Smart Classroom

Allowing Technology To Amplify Quality Teaching

In 1913 Thomas Edison declared that motion pictures were going to revolutionize education, estimating that individuals only absorb two percent of the material they read but 100 percent of what they see on film. When television came along in the 1950s many thought it was going to revolutionize education. President Kennedy was so sure about television's power he convinced Congress to authorize $32 million for classroom television programs.

Today school districts are looking to mobile devices and laptops to revolutionize education. Without question these devices have the potential to be effective tools. However, without quality adult supervision they are merely cognitive candy, warns Kentaro Toyama, W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University Of Michigan's School of Information. Toyama spent a decade designing technologies for education and witnessed technology implementation strategies that worked and ones that failed. Over the years he's developed the "Law of Amplification," which districts and teachers can follow to ensure their technology works harder and smarter.

Toyama's Law of Amplification states that teachers who are motivated and committed to education and have sufficient time to learn about technology and integrate it into their lessons will positively exploit technology. The technology amplifies their positive pedagogical qualities. On the other hand, teachers who are unmotivated or those who are motivated but are not trained on the integration of technology or not supported by their administration will have little success using technology in their classrooms.

"The defining factor about whether technology is used well in the classroom or not is the degree to which the teachers are committed and prepared to use the technology," said Toyama, who details his law in Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (PublicAffairs).

Beware Those Blingy Rewards
Providing mobile devices to students without quality adult supervision is like giving dessert to children before they have had their dinner, said Toyama. The cognitive candy effectively kills the students' appetite for truly nutritious education. To prevent this from happening school districts must be careful and vigilant with their spectra and use of technology in the classroom.

As technology advances students expect just the blingy rewards without putting forth the cognitive work, said Toyama. This is exactly the opposite of what districts and their educators should be doing. Instead teachers should be offering the blingy rewards sparingly to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn rather than motivating students extrinsically.

Toyama is not the only technology "heretic" out there. In fact, while many poor school districts are doing everything possible to get more technology into their schools, wealthy, well-educated parents are asking the districts that educate their children to pare down the technology and provide more adult guidance. Lakeside School, a private high school in Seattle whose students are the scions of the Pacific Northwest elite and that boasts Bill Gates among its alumni, has no dearth of technology. But what the parents of Lakeside students are really paying for is the extra adult guidance that is so important in a student's education. Lakeside has a 9:1 student to teacher ratio.

Similarly many tech company executives in Silicon Valley send their children to Waldorf Schools, where technology is banned up to the eighth grade. "What this tells you is that the people who are at the center of the technology industry and who have had incredible educations themselves and have high hopes for their children and have the wealth to afford whatever educational system they prefer, are asking for less technology in their children's lives," said Toyama.       

Toyama and his ilk are not railing against technology and they're certainly not encouraging districts to ban it. What they're saying is that the success of a district's technology implementation plan is heavily dependent on the adults in charge not the amount of devices in the district. It's quality versus quantity.

Deploying Technology with Positive Results
To assist districts in successfully deploying technology, Toyama has identified three forces that must be present for technology to positively affect education: intention, judgment and self-control. When teachers use technology properly it amplifies these qualities allowing both the qualities and the technology to shine at their brightest, said Toyama. If any of these elements is missing technology is misused and becomes a distraction rather than a positive tool.

Good intention, which is typically apparent in an educational context, provides that both the teacher and the student are focused on learning specifically for the child's benefit. Good judgment, however, is a quality that is far more difficult to measure or breakdown.

"It often means that in the case of teachers they are making both short-term, moment-by-moment decisions and longer-term decisions about how to structure a curriculum that is in the best interest of the students they are teaching," said Toyama.

Sometimes good judgment means not using technology even when the lesson is about technology. "In many circumstances in which I have taught computer literacy skills to very young children, I found that having them close the laptops at their desk is an essential part of teaching them about the laptops themselves," said Toyama.

Self-control, the third force, is the ability for a teacher to follow through on intentions. Teachers may place a limit on computer time in the classroom, for example, but drift over that limit for any number of reasons. Technology will only be effective in the classroom if the teacher has the discipline and self-control to make a concerted effort to shut down the mobile device. "All three of these components are necessary not just at the (teacher level) but at the school level," said Toyama.

The Three Habits of Highly Effective Technology
The best use of technology solutions in education is selective and targeted, according to Toyama. To ensure districts get the most out of their technology dollars, he created three rules that guarantee that a district's technology amplifies the positive qualities of the teacher using the technology.

The first rule states that since technology amplifies underlying human forces, it is important that the stakeholders identify those positive human forces. These forces include the schools that are excelling and the teachers within those schools who are the best at what they do. Once identified these star teachers should be supplied with an abundance of the latest technology. "These are the candidates where the addition of technology is likely to help," said Toyama. Money spent on technology for ineffective teachers is merely wasted.

The second rule states that teachers should use technology solutions to amplify positive human forces. For example, providing a mobile device to an outstanding history teacher who is not technologically savvy won't automatically enrich his students' learning experience. But if administration works closely with this teacher to identify his teaching style and trains him on how to use the mobile device so that it amplifies his pedagogical intentions, his students will immediately reap the benefit of the newly deployed technology.

Toyama's third rule states that schools should avoid indiscriminate dissemination of technology.

"It's kind of pointless to run these projects in which the goal is to distribute as many computers as possible to as many children as possible. Without understanding whether the students are in an educational context that is already working for them you don't know if the technology is actually going (to be effective or not)," said Toyama. It was the indiscriminate dissemination of technology that caused Nicholas Negroponte's One Lap Top Per Child initiative to fail, according to Toyama.

As a rule Toyama said he bristles at technology initiatives that allocate mobile devices and laptops without considering the educational aspect of their use and determining whether the devices will amplify the positive qualities of the human resources using them.

"Any project involving computing technology in education is always going to run up against one fundamental challenge: what children most want to do with technology is some form of entertainment. Unless there is a very deliberate attempt to ensure that children are using the technology in an educationally productive way, more technology in the hands of children simply distracts them from their education," said Toyama.