New technologies are promising, but what about the teachers?

This post is not going to promise dramatic learning gains from using a new technology. It’s not one of those stories where at first a teacher was skeptical, but in the end, the classroom was like a sports movie where the technology scored the winning homerun. I feel skeptical when I read those stories. I don’t doubt the success, but I wonder whether the learning gains, increased student interest/participation, or higher levels of reported satisfaction have less to do with the iPad, blog, twitter stream, or virtual environment and more to do with who is in the classroom.

Cathy Davidson recently described an idyllic experience of teaching a course in which she and the students shared in the discovery of new applications of technologies for learning. She describes the process of developing the course, the thrill when the students actually invited and facilitated a guest lecture, and the ways in which the students challenged her to really be collaborative, even in grading.

If we step back for a moment, though, and consider a class with Davidson and those same students without the new technologies, what would the learning experience be like? I imagine it would still be exceptional, because Davidson is an obviously engaged teacher and the students are obviously engaged learners. She employs teaching strategies that were effective before the new technologies she describes. In particular, she encourages students to take ownership of their learning experience and creates a flexible environment to support whatever direction they take. When developing assignments, Davidson incorporates research in motivation, particularly students’ likelihood to put more effort into writing for an authentic audience. She also has deep experience with her topic and an obvious enthusiasm for both the content and the teaching. These factors are consistently linked to positive learning experiences in educational research. Additionally, the students clearly seem motivated to learn. She describes the class list as a diverse collection of disciplines, so the students appear to be choosing the course. They demonstrate active involvement with the assignments and content and even provide substantive feedback for future courses.

Davidson’s approach to her class corresponds with much of the research on good teaching. Now, if we imagine the same syllabus and same access to technologies, but with a different teacher, what happens? The course might still be exceptional, or it might not.

A common theme when addressing technology in education is a focus on the particular technology and the success or failure of its use. In David Risher’s recent article about educational technologies in developing countries, he urges consideration of ‘the triangle that connects students, teachers, and ideas.’ The way in which a teacher incorporates a technology, designs the learning environment, and promotes learning determines the ultimate effectiveness of the technology. Returning to Davidson’s example, the students are described as knowing they can take risks through the support and encouragement she provides. The technologies are secondary to the empowering environment she creates. In other hands, the students may have been focused on their screens, updating their Facebook profiles while the teacher lectured at the front of the room…a forgettable experience.

When describing the participatory culture new technologies afford, equally important is the teacher who brings these tools into the classroom — the tool merely plays a supporting role.

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