Saturday, October 20, 2012

Defending Tech Literacy/Use for Elementary School Children

While tech is everywhere, the debate about how and when to use technology with young children continues. I wish that all the time I spend defending tech integration and practice could be replaced by time spent on worthy learning design that integrates today's tools with knowledge and information. When teachers see colleagues facing debate and ridicule for tech use, most choose not to engage with tech.  On the other hand, when teachers see colleagues embraced and supported for use of technology, optimal tech integration grows.  Leadership matters when it comes to apt technology integration in schools.

National rules and guidelines that prohibit tech use with many mediums for children under 13 fuel this discussion to a degree.

We live in a tech world, and tech is not going away.  Tech is an amazing resource that can make learning far more engaging and accessible to children of all income levels, academic profiles and interests.  It is essential that we integrate technology into the education of young children with enthusiasm, knowledge and care.

While I believe that tech integration at early elementary has a place, I believe that tech integration should take on greater energy and focus in the intermediate elementary school grades. Fourth graders are aware of the world around them.  They come to fourth grade with a large range of technology experiences. Yes, there are some who have rarely touched a computer, but there are far more that use technology daily to play games, Skype and "hangout" with friends and family members, email, program, research, watch movies and tv, and more.  When tech issues arise in the classroom, the solutions are always collaborative since the children bring a wealth of tech experience, savvy and understanding to the process. Hence, I approach tech at the intermediate grades with the assumption that most children come to us with a wealth of experience and interest.

I believe that technology at the intermediate elementary grades should be used in the following ways.

1. Essential Skills:  There are many, many technology resources that help us teach essential skill in engaging, profitable ways.  Online dictionaries, thesauri, story writing platforms and more strengthen the work we do when it comes to building facile, engaged readers and writers.  The Internet also supplies us with a large potential audience for our young writers making the experience of writing and publishing much more meaningful.  Quick response games and activities that grow at a child's rate also help us to differentiate our teaching meeting students' at their individual skill level and learning point.  Virtual models and present/future/past time travel makes the world of science and social studies far more understandable and exciting. These tools make learning more engaging and productive.  Hence, technology helps us to teach essential skills with greater personalization, understanding and engagement.

2. Preparation for the Real World:  If students have the opportunity to engage with the mediums they hear about on television and interact with at hospitals, doctor's offices, local libraries, museums and more, they will better be able to understand those mediums and manipulate them for their own learning and use.  That's why I believe children should be introduced to these mediums as soon as they begin to show curiosity and interest.  Guided social media with family membership to closed social networks like NING give students a safe place to try out venues like Twitter, blogging, links, posting videos and sharing photos.  It gives children the chance to learn how to comment and discuss online appropriately, and provides a wonderful venue for digital citizenship discussions and practice.

3. Student Voice:  Busy, populated classrooms often don't allow for everyone's voice.  Social media tools enable transparency and voice.  These tools allow all members of a learning community the opportunity to share the learning objectives, discussions and products with care and meaning.  Children have 24-7 access to the learning community's materials, and the opportunity to ask questions, comment and respond.  This is a wonderful advantage of social media.

4. 21st Century Skills:  Our children will be accessing information that is mostly presented in multimedia platforms, and early tech use gives students the opportunity to create and present multimedia compositions.  The action of creating and presenting multimedia compositions such as Ted Talks w/back ground slides/media, films, podcasts and more demands the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity.  Multimedia composition is an engaging, enlightening and exciting learning venue that can be easily integrated into all content/subject standards. Students with apt 21st century skills will become life long learners who have a greater potential for success in our technology-centered culture.

5. Developing Learners: Technology has taken the emphasis off information and placed it on teaching students how to learn. With ready access to information and information abundance, it is essential that students understand how to learn which means they understand a learning mindset, learning tools and learning process.  The use of technology in grade school classrooms allows teachers to put their emphasis on developing learners.

6. Efficiency, Organization and Communication: We live in a global society where family members are often spread out all over the globe. Moms and dads often travel for work too.  Busy family lives make it difficult to stay up with paper work, school assignments and classroom demands. Hence online access to homework assignments, school projects, newsletters and announcements is essential.  Last year a child in my class spent a month in China, and thanks to the use of NING and other online tools that child was able to stay current with classroom assignments and focus. Similarly family members and parents who travel or live outside of our school community are able to take part in our learning endeavors through the use of technology.  Busy family lives are aided by technology too since assignments, newsletters and other learning tools are always accessible, just a click away.

While most children understand well where the world is going, many adults still struggle to see the future and continue to put up barriers to optimal tech instruction and implementation rather than productive, positive integration of the tools into every aspect of school life.
  • Children know that surgeons and scientists will practice complex surgeries and scientific processes through gaming because that is a better way to learn procedures than reading about them.  
  • Children understand that bridge building, house design and invention will be tested out through virtual models and processes rather than real life because that is more cost efficient, safe and useful than creating erroneous designs and products.
  • Children also know that an answer, discussion or conversation is only a tweet, blog, hang-out, or Skype away.  They interact with friends all over the Globe through epals, family Facebook pages, blogs, Google Earth and more.  
  • Children are comforted by the fact that if something is difficult to learn there are often ways they can use technology to bridge the gap between unknowing and knowing.
What children don't naturally know is how to use all of these tools effectively, and that while tech is awesome, it can also be destructive if not used in the right way.

As I worry about those who waste countless hours throwing barriers into the path of optimal tech teaching and use, I am comforted by thinking about the history of ideas. Recently I watched a video about the concept of zero and was surprised to find out that the notion of 0, a digit that represents nothing, was disconcerting and worrisome for many, and it took many, many years for Europeans to replace Roman Numerals with the digits (including 0).  Only when merchants began to realize that they could make more money with the digits did the masses begin to embrace the Indian invention.  This story, similar to so many others of new ideas and invention, demonstrates that new often signals controversy, debate and barriers.

I believe 50% tech integration at elementary school is perfect because it creates lots of time for guided social media, guided research using the Internet, multimedia composition and advantageous games and tools to differentiate and foster essential skill development.  50% tech integration also leaves 50% of the time to learn in other ways such as dramatic play, collaborative games, model making, reading books, classroom discussions, scientific experiments, nature exploration and more.  

I didn't expect to have to write this post this morning, but a recent debate over tech use put me in a position, yet again, to defend the apt, broad use of technology with fourth graders.  Please don't hesitate to add your thoughts, questions and debate.  In the meantime, I'll return to my central teaching focus: optimal learning design that embeds technology and other tools to engage, empower and educate my students with regard to their academic needs, interests and passions.

Update 5/2015
I now believe that all elementary school classrooms should have 100% tech access as this allows a good flow and integration of the tech tools. This does not mean that students are glued to a computer, but instead the computer is used as a "guide on the side" resource as students create, collaborate, and communicate knowledge in meaningful and useful ways--ways that contribute to a holistic education