Technology to teach and for teaching

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I was in a meeting on Friday with two of my colleagues talking about another project I am involved with focused on teaching Earth and Space Science. We we talking about a piece of software, Starry Night, we are considering using in one of the teacher workshops focused on Astronomy. My colleague suggested there was a piece of software being developed by a graduate student here at PSU that might also work well. He went on to describe software that helped student learn Astronomy concepts and included the game elements as rewards for students doing well on the teaching sections. In that meeting I attempted to describe what I see as the fundamental differences in two opposing categories of technology that these two represent. 

Starry Night is software designed for teachers to use in the support of teaching something. In this case is allows student to explore questions about the sky set by the teacher or the students in a way that is not possible without the software. Students can't see the night sky during the day. Using technology they don't need to worry if the sky is clear for observations or if the live in a city whose buildings and light pollution makes star gazing difficult on the clearest nights. Student can move the celestial sphere around to look at different times of day/year to see what patterns emerge. Starry Night allows them to explore and examine natural phenomenon in ways that can't be done with out the technology. This is an example of technology for teaching. 

The other type of software is what I see most commonly in educational technology, it is software that is intended TO teach something to students. It attempts to remove the human interaction from the learning process. The most obvious examples of this category are the classic "drill and kill", which exist in many forms and with good game design or fancy graphics can be rendered almost unrecognizable as one of its kind. However, at it core these kinds of technology attempt to take the teaching onto themselves and obviate the need of a teacher. Based on both my experience and on my understanding of learning theory, this seems like a task that is well beyond the technology of the day. 

It is possible/likely that technology can help students with remembering rudimentary knowledge objects like times tables or being able to recognized obtuse angles. Deeper and more complex ideas, like states of matter, however don't hold up well under superficial memorization. Knowing that a liquid is something that "takes the shape of its container" is just as likely to lead to misunderstanding about the world than it is to help students understand the nature of liquids (for example, thinking like an elementary school student apply this definition to sugar or flour). 

Teaching is a cultural activity and learning occurs through participation in practices with oldtimers in those practices. However, a critical part of that interaction is that oldtimers, and by extension the cultural practices, are changed by the interaction. This is not possible even with the best technologies right now. Once we have technology that can act as true participants in a cultural practice, not just artifacts for the distribution of specific aspects of human practice, then we might have technology that can teach. Until then, if we want to have significant impact on student learning, I believe we need to focus our energy developing technologies for teaching rather than technologies to teach.

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It might not come as a surprise that I am mostly in agreement with Scott's concluding remark, "if we want to have significant effect on student learning, … we need to focus our energy developing technologies for teaching rather than technologies to teach." A critical change would be that I think we ought to focus our attention on technologies that support teaching.

I am not certain I would describe the two takes on technology in education as opposing, though I understand why Scott might position them as such.

I would also not describe Starry Night as software designed for teachers. The developers of the software have created a piece of software that does an admirable job of making use of new hardware capabilities in an iOS device (iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone) and it can be used by teachers and non teachers alike. I would agree that one of the things that makes it groundbreaking from the perspective of a perennial problems teacher of Astronomy face is its ability to support both synchronous and asynchronous representations of celestial bodies. I would modify Scott's description of this piece of software from "technology for teaching" to technology that supports and extends core content concepts. The principal difference is that I am suggesting that the technology isn't useful until applied against a problem of practice; in this case supporting a discussion about celestial bodies.

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