The wonders of using technology as a modern teaching tool seem boundless,
but as Dr Rangsun Wiboonuppatum explains, there are limits
to the benefits of technology as a learning device and often what is
needed most is fun and interaction among young learners
Indeed, it is now common for dispersed families to store their family photos and other documents, not on their personal computer hard drives, but on the Internet. In this way, members of an extended family living throughout the world can readily share and access the family's photo album.
Today, there are youngsters that have had the benefit of the Internet their whole lives and have had continuous access to the full realm of human activity, knowledge and achievement through the gentle keys of the now ubiquitous computer that throbs at the heart of it all. Consequently, young adults deal with information differently than even just a generation ago.
For better or worse, some children develop hypertext minds, rarely reading or thinking of a single concept from its beginning to end, but instead leaping from one thought, concept or project to another, oftentimes without pausing long enough to reach the halfway point of a significant thought. Of course, there are pros and cons to this type of information exploration.
But one problem is that `hypertexting' from one idea to another tends to be a solitary exercise, carried out with very little interaction with or among other children. If any teacher or parent is in doubt, ask your students or child to write the name of their favorite game.
Almost without exception, the game will be played on a computer. Compare that with children a generation ago who would have named one of dpzens of games that involve interaction, cooperation or even polite competition with other children.
Today, students often learn with very little inter-communication, even less cooperation and almost no collaboration. It is important therefore that children (re)learn to work and play together, to collaborate and even compete with their peers, and through that process, nurture their capacity to be effective, interdependent citizens. It is narrow minded to think of society as merely a collection of individuals when, in fact, we are a symbiotic lot. Often what one does, affects the whole.
Think Camp and `floating' castles
An exemplary project that nicely revisits the concept of collaboration among young students and demonstrates the joys students experience when they acquire knowledge together, share information freely, and proactively network ideas and solutions, is Think Camp.
The design of Think Camp is a joint effort by teachers from Triam Udomsuksa school, Petchaboon Technical College, and Bangkok Christian College, which have experience with Think.com, operated by Oracle Thailand.
Oracle recognizes that learning is properly a social phenomenon. That's one reason why it hosted 125 students and 23 teachers from as many schools in Northern Thailand at Chiangmai Technical College this month. According to its website, Think.com ``turns students into multimedia authors for a global community and allows peers to think and learn together.''
After entering a password - available to teachers and students of member schools - students are invited to use websites and interactive tools to publish their ideas, collaborate on projects, and build knowledge together.
The orientation included a brief overview of the Think.com tools. The introduction comprised physical activities in which each person had to conduct a search to find their own name tags, resulting in participants having to interact. This was followed by participants asking each other questions, the goal of which was to produce an `introductory page'. The multiple interactions allowed group members to converse with other groups and thereby become better acquainted. This was a smooth and fun way to begin the camp.
The third activity involved building a `floating' castle that required great imagination, collaboration and cooperation. Students brainstormed their projects, and later there was a contest to see whose device could float on water. The floatation time and the buoyancy were duly recorded.
Once the activities were complete, each group presented their work on the Think.com website, so that other groups could learn from their techniques and comments.
Detectives at work
To raise awareness of safety and sometimes inaccuracies on the net, an activity was designed to allow students to experience how their decisions may sometimes not be 100 percent accurate. The students were asked to pose as detectives. The camp leader asked students to investigate who was a thief among a group of imaginary suspects.
Students had about 40 minutes to post the questions to each suspect, analyze the responses, and deduce who was at the department store. To achieve success, students needed to collaborate to compose questions. The only prohibited question was, ``Are you the one who stole the object?''
Therefore, students needed to analyze and synthesize both the answers and responses before making group decisions. It was interesting to see how a well-designed website became an essential tool and encouraged students to participate in the camp activity more effectively, because the tools provide both individual and group interactions.
Moreover, students had opportunities to exchange views on how the Think.com site had helped them and their group project.
It was readily apparent that each group of students used the Internet to get to know their peers and to successfully reach their goals.
Students weren't the only winners. Teachers from the various schools learned new ways to encourage students to work together and to create a friendlier and healthier learning environment.
The examples presented by the above activities show how varying the design of the learning activi-ties can result in different learning outcomes.
Activities can be designed to stimulate students' creativity, originality, writing skills and teamwork skills. To be successful, however, teachers must be prepared and well-trained themselves to properly design teaching and learning strategies to enhance a particular learning skill.
Thus, all teachers may not be capable of adopting learning strategies that lead to a particular learning goal. Additionally, in-depth use of the Internet may not at all times be advisable, regardless of the immediate availability of the equipment and infrastructure.
Education scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban, authors of the award-winning Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, contend that teachers who have the wisdom to reject fashionable innovations that violate their pedagogical sense of what their pupils need, and instead experiment on their own terms with reforms more appropriate for their class are to be applauded.
Teachers should be innovators, for sure, but they must also be the guardians of what's best for their students. They have the duty to resist using technology that is not good for their students or irrelevant to the learning task at hand.
Neil Postman was something of an old-fashioned humanist, who in the face of extraordinary technological change in contemporary society held firmly to his beliefs that ``there is a limit to the promise of new technology, and that it cannot be a substitute for human values.'' (See, www.pbs-new.org). He stated that a person who resists new technology should understand that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that one's education may help considerably not only in promoting the general conception of a resistance to some forms of technology, but also in helping the young to fashion their own ways of giving it expression.
For example, even though Think Camp provides students ready access to computers and the Internet, the camp is not about Internet tools at all. Instead, it is all about learning, thinking, and networking to foster students' happiness while they learn and explore new and old ideas.
Editor's note: Next week will be Dr Rangsun's last article for Learning Post for a while. After writing more than 40 articles, he is taking a well-deserved break. We will miss him.
For more information on Oracle's Education Foundation and Think.com, visit http://www.think.com/en_us/ . For more information on Neil Postman, visit http://www.neilpostman.org/ . Rangsun Wiboonuppatum, PhD, is a computer educator in the Bureau of Information and Communication Technology at the Ministry of Education. Contact Dr Rangsun at email@example.com .
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Last modified: March 26, 2007