Intentional Use of Technology in 21st Century Teaching & Learning
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
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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
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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
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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,
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 —
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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
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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
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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?
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.
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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
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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,
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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
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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
Pragmatic: the effective use of technology will allow students to make
practical improvements in the everyday circumstances of their learning.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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
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.
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