Tech-No?

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avengers line up

Turn around, Avengers – they’re right behind you!

The Avengers: Age of Ultron movie is out, and apparently it’s doing very well. I did my part by seeing the film twice (continuing education credits for my geek certification).

With box office business, there are always those “glass-half-empty” folks defining success. We’ve talked about “What is Success?” before, related to teaching and heroics. And last time we examined the issue of too much integration, whether it be heroes or school subjects.

This time, though, let’s dig deeper into one of the bigger topics in the film:

Technology gone wild!

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Of course, the Avengers were worried more about global safety and saving human lives; but we can still tackle technology with respect to the classroom and student learning.

Since my background is primarily science education (see “geek” self-identification above), I’m going to concentrate on that specific classroom context. Focusing on a single subject, however, still results in fuzzy conclusions.

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For example, here are a few reports on research examining virtual versus hands-on lab activities:

– Students (elementary/primary age) participating in virtual activities (3D animations, interactive) showed significantly higher scores in cognitive understanding compared to those in a traditional setting (El-Sabagh, 2011).

– Overall, no significant differences in learning gains have been found between virtual and traditional hands-on labs in college (Hawkins & Phelps, 2013).

– Although college students report liking virtual-type labs (easy and quick to do), they feel they would learn more by doing real world labs as well (Keeney-Kennicutt & Winkelmann, 2013).

It’s worth noting that–in these studies, at least–younger students responded more favorably to technology-based activities than older students. One could claim this is because today’s younger students are more exposed to technology than older students.  (It’s the old digital native/digital immigrant demarcation, although hasn’t everyone gone native by now?)

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You could also argue that older students are more reflective about their educational experiences and recognize what’s needed for robust comprehension.

Age differences aside, I’d argue that there needs to be a balance between old-school nitty-gritty hands-on lab activities and fancy-schmancy whiz-bang virtual activities.

– Since both virtual and hands-on labs have their advantages and disadvantages, blending the two throughout a course may have the most benefits for learning and motivation (Abdulwahed & Nagy, 2009).

– A recent study at Carnegie Mellon University focused on young students (ages 6-8) and found that participants using a “mixed-reality set-up” of both real and virtual components learned five times better than those using virtual-only features (Yannier, Koedinger, & Hudson, 2015).

So maybe student age doesn’t have anything to do with it. Have we solved the technology problem? I’m afraid it’s a never-ending issue, a never-ending battle all teachers face.

As teachers, we must be ever-vigilant about technology use in our classrooms, and I’m just not talking about keeping an eye on our students’ computer and tablet screens. We must also be sure our technology use actually enhances learning, as opposed to hindering authentic understanding. In other words, technology must remain our friend, not our enemy.

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A little TOO friendly, Ultron.

Let’s use an analogy from Avengers: Age of Ultron (slight spoiler alerts follow, yo).

Some humans (i.e. some teachers) see a new technology as the answer to all of our big problems, akin to Tony Stark’s vision for a global protector. More often than not, what actually comes into existence is a shaky, slightly grotesque prototype.

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A few missteps should be expected. Problems occur, however, when misguided plans typhoon into blind initiatives touting innovative, revolutionary, and other game-changer buzzwords.

Over time, the technology transforms into sleek, next-generation models. Updates happen so fast that we must keep up for fear of being branded “obsolete.”  (Not that far from “oblivion.”)

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You’ve seen the trailer, right? Watch this one again, looking for a classroom metaphor. (Hint: All the evil robots are iPads.)

I’m no technophobe. This is a blog article. With pictures and video. I’m typing this sentence using my MacBook Pro. (It hasn’t eaten me yet.) I love indoor plumbing. Big fan of electricity, too. Wi-fi? =hugs=

But as much as these advances make life more pleasant, we must be careful to ensure technology is the tool, not us.

For a more thorough examination of this topic, take a little time to review Olson and Clough’s 2001 article entitled “Technology’s Tendency to Undermine Serious Study: A Cautionary Note.”

If you have a lot of time, check out a book Olson and Clough helped put together called “The Nature of Technology: Implications for Learning and Teaching.” It has all kinds of chapters dealing with issues of technology use in the classroom. As a bonus, here is the book’s cover, which by itself should give you pause and something to think about:

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Technology by itself is not the problem. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the good guys (and gals) used all kinds of technology–Quinjets, holograms, and even Hawkeye with his bow and arrows. Throughout history, the classroom has been a hub of technology, be it chalkboards or SMART Boards, pencils or tablet styluses.

The ultimate “bad guy” in Avengers was not technology, but misguided Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Likewise, teachers must battle the dangers of artificial intelligence, instead fighting the good fight for authentic learning and meaningful application.

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Heroic Integration

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It’s been a while since our last blog post and we have all kinds of critically important issues to talk about, starting with . . . OH YEAH!  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON super-duper blockbuster opens THIS WEEKEND!  

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The latest greatest superhero movie can provide a useful springboard for exploring the dangers of relying too much on technology (e.g. resulting in an evil sentient robot that tries to kill all humankind). Forget a vengeful Ultron or iPad; beware of students plugged in but tuned out to meaningful learning.

We’ll table that discussion for another time, however, given recent chatter about another famous Marvel character who may possibly join Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on the big screen:  Spider-Man.

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Thanks to Photoshop, we already have a poster!

Like Captain America and company, Spider-Man is a mainstay Marvel Comics character. But up until now, everyone’s favorite web-slinger has appeared in his separate series of movies due to film rights owned by Sony Pictures.

spidey and avengers panel

Confused? Don’t worry, because bigwig producers have signed important papers and the stars have aligned and now Spidey can swing along with the Avengers in the official “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or MCU.

Fan reaction has been understandably joyous, given the potential team-up between Marvel’s flagship hero and Marvel’s flagship hero team. Heck, the good folks at IGN have already imagined what Age of Ultron would look like with Spider-Man in the mix.  Take a look at their trailer here, if you’re curious.

Enthusiasm has erupted for integrating even more heroes in the movies. Speculation abounds if Marvel’s other movie heroes – the X-Men, the Fantastic Four – could ever merge into the MCU.  Even Wolverine’s Hugh Jackman wants to join in the mix.

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Coming to a movie theater near you?

Such integration of superheroes (a.k.a. worlds colliding) may appear as a bounty of riches; but there could be a downside.

Ever heard of too much of a good thing?

A common feature of disappointing superhero movies is a glut of characters in the script. Spider-Man 3 had Sandman and Venom and the Green Goblins clogging the villain faucet. Batman & Robin was actually Batman and Robin and Batgirl and Poison Ivy and Bane and Mr. Freeze. Superman III had Richard Pryor.

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Proving that “Two’s a Crowd.”

Curriculum Integration in schools is another appealing mash-up that may have a hidden downside or two.

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Basically, integrating curriculum is what teachers do when they teach lessons combining two or more major subjects or disciplines. Examples are as obvious as teaching algebra and graphing with a science experiment, and as unique as an instructor’s imagination. I know of a middle school that features a building-wide interdisciplinary unit all about the Greek Olympics. Every class studies some aspect of the ancient athletes – math, history, language arts, visual arts, science, P.E., and more.

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Sounds neat, right? And perhaps a little daunting to pull off, given the coordination of teachers, resources, and activities. But that’s just a challenge, not the downside. The upside is collaborative educators and students energized by explicit and relevant connections among various scholarly endeavors (subjects).

The danger of curriculum integration in classrooms is similar to those in superhero movies. Cramming in too much can end up in confusion and misconceptions. Content may be watered down, spread thin, or lost in the shuffle.

Take a minute to look at this article, “A Caveat: Curriculum Integration Isn’t Always a Good Idea,” by Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman for a more robust examination of this strategy. Better yet, print it out and read it while you wait in line for your Avengers movie tickets. Or download it on your portable digital device.

Technology can be great. So can curriculum integration. Just be careful.