How to Teach with Technology

April 16, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Technology Integration

We talk a lot about implementing new technologies into the classroom, but what about the relationship between this technology and the educators themselves? Some have even raised the question, are teachers necessary?

Last month, we mentioned Pamela Paul’s contrarian op-ed in the New York Times about gaming in the classroom. However, Paul also touched on something else that grabbed our attention. She mentioned in passing that teachers who oppose the implementation of new technologies in their classroom are often called “foot-draggers” or “change-resistant luddites.”  The tag seems a tad unfair, given the pace at which technology changes and the rightly held skepticism about yet another “solution” to the very difficult task of educating our children. So the question is, is there room for “foot-draggers”? Or perhaps less polarizing, what balance is needed between teacher and technology?

One expert, co-founder of HASTAC and Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, addressed this issue with a rather bold statement during her keynote speech at a symposium sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning. “If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be,” she said. While she has since explained that the proclamation was meant as a challenge and not a prescription, the idea got a rise out of people

“I am amazed at how often my pronouncement … is interpreted to mean ‘All professors should be replaced by technology,’” said Davidson, who further explained that this was by no means what she had suggested. “What I mean is that, given how sophisticated online technologies are becoming, given how many people around the world are clamoring for quality and low-cost education, given how seriously people in the online educational business (like Kahn Academy) are studying how people learn and what kind of help and interaction they need to learn, given all that, then, if we are adding no other value to our teaching but that which could be replicated online, then, well, turn on the computers and get the over-priced professors out of the classrooms now.”

But of course good teachers do add value. And that is Davidson’s point. But what that value is and how it changes given technology is the key question in deciding how to balance teaching with technology.  Davidson stresses the significance of face-to-face interactions, the importance of great teachers, and that spark that happens when a teacher connects with a student and brings them along on the path of discovery—and this is not always possible when a child is left alone with a computer or tablet.  

A recent report by the Brookings Institution on five “education technology success stories” comes to the same conclusion:

“Educators have a uniquely complex job and have far more to do than time allows. New technologies will take over some teacher responsibilities. However, technology can’t make a teacher obsolete in the same way as a [horse] carriage [when cars were invented]. In the imaginary school described above teachers still play an essential role in directing student learning. If anything, technology may enable teachers to focus on higher-level learning issues.”

Davidson put the issue in more of a global context. “We have to take seriously what it means to redesign learning for the 21st century, a world where, indeed, we and, more importantly, our students are constantly competing in a world of outsourcing and mechanizing,” said Davidson. “If we are not understanding this work and adding something that only great teachers can add, we should be replaced.”

That seems to be a call for teachers to think hard about their role in this evolving stage and work to redefine that role in tandem with digital media. As an educator, how do you view the role of technology? Is it merely a resource or a potential replacement? What do you need to make this happen? Or should it happen?