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Intentional Use of Technology in 21st Century Teaching & Learning


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An essay written for "Big Thinkers in Ed Tech", a graduate level course at Western Oregon University

Published in: Education
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Intentional Use of Technology in 21st Century Teaching & Learning

  1. 1. Running Head: INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 1 The Intentional Use of Technology in 21st Century Teaching and Learning By Benjamin C. Kahn Western Oregon University
  2. 2. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 2 Abstract This essay examines the role of the educational system in knowledge dissemination in light of increasingly pervasive information networks and connected devices. Information of all kinds is becoming much more easily accessible; at the same time concern that young people are distracted by ubiquitous screens and overly immersed in digital entertainment and social media is mounting. The nature of attention and how it relates to learning and technology usage is discussed, including the ways in which the technology industry exacerbates young people’s tendency to multitask or lose focus by employing manipulative design techniques. Two examples of 1-1 iPad initiatives are examined, and different approaches to technology integration into schools are compared and contrasted to provide insight into what types of implementation strategies are most effective. Ultimately, this paper argues that technology integration is crucial to prepare students both for the modern workforce, and to become engaged, effective citizens who know how to utilize the power of networks to participate in society. Meeting the challenges posed by technology integration will require a rethinking of curriculum to include attention training and an emphasis on the deliberate and intentional use of technology.
  3. 3. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 3 The proliferation of the internet, mobile devices, social media, and search engines is changing the way we teach and learn. Technology can be positive and transformative in education, but there is also the danger of technology implementation going awry. Many respected educators worry that digital devices in the classroom are a distraction that inhibit learning, and that widespread technology use in home and social life encroaches upon and obstructs cognitive development. Can young people be taught to utilize connected technology with intentionality, in ways that will better help them achieve goals, explore their identities and values in a broader context, and flourish in a digital, quickly changing world? For technology and the connected information explosion are changing the world, whether schooling prepares students for it or not. Education must evolve and adapt to engage learners and instill emerging digital literacies for the 21st century. Knowledge Is Power “Knowledge is power.” Often attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, the familiar quote captures a defining aspect of the Western liberal tradition (Postman, Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, 1992, p. Kindle location 562). If people know better, they can be better. Thus, our cultural tradition cherishes free speech, freedom of the press, and access to education as a means of cultivating civically engaged, prosperous citizens. Indeed, an educated populace was seen as essential to the success of the American experiment. Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1817, worried that his peers in the Virginia legislature would foil his plans to establish a state university because they did “not possess information enough to perceive the important truths, that knolege [sic] is
  4. 4. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 4 power, that knolege is safety, and that knolege is happiness” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc, n.d.). The problem, in Jefferson’s view, was a lack of information. To offer a more modern spin on the idea: “Information wants to be free.” This phrase was coined at the inaugural Hackers Conference held in 1984 to celebrate the release Steven Levy’s seminal book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. The counter-culture writer Stewart Brand, commenting on the concept of “freeware,” made an astute observation that illuminates a tension of the modern, data saturated world: On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So, you have these two fighting against each other. (Levy, 2014) Like Jefferson, Brand understood that knowledge acquisition is a key to unlocking potential and capitalizing on opportunity. A century and a half after the University of Virginia opened its doors, however, advancing technology had dramatically lowered the price of transmitting and discovering knowledge. Information has never been so free as it is today, either in lack of cost or unhindered flow. Technology users carry networked supercomputers in their pockets; they may attempt to learn about almost anything we imaginable at any time, with little in the way of groundwork. Free search engines have eliminated almost all friction in the process of basic information seeking. Voice computing interfaces are poised to further reduce barriers to information acquisition; a user may simply “ask” any question they can imagine, and reasonably expect an answer to be conjured up nearly instantly —
  5. 5. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 5 surfaced out of a zettabytes-deep sea of data. (Bar, 2017) Moreover, users are bombarded with frequent push notifications; a recent study found that smartphone users receive about 63.5 notifications per day. (Pielot, Church, & de Oliveira, p. 233) These visual, audio, or haptic alerts to new information come through messaging and social applications on mobile devices but also from laptop or desktop browsers and from sources in non-messaging or social media categories such as news, finance, travel, commerce, and entertainment. (Shaul, 2017) When information was more expensive, formal schooling was the among the only means of accessing knowledge outside of immediate family and local communities available to most people. In the 21st century, when information streams are vast and multifaceted, the classroom educator finds their status as a near-exclusive source of information and learning for students diminished. There are many information- transmitting entities who would like young people to discover their message. The unenvious task of education in the digital information age is to focus the student on relevant information from a worthwhile place; to change lives through the critical, active acquisition, rather than the passive consumption, of knowledge. Deciding where and when to concentrate attention in the digital age is a challenge. There is no single source of truth online. However, there is no single source of truth in a campus library or amongst competing theories in an academic discipline either. In a library with hundreds of thousands of books, mechanisms are needed to filter, locate and assess information sources. These are problems that have been more or less solved with devices like publishers, genres, and peer-reviewed journals — systems of information that privilege some information and filter out the irrelevant or the
  6. 6. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 6 discredited. (Postman, Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, 1992, p. Kindle location 1057) NYU’s Clay Shirky sees opportunity to move forward in a similar way in the 21st century. In his rebuttal to Nicholas Carr’s provocative question, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Carr, 2008), he argues that we find ourselves “amid new intellectual abundance” that requires “altering our historic models for the summa bonum of educated life.” (Shirky, 2008) The information explosion of the printing press required an organizing response from the literati of the day. Likewise, scholars today are part of a new, better, emerging knowledge tradition — digerati who can help broaden the intellectual bounds and signposts that define 21st century learning. Yet many, perhaps most, do not think of the emergent intersection of learning and information technology this way. Instead parents, teachers and concerned citizens worry about young people growing up in a world of hyperconnection. Consider the stereotype of the prototypical Millennial student - too engrossed in texting, blasting music, taking selfies, and posting to social media, often all at once, to possibly devote adequate mental energy to rigorous study. She immersed in information, but it is often trivial and banal; a distraction from the important work of cultivating a well-rounded, well-informed intellectual character. Let us imagine our hypothetical character in the real-world setting of a junior college. Perhaps her professors are frustrated that her attention is on a laptop screen during class. Her parents watch with concern as she studies with the television on, frequently interrupting herself to text or check social media feeds. Why is it so important for this theoretical young person to shut off her connected supercomputer, a portal to vast stores of information, and to instead pay close attention to a droning PowerPoint
  7. 7. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 7 lecture or to studying for a multiple-choice quiz? Why instead do we not flip the question – what is so important about that PowerPoint? How can filling in the bubbles on an exam worksheet possibly relate to or prepare her for the complexity of modern life? Distracted Based on our understanding of neuroscience and learning theory, there is no question that attention plays a key role in learning. The world is full of stimuli; far more raw information than the human brain can consciously attend to. Different parts of our subconscious brain work together to continually scan and classify our surroundings, forming multiple “perceptual coherence fields” that match concrete features (“small, red, in front of me”) to abstract concepts (“empty coffee cup, time for more coffee”). (Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, 2008, p. 77) Willful, focused attention acts as a kind of a “spotlight.” It pushes the broader environment into the background; shining on the object of our attention and rendering all else soft and out of focus. It is only at this point that visual information is passed along to the areas of the brain associated with the assiduous processing and elaboration that leads to the creation of new mental patterns. (Jackson, pg. 165) Thus, full attention is crucial to sense-making, decoding new information, and forming coherent understanding. To multitask is to “settle for the quick fix, surface observation, black-and- white thought” (Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, 2008, p. 259), forgoing the chance for deeper contemplation or learning. Attempting to divide attention between multiple sources effectively ensures that none can be processed in a meaningful way. Multitasking can be used to perform menial tasks efficiently or to attend to prosaic information, but not to genuinely learn something new.
  8. 8. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 8 Clearly, a texting, Snapchatting, media streaming teenager is not simultaneously giving her full attention to a textbook. Her attention is split. This is a problem. It takes effort, concentration, and time to learn. This can be recognized when focus is spoken of as a precious, finite resource; one can “pay” attention and “spend” time. To extend the metaphor: focused attention pays dividends. Students who are more engaged with their coursework not only learn more in the short term; they also develop better critical thinking skills and intellectual capacity long term. (Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, 2008, p. 233) Split attention at best degrades and at worst disrupts the learning process. The reason that educators and parents worry is that they perceive that young people are developing poor attentional habits. They see students failing to commit the necessary mental resources to focus, and therefore harming their chances of success in education and later, in life. A Race to the Bottom of the Brainstem Teenagers and young adult students have long had the reputation, earned or not, of neglecting their studies in favor of socializing, shallow entertainment, romance, or rebellion. But things are noticeably different in the modern age. A high percentage of college students in the U.S. use some type of mobile device in their learning. (Pearson, 2015) One study found that smartphone users engage with their devices up to 150 times a day. (Bosker, 2016, Stern, 2013) Research further shows that smartphone owners almost always keep their phones with them and powered on, even when they acknowledge that smartphone use would not be appropriate in the social situations they are in. (Rainie & Zickuhr, 2015) Peer in to any college classroom (that has not been
  9. 9. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 9 subjected to an electronic device ban) and students can be seen clicking, scrolling, swiping, and tapping. If many students seem overly preoccupied with their devices, it is not an accident; it is by design. The software running on modern devices is expertly crafted to keep users unlocking, checking, and scrolling for as many minutes of the day as possible. The venture capital funded startup economy of Silicon Valley rewards application developers that can demonstrate page views, clicks, downloads, and daily- active users; the more the better. In short, they must show that they have users engaged. The firms of Silicon Valley, given the opportunity, resources, and motive, have become extremely proficient in grabbing our attention by employing principles of behavior design. This school of design draws from theories of human behavior such as B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, in which users are given variable rewards on an intermittent, rather than fixed schedule. Randomizing the rewards schedule has been demonstrated to strongly reinforce learned behaviors. (Bosker, 2016) Popular social apps also capitalize on the human instinct for social reciprocity. Facebook tells social contacts when a friend has read their messages, pressuring them to respond immediately. App developers even study which colors are more likely to trigger specific emotional reactions and lead to more clicks. (Bosker, 2016) Few chances to persuade us to spend just a few more minutes or to check just a bit more often are missed. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and current mindfulness crusader, has termed it a “race to the bottom of the brainstem.” (Bosker, 2016) Those who accuse multitasking students of attention deficiency fail to recognize the power of software designers who have the expertise, data, and full intent to manipulate human behavior,
  10. 10. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 10 says Harris. In a sense, young people who are distracted from rigorous study by devices and social media are simply reacting to stimuli in exactly the ways the most effective and highly compensated behavioral design experts expect them too. No Tech in Schools? Is the answer to abolish screens from our classrooms? Some educators think so. Third grade teacher Launa Hall writes of the “many moments when [she] wished [she] could send the iPads back” after her school district implemented a 1-1 program. While acknowledging that the tablets created new learning opportunities for creative expression and connection to peers in and outside of the classroom, they also created distraction and suffered from time-wasting technical glitches during the early rollout. More importantly, she believes they stunted her young students’ long-term development. Juvenile children need to engage in talk, both socially with peers and with adults who can model communication and social skills. In Hall’s eyes “the iPads subtly undermined that important work. My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.” (Hall, 2015) In spite of the “wonderful things” tablets allowed her students to do, she ultimately believes the costs exacted outweighed the gains made. (Hall, 2015) Hall offers valid criticisms of the ways in which technology was introduced to her classroom. She notes that teacher pushback against the initiative seemed pointless because the “money was spent (more than $100,000 for each grade), and the iPads were happening" (Hall, 2015). Once the decision was made, expectations to make the program a success were placed on the teachers’ shoulders. She implies that teachers faced considerable pressure to justify the institution’s investment by making heavy use
  11. 11. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 11 of the iPads regardless of their usefulness in specific learning scenarios. Without top- down strategic leadership to apply the tools in a purposeful manner, understand the impact on the social dynamics of a classroom full of young learners, or ensure adequate technical support and training were provided, the types of pitfalls Hall writes about are likely to befall any technology initiative. In contrast to Hall’s experience, Lori Varlotta, President of Hiram College, writes about the “Tech and Trek” 1-1 iPad program planned for Fall of 2017 at the small Ohio liberal arts college. The initiative “galvanized around the idea of ‘mindful technology’— teaching students how to creatively and critically use technology to augment classroom learning, navigate the literal and figurative treks that constitute their college experience, and prepare for the 21st-century workplace.” (Varlotta, 2017) She offers a mnemonic device — “The Four P’s” — to provide a framework for understanding the school’s approach to technology implementation. Briefly summarized, Varlotta’s Four P’s are as follows:  Purposeful: a clear purpose is offered, in this case to enhance active learning in the classroom. By fostering constructivist pedagogy, Hiram hopes to develop the same type of critical engagement with learning in students that critics of classroom technology often claim that screens in classrooms debilitate.  Pragmatic: the effective use of technology will allow students to make practical improvements in the everyday circumstances of their learning.
  12. 12. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 12  Proportionate: the when, where, and to-what extent questions of technology use are consciously explored. The unthinking or constant use of technology is explicitly discouraged.  Present: an hour a week will be designated as a technology free time. Activities that build authentic community and relationships or explore the physical and social world of the campus and surrounding area are offered. While it is too early to know if Hiram’s 1-1 iPad initiative will be more successful than the one Hall writes about, the thoughtfully considered approach from a senior administrator, rejection of perfunctory technology use, and more mature age of the students allow room for optimism. What’s the Point? Considering the Jeffersonian purpose of the educational system – to help children grow into citizens armed with the knowledge that is the key to security and happiness - it seems clear that the complete removal of technology from classrooms is not a satisfactory remedy to the problems of technology fueled distraction. If the meanest goal of education is to prepare young people for employment in the 21st century, some rethinking of the curriculum is needed to prepare students for the modern knowledge economy. Graduates will need to navigate a remote, mobile, distributed, digitally mediated workspace. (Moore, pg. 3) Not only will technical skill with digital technologies be required for success in this environment, so too will a high degree of self-regulation while working unsupervised online. Students will be required to interact with technologies at some point in their academic careers to develop competency and good habits in these areas.
  13. 13. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 13 Moreover, if a greater goal of education remains to create responsible, engaged, productive citizens, new literacies will need to be identified and taught to foster lifelong learning and success in a hyper-networked world. New media is participatory; it allows individuals to multiply their impact by sharing and collaborating in ways that were never possible before. Knowledge is “inherently social. But…also inherently distributed, and more and more so”, notes James Paul Gee (2003, p. 183) in his work studying the learning methodologies embedded in video game design. Gee envisions each person as one node in a series of information systems. He calls out the various methods and technologies used to offload information, from writing to tools such as calendars, to other people, and now to computers and the internet. Individuals gain new capacities when networked together: “important knowledge is in the network— that is, in the people, their texts, tools, and technologies and, crucially, the ways in which they are interconnected — not in any one ‘node’” (Gee, 2003, p. 184). Thus, social and distributed knowledge cannot be understood in the individualistic way that is common in schools today. To assess an offline node is to underestimate its potential. A node must be viewed in the context of its contributions to a network of knowledge. (Gee, 2003, p. 188) Collaborative contributions to social, networked systems like blogs, social media sites, search engines, wikis, and open source communities can and do translate to significant economic, political, and social capital. (Rheingold, 2012, p. 111) These are skills that students need develop if they hope to impact the world for the better. In the 21st century, networked knowledge is power. Remedies
  14. 14. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 14 Tristan Harris advocates that software developers adopt and adhere to a new ethical code. In much the way that medical doctors follow the Hippocratic oath, he argues that designers should refrain from exploiting human’s most vulnerable psychological triggers. In Harris’ view software should be designed to empower users to willfully allocate attention, instead of surreptitiously lapping it up. (Bosker, 2016) The education technology market was estimated to be worth about 8 billion dollars in 2015 and growing annually. (Chen, 2015) It is not entirely implausible to imagine that movement along the lines suggested by Harris could be spurred by evolving purchasing preferences and priorities amongst schools. A mobile device user who grows up with apps that prompt her to enter a distraction free mode when she opens an e-book might have a different relationship to technology than one who grows up with apps that persistently pester her to enable push notifications. At the same time, individuals must be better prepared to effectively and intentionally deploy their own attention, regardless of the design choices made in Silicon Valley. Accessing and participating in networked knowledge is cognitively strenuous. The sheer scale of the information and nonstop deluge of media can easily overwhelm and distract individuals. In his book Net Smart, Rheingold (2012) identifies attention as the “fundamental literacy” (p. 12) necessary to successfully practice 21st century-skills like collaboration, participation and information vetting. With so much competition for attention, a more mindful, intentional, and reflective approach is required to avoid burnout and overloading, never mind sorting the good and worthwhile from the worthless or misleading.
  15. 15. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 15 Attention is a 21st century skill that needs to be taught. Rheingold states the case eloquently, arguing that “technology is altering the way people pay attention…we need to explore and understand how to train attention now, so that we, not our devices, control the shape of this alteration in the future” (Rheingold, 2012, p. 15). Attention is becoming increasingly well understood by cognitive scientists, and research suggests that it can be improved through deliberate training. (Jackson, Attention class, 2008) As the relationship between attention, conscious and unconscious thought, the nervous system, and the body are investigated, researchers are finding preliminary success in methods like computer-based training, metacognitive awareness of attention, and meditation or breathing exercises to develop and strengthen capacity for attention. Research into the long-term success of attention training is ongoing. It is in the public interest that those forms of attention training that are found to be most effective are embedded into future educational programs from an early age. Engagement Think back to our hypothetical young person, and the engaging, enticing things she is being asked to put away and ignore. She is blamed for using technology in the exact ways that the best, most successful software designers in the world intend. Teachers and parents ask her to eschew dynamic, socially connected, vast information networks and instead pay attention to textbooks, PowerPoint lectures, or studying for standardized tests. These activities are not developing the new literacies that she will need to navigate her life and career. She is not learning how to effectively participate, to collaborate, or to critically interrogate information. Nor is she learning how to willfully direct her attention; instead she is simply learning that she is not very good at focusing
  16. 16. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 16 on what academic institutions typically have to offer her. The ways we communicate and consume information have changed - our ideas of when and how to best use our attention need to be re-litigated accordingly. Schools must begin to teach students how to become cognizant of their attentional habits, how to train and develop focus, and how to engage with massively interconnected information networks in a purposeful and intentional way, and they must begin exerting pressure on technology providers to design their wares to help, rather than hinder, this process. References Bar, N. (2017, January 07). Now We're Talking: How voice technology is transforming computing. Retrieved from The Ecnomist: people-control-world-through-words-alone-how-voice Bosker, B. (2016, November). The Binge Breaker. Retrieved from The Atlantic: breaker/501122/ Carr, N. (2008, July/August). Is Google Making Us Stupid? Retrieved from The Atlantic: stupid/306868/ Chen, A. (2015, November 6). The Ever-Growing Ed-Tech Market. Retrieved from The Atlantic: classroom-tech-market/414244/ Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2nd Edition, Kindle ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.
  17. 17. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 17 Hall, L. (2015, December 2). Opinions I gave my students iPads — then wished I could take them back. Retrieved from The Washington Post, Opinions Page: wished-i-could-take-them-back/2015/12/02/a1bc8272-818f-11e5-a7ca- 6ab6ec20f839_story.html?utm_term=.1795cbe3de94 Jackson, M. (2008, June 29). Attention class. Retrieved from Jackson, M. (2008). Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Levy, S. (2014, November 21). The Definitive Story of "Information Wants to Be Free". Retrieved from Backchannel: information-wants-to-be-free-a8d95427641c Moore, C. (2016). The Future of Work: What Google Shows Us About the Need For Online Collaboration. TechTrends, 60(3), 233-44. Pearson. (2015). Student Mobile Device Survey 2015. Pearson. Pielot, M., Church, K., & de Oliveira, R. (n.d.). An In-Situ Study of Mobile Phone Notifications. MobileHCI '14 Proceedings of the 16th international conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices & services (pp. 233-42). Toronto: ACM. Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Kindle ed.). New York, NY: Pengiun Group. Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (Kindle ed.). New York: Knopf.
  18. 18. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 18 Rainie, L., & Zickuhr, K. (2015, August 26). Report: Americans Views on Mobile Etiquette. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: Rheingold, H. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (Kindle ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Schaffhauser, D. (2016, January 19). Report: Education Tech Spending on the Rise. Retrieved from THE Journal: education-tech-spending-on-the-rise.aspx Shaul, B. (2017, June 27). iOS Push Notifications Have a 41% Opt-In Rate (Infographic). Retrieved from Adweek: notifications-have-a-41-opt-in-rate-infographic/ Shirky, C. (2008, July 17). Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica Blog: abundance-is-good-a-reply-to-nick-carr/ Stern, J. (2013, May 29). Cellphone Users Check Phones 150x/Day and Other Internet Fun Facts. Retrieved from ABC News: 150xday-and-other-internet-fun-facts/ Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. (n.d.). Knowledge is Power (Quotation). Retrieved from quotation Varlotta, L. (2017, May 8). Mobile Technology Meets Mindful Technology. Retrieved from Educause Review:
  19. 19. INTENTIONAL TECHNOLOGY IN 21st CENTURY LEARNING 19 technology-meets-mindful- technology?utm_source=Informz&utm_medium=Email+marketing&utm_campaig n=ER