Technology in the Classroom

"I have been pondering about learning via video games for some time. Although technology has made phenomenal changes around the world, changes in teaching and learning are slow. Many educators remain skeptical and resistant to learning via other means." (a Singaporean college student in Australia)


Education worldwide is very conservative. If history is a guide, it will be a long time before video games - or even good instruction using computers - will be commonplace in schools. In 1966 Fortune magazine ran a cover story "Technology is Knocking at the Schoolhouse Door." With examples like IBM and Xerox buying educational publishers, the article predicted a dramatic change in ways students were going to be taught. It didn't happen.

The author of this website, like the student above, has long felt that the teaching process needs innovation. I have proposed changes to the standard classroom of one teacher talking to about 30 students. That setup has changed little over the centuries. New technologies like textbooks, audio-visuals, and computers have been added, but the basic learning structure stays the same. As a result, education costs keep rising, while output (student achievement and satisfaction) do not change much. Unlike medicine or business, education shows little innovation or cost-saving efficiencies.

A big reason why education is unable to change much is that it is a monopoly at the elementary and high school levels. Among colleges there is plenty of competition for students and grant money, and consequently lots of innovation. I can remember an exciting psychology course at Princeton where students were divided into small, competing groups. Each group decided how to invest in stocks, then got regular feedback on how their investments were performing. The technology involved was a computer doing calculations on the unpredictable stock movements, plus a video camera for remote viewing of the student group decision-making process. During stock discussions, students got so involved that we soon forgot that classmates were watching and measuring our individual and group roles. We had a good time and learned a lot - mostly from each other. Although the course had equipment costs (paid by a US Defense department grant), one professor could manage a large number of self-involved students. The course was both exciting for us students and potentially quite cost-efficient.

Educators and software developers are in different worlds. As in the psychology course above, video game participants can become highly absorbed, even addicted. Similar passion is noticeable when someone gets really excited about a job or learning a new subject. Being personally involved, rather than sitting back and listening to a lecture, is the key to a video game or a good education setup.

Can the intensity and fun of video games make it in the classroom? We don't know. Only a very few computer games have made the crossover. Either school officials feel there is not sufficient educational content in the games, or students see the "edutainment" programs as thinly disguised drill sessions. Oregon Trail is one that has long term success with many educators and students. It combines real history with strategy and shooting wildlife for food. Carmen Sandiego games have also been popular at schools, largely for the geography learned while playing the game.

Except for a few programs like these, school computers are largely used for improving writing and for arithmetic exercises, as in Math Munchies. With the spelling and grammar checks built into programs like Microsoft's Word, computers have made major contributions to the teaching of writing. Students have learned touch-typing, reference look-up on the Internet, and similar skills they can take to the job market. But the promise that technology would make revolutionary improvements in education has not happened. Yes, video games have appealing features. But the outlook of a game producer and a school administrator remain so far apart that visions of video games as normal parts of instruction are not likely to take place. Nevertheless there exists a simpler form of videos which could transform learning.

Revitalization using educational videos and movies. There are a large number of educational TV programs and some Hollywood movies used successfully in classrooms. Almost all show material in a more colorful, dynamic way than the typical teacher presentation. Many teachers use them by switching on a program, then sitting by while the students watch. What a waste of valuable teacher time! Suppose instead that many students watched the filmed presentation on a big screen in a large room. Up to half of a school day could be devoted to watching such films, with teachers meeting students in between the videos to draw out a discussion of what was seen. The students could be quizzed by computer on what they saw and discussed. Having teacher aides run the videos and hold some of the discussions would be a cost-saving.

This approach would work well in a variety of subjects. The movie Cleopatra could be seen by students reading Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as literature, as well as by those studying Roman history. One unexpected advantage of having a large group view a presentation is that students will talk about it during their free time, as with any new movie. Because all students would attend these presentations and discussions afterwards, it would promote critical thinking skills in all of them. The negative self-image effects of tracking would be minimized. See Education for a Democracy for details on using similar movies for English and Social Studies from the 6th to 12th grade. The technology already to revitalize education, perhaps even at a cost saving - let's organize and use it!

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