A Teacher Explains Technology Integration

As I sit here at the end of a long teaching day, contemplating the work I have to do over the next few days, I recall when I was teaching in the mid-1980s using Apple II era equipment.

My students originally used the computer to make simple word processing documents, then they built spreadsheets for extended calculations, and eventually they wound up making measurements with Vernier probes and integrating the data and graphs into typed reports – back then, you could import the data as raw numbers, and AppleWorks had no integrated graphing function, so they just attached the graph to the printout.

Once I even had the temerity to force students to turn work in on floppies – 5-1/4 inch floppies, at that – to see if I could grade something in a paperless classroom. This was 1986 or 1987, when the Mac was still a college machine beyond the reach of even suburban high schools.

Fundamentally, I’m doing the same sorts of things today, albeit with more powerful tools. Students are integrating graphs and data tables into their reports; they seem to grasp the meaning of the graphs better now, or maybe the math department at my new school is doing a better job teaching the fundamentals of graphing, I’m not sure.

I’ve dabbled with iMovie and plan to do more – no art films about Himalayan goats like Apple seems to adore on its site, just simple workaday stuff an ordinary teacher would use, like a video of a falling object to demonstrate acceleration, a recreation of Galileo’s dropping a bucket from the crow’s nest of a ship problem, or just showing the point of view of the Earth in a model solar system by putting the camera where the earth is.

The Galileo Demo

When you do the Galileo demo in “real life”, students are often fooled by their preconceptions into saying they see things they didn’t really see.

In case you don’t know the story, presumably Galileo argued that the earth can move in its orbit because everything in our environment moves with us. His opponents believed the earth to be stationary, because it was quite obvious to anyone that the Earth doesn’t look like it moves – just look at the sun rise and set, and you’ll see what I mean. To make his case, he asked people to think of a sailing ship with a crow’s nest. The lookout in the crow’s nest drops something heavy, like a bucket. Does the ship sail out from underneath the falling bucket and make the bucket fall towards the stern of the ship, or does the bucket fall straight down and hit at the bottom of the mast?

A surprisingly large number of students will say the answer to the question is that the bucket falls toward the stern of the ship, as if the Hand of God reached out and stopped the bucket moving forward as soon as it is released. When you demonstrate the effect by walking quickly across the room and dropping something, they say that you cheated by tossing the object forward, that you weren’t walking fast enough, or that they were watching the object and not seeing where you were, and so on.

So what you do is whip out the digital video camera, go out on the balcony, and have people drop water balloons as they walk rapidly by the railing. Playing back the video in the classroom and capturing it with iMovie or Apple Video Player, you step through the movie frame by frame and show the water balloon hitting the ground directly beneath the still-walking student. “So the bucket doesn’t fall behind, it falls at the bottom of the mast,” you say, “and Galileo was right in using this explanation to show that we don’t feel the motion of the earth because everything in our environment was already moving forward with us, just like the water balloon.”

Then you look around the room, and some kids say, “I get it!” and “Ahhh!”

Then you know you have successfully integrated technology in the classroom.

True Technology Integration

This is true technology integration, as opposed to the frequently seen Microsoft Office Training Classes, How To Use AppleWorks, and Just Getting Your Dang Printer To Work stuff that is the meat and potatoes of technology integration committees across the nation. It’s about using the best tool to get the educational, pedagogical job done. I’ve held a couple of workshops for fellow teachers on How To Hook Up A Sensor, but for most of them it’s still at the level of a nice stunt you can pull to show how you’re using computers in the classroom, not something they really consider to be fundamental to the way you get your job done.

Like much staff development, the latest “fad” of computers in schools (we’re in the “Internet in schools” fad right now) is viewed by many veteran teachers as just another thing they have to pretend to do so the administration will leave them alone so they can teach.

Right now teachers are being told they must use the Internet in their classroom, just like we were told we had to use computers in the 1980s and multimedia in the early 1990s. For most teachers this means “doing research,” which essentially means typing information into a search engine and weeding out the crap. Add a little practice documenting what you find (“citing the source”), and what else is there? For people who don’t use the computer for anything but typing, that’s about the end of their ambition.

“Explain how you will use the Internet,” say the grant proposals.

“I will have my students do research on the Internet,” say the responses.

If the Internet is not the best tool to get the job done, then maybe you need to go to the library. You know, that room with books in it. Computers and the Internet are such a pain to use and maintain – even Macs (heresy!) – that it just isn’t efficient to use them unless they are the best tool for the job at hand.

I guess with that statement and the crack about Himalayan art goats I’m not going to be quoted on the Hot News at apple.com, but you can’t have everything.

Internet Integration

So what is Internet integration? I’m not sure; I’m still working on that one. I know I’m inherently unsatisfied with the catch-all “research” thing.

I am involved with some interactive projects like the Hands On Universe project out of the Lawrence Hall of Science that are promising. The Astronomy Picture of the Day is pretty neat. Beyond that and my own classroom websites, I’m not sure what I want the Internet to do for me in my classroom. In fact, I’ve had so many networking problems this year that I’m this close to telling IT to yank the dang router connection to the Internet and leave me with a classroom-sized LAN so I don’t have to deal with zones, blocked AppleTalk packets, missing IP numbers, unexpectedly changed domain name servers and multiple proxies any more. Most of that crap is just getting in the way of me doing my job. But that’s just my natural cynicism rearing its ugly head, and I’ll probably keep plugging away at it until it works so I can find out what “Internet integration” really means to me.

Back in the 80s we thought teaching students about computers involved teaching them how to program. Unlike today, where every school is a marketing center for Microsoft and Cisco, we taught students to write their own programs from scratch – thinking that was what everyone would eventually need to do. The lingering death of HyperCard reveals how little we understood what the computer revolution was about back then. It wasn’t about being able to tune your computer like you would a car. It was about, and still is, what you do with what you have. It’s about the product, not the tool used to get the product.

I think the only way to make the transition from teaching traditionally to teaching with true technology integration is to show the results to motivated veteran teachers. They need to see the products – to see what your students can do that theirs cannot – to make them want to use this stuff.

For me, by the way, Macs are the best platform to get my job done – that’s why I’m an advocate, channeling my vision through Low End Mac. I want to concentrate on the product, not on the machine used to get there, and that’s why I like Macs instead of PCs.

That may not be true for you, but you’re not teaching my class, are you? You are pulling cable, you are configuring Windows 2000 clients, you are struggling to recover from Nimda, but you are not teaching my class. What I say to anti-Mac people is this: If you’re not part of my solution, then you’re part of my problem – either make my job easier or get out of my way.

Technology integration is not about grants or the Internet or training or wiring or wireless or even (hold your breath) which platform is best; it’s about the product. (I’m a kind of heavyset fellow, so fix a vision of a sweaty, bearded Steve Ballmer dancing across a stage yelling “Product-making, product-making, product-making” in your mind.) The product is have your students learned today?

The product is What are your students doing with the computer that they could not do without it? In what way does it make them more powerful than they were before?

If you cannot answer these questions in a legitimate way, then maybe you shouldn’t be using computers in your classroom after all.

Keywords: #technologyintegration

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