I used to be an IT Business and Systems Analyst. It’s true, I used to work with computers. I still work with computers but in a different capacity. These days, I can recognize a problem and try to find a solution, but I don’t have the administrative rights to do anything about it. In some ways, I prefer the position I’m in now. But, I get a little bit more than miffed when I can’t install a printer driver. And, don’t get me started on the multi-factor authentication loop of hell that I went through when trying to retrieve my T4 to do my taxes.

Technology is very much a part of our lives. You’re listening to it working right now. Computers have changed how we live and how we learn. Talking about how much screen time people get is like asking how often they wear clothing. There are very few times in a day when most of us aren’t looking at a screen, or wearing clothes. I don’t understand how people can wear pyjamas to bed. Don’t they get tangled up in them? Even refrigerators come with TVs built into them.

I digress.

In education, we have had to adapt how we teach to incorporate more technology. While the pandemic expedited the process, it was inevitable. Things get interesting when we look at how technology is integrated into teaching and learning.

The SAMR model helps us frame the discussion of technological integration in education. Technology can substitute, augment, modify, or redefine — S.A.M.R. — how material is taught and learned. Posting digital worksheets instead of handing out paper copies is an example of substitution. Augmentation might be including a prerecorded video with instructions. Modification might be having students collaborate on a digital document. Finally, a redefinition might be having students create a blog or podcast as part of their culminating task.

Put another way, substitution is a digital replica of an analogue method — Google Docs instead of handwriting. Augmentation is adding something that supports the lesson digitally but could be similarly delivered without technology. Modification is doing something with technology that couldn’t otherwise be done. Redefinition is finding innovative approaches to teaching and learning that involve a solid grasp of digital literacy.

Why is any of this important? Why is this worth discussing? And, the question I often ask my students: who cares?

Here in Ontario, coding has been included in the new math curriculum. Come the fall, STEM will be written into the science one. As this year’s librarian, I’ve set my sights on putting together a multimedia room. Most of my communication happens over email. I don’t remember the last time I handed out an assignment on paper. When students or parents ask where they can find learning materials, I point them to Brightspace or Google Classroom. The Dewey Decimal System is quickly becoming as redundant as a card catalogue.

We understand that education needs to address students’ digital literacy and work to improve it. Teachers and students both need to be comfortable working in a digital environment and know how to maximize its value to best serve learning. Technology isn’t a catch-all, however.

When teaching math, students often ask to use a calculator. I’m resistant to letting them because I would prefer that they work through a calculation using mental math strategies or writing it out on paper.

As an aside, I was once temping at a large condiments manufacturer and found the job incredibly boring. I wasn’t performing well and had little interest in the work. To “spice” things up, I started doing long division instead of using a calculator. It’s what kept me going until they decided to not ask me back.

Back to what I was on about, using a calculator is efficient but it doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of how numbers work together. It does enable students to focus on demonstrating understanding of a concept without being inhibited by computations. Calculating the length of a hypotenuse using the Pythagorean Theorem is made much easier. However, math can’t be compartmentalized into disassociated concepts if we want students to have a deep understanding of the science. I would say that calculators fall into the augmentation category because students are approaching material in a way that is made easier through the use of technology.

I used to work at a coffee shop and one day a guy came in to get some coffee. He was the foreman at a construction site across the way. Somehow, we got to talking and he was telling me about how the younger guys on his crew had trouble doing calculations. He was saying that the impact of this was that they worked much slower and made more errors. In his business, that matters.

Another aspect of technology, and devices in particular, that I find troubling is how it has removed our ability to manage boredom. Hands in the air, I take my phone into the washroom with me, the first thing I look at in the morning is my phone, I plug my phone into the car before starting it, and I’ve lost days scrolling through various social media feeds, with YouTube Shorts taking up a lot of my time lately. I suffer from phantom vibrations. I have a very hard time sitting still. My ability to remain engaged is limited by my ability to be entertained. All of this together has had a severely negative impact on my ability to think; it is very hard for me to remain with a problem because I’m more likely to move on from it than look for a solution. I see this same thing in my students.

I’m a masterclass in public speaking, as you know, but I cannot keep my students off of their devices for longer than about four minutes, give or take. Parents have asked me what to do about their child’s attachment to an iPad. Students ask to go to the washroom so that they can check their phones. Taking pictures of what’s written on the board has taken the place of notebooks. I thought I kept a lot of tabs open on my web browser until I saw what my students try to manage.

Deep thinking requires deep focus and attention, a skill we are neglecting to develop. If students want to succeed in STEM fields, they are going to have to be able to understand multi-faceted problems in a multitude of ways. They have to be able to sit with a problem long enough that it settles in and festers. How they manage their time matters. There have to be quiet moments in between all of the noise to give our thoughts time to settle and enable our creative juices to flow. We are toying with our ability to think critically and creatively, a fundamental skill for success in STEM.

STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — really should be STEAM, with the A standing for arts. This helps highlight the craftsmanship required to approach these interesting problems. We should also think of STEAM in a more cohesive way than we currently do in practice. I’m not sure what the initial thinking was when separate curricula were developed for the various subject areas but we should aim for more intentional interconnection when planning ahead. If we want to move through substitution and augmentation into modification and, ultimately, redefinition, we have to look at each currently disparate subject as part of a larger whole.

I think there is the desire and will to do this but how to approach this type of teaching and learning is still unclear. At the elementary level, we teachers are considered generalists, meaning we are able to teach all subject areas. Beginning with the intermediate grades, seven and eight, and through to the end of high school, teachers need to specialize in one subject area. We call this a “teachable.”

At this juncture, we run into a bit of an interesting problem: subject areas are complicated and require specialization but a more meaningful understanding would require that they be integrated with other ones. The workforce is divided up into specialized areas. Companies hire people with different skill sets to perform different tasks, passing a project through various hands. This is such a common practice that project management professionals have emerged. These PMPs are responsible for ensuring that a project is seen by all of the right people and serves as a liaison between the different teams.

The role of a teacher needs to be redefined to that of a facilitator. An educator’s role becomes one in which they define the scope of a STEAM activity and teach students how to learn using the tools available. Technology is that tool. In practice, we think of technology as all of the computer-related paraphernalia that we have, such as computers, tablets, robots, and 3D printing machines, but technology is more than that. Hand tools, cardboard, coloured pencils, and spaghetti are all tools that students can use to solve interesting and engaging problems. Together with some science, engineering, art, and math, students can use technology to create innovative solutions.

I find assigning grades to students’ work difficult and it’s made even more complicated when working on well-integrated STEAM activities. Ideally, teachers and students will be learning alongside each other. The students will be responsible for the creation of ideas and their implementation. The teachers will support students by asking critical questions. In this sort of model, grades wouldn’t provide an accurate reflection of the work done and the skills developed and used. A pat on the back wouldn’t be enough, either. Measuring the true value of this type of work takes longer than a school year to do properly.

I think that technology has the potential to transform how students learn. When used as a tool, it opens up avenues for learning and discovery that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Not only can a single iPad replace an entire library, but it can also disseminate information at lightning speeds. These tools create dialogue.

At the end of this, I’m left wondering how the expectations and realities of teaching and learning can synthesize to create a transformative learning environment. I’d love to hear your ideas.

How Can We Integrate Technology to Transform Learning?

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