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In Classroom, Computers Often Yield More Glitz Than Guts


Voice of Experience

Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on how, in our zeal to integrate the most up-to-date technology in our classroom, we can settle for more "glitz than guts." Dyck suggests that the main goal of educators should be to move past a focus on the technology tools themselves to how those tools can be used to help students construct new knowledge and deeper understandings. Included: Two computer-based projects that helped students get to the meat of the matter!

"We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning."

-- Jean Baudrillard, author Simulacra and Simulation

For some, teaching in a school where all teachers have laptops and where classrooms are loaded with networked computers may seem like a dream come true. After spending time in such a technology-rich environment, however, I realize that there's more to this dream than the fun and freedom that accompanies technology.

It is so easy to under-utilize technology tools that, when used to their fullest potential, could enable students to visit places they might never see, support critical thinking in a multitude of ways, and provide opportunities to experience intercultural collaboration. The effectiveness of technology is watered down when the laptops are used solely for basic word processing, haphazard surfing, or creating jazzed-up PowerPoint presentations.

When I look back at my beginning attempts at technology integration, I can see that I settled for student projects comprising a whole lot of glitz and not a lot of guts. At first I was impressed with the technology-injected results -- but that was before I looked more closely at the lack of depth in the student-created content, the overload of bells and whistles in their presentations, and in some cases, the blatant plagiarism.


Jamie McKenzie, editor of From Now On -- The Educational Technology Journal, warns teachers about the emergence of what he calls "mind candy":

"We see eye candy making its way into schools as multimedia presentations, 'full of sound and fury, often signifying nothing.' I remember watching two fifth graders presenting a PowerPoint report on tigers that employed every known transition and special effect the software offered. Content? It was very slim, indeed. Even less information than we have come to expect from one of those time-honored encyclopedia-based reports. There was little thinking or information value here. But the special effects were impressive. ... When it came time for a picture of a tiger, unable to find one, they substituted a picture of a lion! No explanation. No excuses. No footnote. And no one seemed to notice or care. After all ... they were both members of the cat family!"


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I began to see some improvement in the quality of technology integration in my program once students' project work required them to create their own information by using data from the Web or using e-mail to communicate with peers in other places. Improvements also happened once I started creating assignments that included broad questions designed to lead students toward new knowledge and understandings.

Fluttering Butterflies, a project created by a first-year teacher at my school, is an excellent example of a project that shifted students beyond the mere summarization of facts. In this science project, students used a word processing program to keep logs in which they documented their observations about classroom butterflies. Not only did this project provide a platform for young students to hone their observation skills, it also fostered the process of "meaning making" in these beginning learners.

This year I also had the opportunity to work with a teacher whose objective was to push the boundaries of static course delivery. In his G8 Summit Simulation, students used the Internet to collect basic background information about the June 2002 summit of world leaders. Students applied that knowledge as they took on hypothetical roles in a simulation that addressed such real-life concerns as the environment, military disarmament, global economics, international terrorism, and political unrest. This assignment had the makings of an exciting collaborative project, one that could open up debate opportunities among students in other countries. Students could further apply their technology skills by staging a debate on an Internet messaging service such as Windows Messenger or on a virtual bulletin board such as Yahoo! Groups.

In a previous Voice of Experience essay, Telecollaborative Project Develops Compassion, Global Awareness, Brenda Dyck reflects on the power of telecollaborative learning in the lives of middle school students. Intercultural exchanges, including one that paired Dyck's students with a class in war-torn Israel, validate technology use and have the potential to blast middle school students past complacency to compassion.


I'm reminded of a phrase used by our colleague Dr. Judi Harris: She says, "It's not about how we use the tools. It's (mostly) about how we use the tools."

As a technology enthusiast, I am easily diverted by the prospects of having a class set of computers, the most up-to-date techno gizmos, cyber this, and cyber that. If my overall goal is to use technology to help students think in newer, deeper ways, I must periodically step back to re-evaluate my purpose and the depth of learning I see in the students who spend time in my wired classroom.