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On Technology in Education

By Ben Daley

I am the Chief Academic Officer for High Tech High, a group of nine public charter schools in San Diego County, California. I was a founding physics teacher at High Tech High Original Recipe eleven years ago. Although our schools have "high tech" in their name, it is a bit of misnomer, as we are focused on having students work collaboratively to develop products for an authentic audience. We see technology as a tool in that work rather than as an end in itself.

I also want to say that commenting on "the futures of school reform" makes me somewhat uneasy. My take on the past hundred years of attempted U.S. school reform is that it is largely a story of fierce ideological battles among writers, professors, and policy makers, while the actual practice of what happens in classrooms has remained largely unchanged. Witness for example, the charge I often hear that "progressive education is destroying U.S. public education." Given how little of the progressive education vision has actually been widely implemented in real classrooms makes it hard to believe that if U.S. public education has been destroyed, the culprit is "progressive education." I also note that John Dewey purportedly stated that he'd "rather have one school former than one hundred school reformers."

With those caveats, when I think about the futures of school reform, one element that I think about is the use of technology in education. It seems that some of the buzz words du jour in school reform include "blended learning," "hybrid learning," and "online learning." I frequently find myself in conversations with wide eyed true believers excitedly describing how all these new 21st century tools and strategies are transforming the relationship between teachers, students, and knowledge. However, presenting a student with scanned-in textbook pages, followed by a few multiple choice questions, under the guise of "blended learning" (in this case, 19th century pedagogy with a 21st century spin) is not a future I imagine nor hope for.

I always ask the true believers, "What's an example of a transformative technology tool that we can use right now with our students?" And then a most curious thing happens. Invariably, people either: a) look down at their feet, or b) look me confidently in the eye and say, "I'll have to get back to you on that." Before we all drink the technology in education kool-aid, I would like to participate in fewer conversations about "the promise of blended learning," and see more examples in the wild of technology tools helping students learn more deeply and more effectively.

Despite some cynicism, I do believe that technology has the potential to reshape what happens in classrooms. One technology that I believe offers an intriguing possibility for teachers to create more authentic learning opportunities for students is the relatively new micro-publishing industry (e.g. www.lulu.com and www.blurb.com). Inspired by Ron Berger from Expeditionary Learning, many of our teachers have begun developing projects where one of the end products is a student produced book.

Peter Jana and Daisy Sharrock, 10th grade humanities and chemistry teachers at High Tech High worked with students to produce a book called Chemistry and Conflict. This book is a series of chapters, each chapter created by a pair of students. "The chapters focus on the relationship between different chemical elements and historical conflicts, such as the relationship between isoprene (rubber) and 19th century imperialism."

High Tech Middle 6th grade students on the Melissa Daniels and Ben Krueger team (humanities and math/science, respectively) created an alphabet book for younger students about ancient Egypt entitled E is for Egypt. In this book, "young Egyptologists unlock the mysteries of hieroglyphics, uncover ancient burial tombs, and reveal the secrets of the pharoahs."

Ninth grade humanities teacher Julie Ruff produced the book Peer Collaboration and Critique: Using student voices to improve student work as part of her graduate work in earning an M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. Julie asked questions such as, "Who owns a final product? Teacher or students? And who gets to define quality work? Who should students take advice from?"

I have observed the pride that many students feel at having their words and their work appear in print. One of my high school senior advisees solemnly observed to my advisory group, "I'm a published author now." I believe that micro-publishing is an opportunity that allows almost any teacher to work alongside students to produce high quality products in which students not only absorb new information but also transform it to help make it their own, as well as develop important skills such as learning to work well in a group and the ability to effectively communicate one's ideas.

What do you think about technology in education? Is it is just a bunch of hype? What's an example of a transformative technology tool that we can use right now with our students?


Ben Daley is the Chief Academic Officer for High Tech High and a faculty member at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. He blogs occasionally at www.bendaley.com.

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