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Let's Embrace Educational Technology, But Let’s Not Forget What Great Teaching Is All About

This post was originally written for a Huffington Post article in 2013.

I’ve brought a lot of different technologies into my high-school Physics classroom over the past 10 years, and the results have been nothing short of awesome. My students learn more effectively and more efficiently thanks to services like Socrative, hardware like cellphone cameras, content like TED-Ed, and other technologies. Having witnessed the power of thoughtfully-leveraged technology in the classroom, I’ve become one of EdTech’s biggest fans, even co-chairing my district‘s one-to-one Chromebook Initiative. But today, as districts rush to put a tablet in every student’s hand, as policy-makers demand mountains of technology-harvested student data, and as edtech entrepreneurs declare that education is ripe for disruption, it is more important than ever to remember what great teaching is all about.

No single technology has changed the way I teach (and learn) more significantly and in more ways over the past decade than YouTube. Experiments that are too dangerous or too expensive to perform in my high school classroom become a valuable part of my lesson plans. Entertaining and engaging videos motivate students and cultivate true problem-solving skills when leveraged in the classroom as a “video lab“ or “three-act task.” And YouTube’s mammoth collection of tutorials, like my “How to Convert Units“ video embedded below and, more notably, those from the Khan Academy, are an invaluable resource for my students who may have missed a class or realized they were a little rusty with a topic.

But let’s not forget: great teaching is much more than simply delivering a lecture, even if that lecture is exceptionally clear. Think back to the teachers who had the greatest impact on you during your schooling. They weren’t the ones who would speak in front of a chalkboard all day, taking no questions and explaining things in only one way, as the majority of Khan Academy’s videos do. Instead, those teachers were the ones who engaged you in discussion, squeezing ideas out of you in a manner that forced you to think in new and challenging ways. YouTube can be an exceptionally powerful teaching tool, but video is an inherently one-way medium, and great teaching is — at its most basic — a two-way street.

Google Apps is an amazing suite of collaborative and organizational tools that no teacher should be without. If you walk the halls of my school, which has been a “Google Apps District” for several years and has provided every student with a Chromebook of their own since 2013, you’ll see a multitude of students typing away on Google’s cloud-based apps platform. They are peer editing, collaborating on projects, collectively analyzing lab data, and sharing their work with each other and with their teachers. Google Apps allows our students to collaborate in meaningful ways more frequently than they could before we had Google Apps — a time that now feels like a bygone era.

But let’s not forget: real collaboration is much more than simply collecting and editing ideas or data. The primary reason educators assign group work is to foster the development of collaborative skills. We want our graduates to be able to brainstorm effectively, reach consensus, read social cues, resolve conflicts, and optimally distribute labor. Google Apps provides commenting and chat functions, but they can’t convey social cues and are linear in nature, which are drawbacks to those seeking to reach a consensus. The platform allows students make edits quickly, but often without discussion or reflection. Google Apps is a vital tool for our students and our district, but when it comes to producing great collaborators, it is no substitute for several chairs and a round table.

Remind was a great discovery I made several years ago few years. I've since been evangelizing the free teacher-to-student text messaging service as it is the missing link of communication I had sought for so long. For years I struggled to get students to visit my class website or at at least regularly check email to receive time-sensitive class announcements, with absolutely no success. Class websites just aren’t on their radar, but text messages are. Since then, I’ve used Remind for everything from class logistics (“Astronomy observation night has been cancelled due to clouds”) to bonus opportunities that extend learning beyond the classroom (“First two students to email me a picture of themselves measuring the angular size of the moon with their pinky will receive a homework pass.”) Remind allows of a level of connectivity between me and my students that we’ve never had before — I can put Physics or Astronomy on the forefront of their mind beyond the school day, and they can know that they and their education are on my mind outside of the classroom as well. [2016 UPDATE: As my students have become more and more used to learning in a 1-to-1 computing environment--my current students have been 1-to-1 for 4+ years--email has become a much more integrated into their daily routines. I barely use Remind any more as email is able to reach my students just as effectively. However, for teachers of students for whom email is an afterthought, Remind remains a valuable tool.]

But let’s not forget: great teaching is all about the formation of interpersonal relationships, and interpersonal relationships aren’t forged in 140-character texts or Tweets. Any additional connectivity between teachers and students is a good thing, but the memorable, rich, interpersonal connections that truly inspire students (and that are so rewarding for teachers) grow from tearful after-class talks and celebratory post-accomplishment high-fives. We should take advantage of all of the ways that technology can connect us, but we should be sure not to forget the more significant ways that we can already connect face-to-face.

Video games have been continuously used to help students learn since Pong. Video games can drill skills (Mathblaster or Math Ninja), can teach content (Oregon Trail or Quantum Spectre), or even drive high-level discussion and critical thinking (as I’ve seen an English teacher do with Passage). Even games designed for entertainment can instruct with tremendous efficiency, as I first witnessed in college as captain of my undergraduate rugby team: having the rookies spend a single evening playing EA Sports’ Rugby on the Playstation gave them a much more complete understanding of the rules of the sport than they would have received from multiple “chalk-talk” classroom sessions, even if a multitude of refreshments not usually conducive to learning were consumed in the process. Video games can be efficient instructional tools because they are hands on, have a well-tuned zone of proximal development, and toe the line between intrinsically and extrinsically motivating the learner.

But let’s not forget: great teachers strive to create lifelong learners. A lifelong learner’s motivation is intrinsic — an innate desire to better understand the world, to acquire knowledge simply because that is what humans are capable of and therefore what humans should endeavor to do. How will a straight-A student at a school founded on gamification fare once his or her efforts to learn are no longer rewarded with points, badges, or unlocked content? Video games get a lot of things right, but let’s be sure to keep an eye on how we are motivating our students as we gamify our curriculum more and more.

Great teachers seek to thoughtfully leverage technology in their classes, capitalizing on all of the affordances that technology can provide. But let’s not let technology replace what it can’t, especially when what it can’t are the hallmarks of great teaching.

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