed to be collaborative, with each student working on a separate terminal but contributing to a central project. Similarly, a teacher can easily sit with a student to explain the program individually, thus creating opportunities for direct personal communication.
  1. Personalized: Just as each student has different social skills and physical abilities, children differ in their ability to work with technology (and to cope with its detrimental effects). Thus, it is essential that teachers be attentive to their students’ individual needs and behavior, rather than relying on the computer as a “babysitter.” In short, the computer can only be a tool for teachers, not a replacement for teachers.

By Brent Anderson

Brent Anderson

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