July 25, 2024


Science It Works

High Technology, Education and Teachable Moments

Educators have many thoughts about high technology generally, and there is much written on this topic. Aside from discussing the latest and greatest “something,” teachers seem to focus on two main topics in this area — the way technology permeates our students’ lives 24/7, and use and misuse of technology in the classroom for student learning.

High technology is here to stay, and overall it has improved many aspects of our lives. That said, I think we should stop and think about Jesse Pearson’s recent observation as a middle-school humanities teacher, published by the National Association of Independent Schools. After students at his school in California had used technology throughout the school day, he wrote:

“Then school was over for the day. As they made their way to the pickup line, students reflexively produced their own phones. They checked TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. They texted their parents asking to walk home with friends. They made roster moves on fantasy football teams. On their walks and rides home, they were selecting Spotify playlists, updating social media profiles, and playing video games. When they reached home, they would put their phones down, open their laptops, launch Google Docs, and finish the satire assignment they’d begun in my class.

“That night at home, I cracked open my own laptop to do some grading and planning, and it hit me: From the time most of my students wake up to the time they go to bed, they spend, at best, 45 consecutive minutes not interacting with technology.”

As the Delphian School’s first high technology teacher and first computer system manager in the early ’80s, I’ve seen it all with both our day and boarding students. I hope my thoughts help stimulate other educators’ thinking on this subject.

We can’t lose the human touch. We can’t lose our values and what is important about life. No one thinks the desired endgame is a “WALL-E” world of out-of-shape, immature citizens who spend all day sitting and staring at screens. We have to ensure that technology is seen as the enabling tool it is, not the endgame.

High technology is here to stay, and the trend is for more of it to permeate our schools and the lives of our teachers, our students, and their families. As educators, we have to think critically about its appropriate use and share that discussion with our students. We know that many of the tools available can be used for good or misused in harmful ways. As a business and economics teacher, I am always reminded that all choices involve cost (cost being the best alternative not chosen). The latest and greatest tools may have harms we haven’t fully understood and explored, but if properly used, they may help struggling students or teachers succeed in ways they never dreamed possible.

As educators, it is vital that we make the topics of the proper use and misuse of technology — or choosing not to use it at all — an ongoing priority discussion with students, parents and colleagues. All choices involve cost.

  • For example, do students know what data is being collected when they use (apparently) free programs and apps on their phones or laptops? How many really understand how predators misuse technology to cause physical and emotional harm?

  • What do we do about a student in classroom lectures who plays games with video screens up while using Google Docs Voice Typing to transcribe everything in real-time? That student’s education has gone off the rails, and we need to talk about it.

  • Teachers must be aware of the many ways students can cheat and make those opportunities part of an ongoing discussion. For example, students know they can enter a topic into a program and have an AI write their papers, committing undetectable plagiarism. They never learn to write! (Just search “AI essay generator” if you aren’t familiar with this topic!) Snap a photo of a math problem and an app will answer, with step-by-step work displayed. Students can take online tests with search engines providing every correct answer. And we need to have real answers to students’ questions, such as “If a computer can get me the answer that fast, why do I need to learn it?”

For these students, the fundamental educational goals that we have for them aren’t ones they embrace. That’s a subject for discussion. Denise Pope’s Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, tells the story well. And we have to ask ourselves if we want to play the game of using new and improved, cheat-proof testing technology because that feeds the vicious cycle of students finding new ways to cheat and companies finding improved solutions.

Instead, I urge educators to make this the topic of the day, the teachable moment. We need to talk about ethics and morality. If cheating works in school, what will stop students from using it in their daily lives and their work? And what are the broader effects of cheating? More importantly, if cheating is just part of doing school, when will they learn to read and write and think? How will they learn to think logically, how to detect bias in research, how to determine the truth, and all the other things we want them to learn?

Educators have always had to help students learn to make the right decisions. We want them to learn from history, we want them to learn from literature, and we want them to learn from great thinkers. And always, we want them to learn to be honest and ethical. These are the topics that we need to be discussing with our students and families.

And last, we have to repeatedly remind our students that the Internet is forever. We need to keep reminding them that their playful antics of today, recorded in words and pictures, could haunt them forever.

That said, let’s not forget what is wonderful about technology from an educational point of view. Instead of going to the library to read out-of-date books as I had to when I grew up, students can instantly get accurate information, explore concepts of interest, and find and read original sources. The Modern Classrooms Project could only achieve its success when technology made it possible for teachers to make short video recordings of their lectures and for students to easily access them on tablets or phones. Khan Academy is only made possible because the Internet and YouTube exist. And the Internet made it possible to share news of the world in ways we never dreamed possible and to communicate with people around the world in ways that can improve life for everyone.

I suggest that we think about and take up these topics on a regular basis. There is a lot to talk about — this is the teachable moment!