Archived—Kids and Keyboards: The Human Side of Technology in Education

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Making the most of what technology can offer education, while reminding students that machines are no substitute for critical thought, discussion and emotional exploration, is a real and pressing challenge for teachers.

And it is a challenge that teachers meet in a variety of ways. Some embrace and welcome technology into their classrooms, confident that creativity and critical thinking skills will take care of themselves. Others ban technology from their classrooms entirely and insist that students learn without technology's "bells and whistles." Most strive to balance these two impulses and use technology as one of many teaching tools.

But as the classroom and workplace grow increasingly dominated and dependent upon technology, it can be difficult to preserve this balance. Before bringing a human perspective to technology, teachers must first consider, is there a human side to technology?

"Technology is any tool that facilitates a human's action. It always requires a person to operate it so it always maintains a human side," says Helen Pat Hansen, who teaches law, communications and technology, and travel and tourism at Sacred Heart Catholic High School in Stittsville, Ontario. Lively and earnest, Hansen is also a member of the Tech-Connect team, which brings students from Guardian Angels Catholic School and Sacred Heart together through several cross-grade technology projects (see Tech Connects Schools and Kids).

Teachers need to identify and maintain a human side or dimension in teaching with and about technology. Now that we have robotic factories and an automatic function on virtually every piece of machinery, it is easy for students (and teachers!) to forget that each machine was originally designed and created by a human being.

Doug MacCorkindale's project design students at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto do not forget this aspect of the human side of technology. They learn first hand about technology's relationship with the creative process. MacCorkindale's students have designed and built everything from a prosthetic device that allowed a disabled student to hold a hockey stick to models of the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, the "hand" attached to the end of the Canadarm2.

The students also learn about how technology works against human creativity. "We talk about the dehumanizing aspects of modern technology at great length in my classes," MacCorkindale says. "Whenever a device is made to a standard size, or option packages are offered rather than real choice, human creativity and flexibility are eliminated." He then shows his students how the human side can be brought back into technology. As part of the course, students discuss and then design and build adjustable and ergonomic controls.

Jean-Daniel Roy, a Grade 5 teacher at École Sainte-Anne in Sherbrooke, Quebec, took a different approach to finding the human side of technology. He used technology to build satisfying, beneficial human relationships between his students and students on the other side of the world. Over four years, his Échange Scolaire Québec-France project prepared students for an exchange trip to France. They held video conferences with their partners in France, carried on extensive email correspondence, and built a special website to share their plans and research with their exchange partners, family and friends (see A Virtual Project Becomes Real).

Technology's Mark on Teaching

Once a human dimension of technology is identified, how can teachers use it in their teaching?

"I think that the Internet and new information technology are extraordinary ways to validate and use written language in everyday life, to connect us together," says Roy. Many educational experiences suddenly become possible because of technology's potential, he explains.

The youthful and soft-spoken Roy is excited by the impact technology can have on teaching. He knows first-hand how it can broaden students' horizons and quite literally show them a different part of the world.

Using the Internet is a matter of reading and writing, Roy continues (at least until newer technology allows us to speak to our computers and listen to the Internet). Since much of learning relies on reading and writing, modern communications technology presents marvellous learning opportunities for teachers and students. The possibility of writing to an audience, of creating something that many people will view or of writing to someone who will respond to you or comment on is very different from writing for a mark, he explains.

He organized many such activities in the course of his foreign exchange program. For example, his students prepared for video conferences with their French counterparts by thinking up questions to ask them, as well as by anticipating and researching what questions the French students might ask them. This was learning for a real purpose and that made it more relevant and interesting for the students. "Just using the technology was not the educational goal. All the preparation was the real education," Roy comments. As long as this distinction is clear, there is no problem keeping a human side to technology. (For another teacher's use of technology in language learning, see Technology Aids Second Language Learning.)

Helen Pat Hansen sees integrating technology across the curriculum as an exciting new way for students to both increase their skills in communication and collaboration and to be creative.

For example, one of the Stittsville team's projects, KinderCreations, brought together Kindergarten students with a story to tell and high school students with publishing software to create and produce short storybooks based on the theme of exotic animals. Both groups of students gained from this project. The high school students were able to field test and refine their software through contact with real users. The Kindergarten students developed language skills in a real and exciting project. Part of the process of emphasizing the human side of technology, Hansen explains, is encouraging the children to understand and be able to explain the process — the human manipulation of the tool — they have used to achieve a result. (To find out about another multi-age collaborative project, see Composition in Virtual Interactive Classrooms.)

But is this true in every classroom? Is technology always the best way to help students learn? Lee Curtis, who runs the Langford Alternative Education Program in Victoria, thinks perhaps not. His program, which prepares high-risk Grade 8 and 9 students to return to and succeed in the regular school system, focusses on developing the attitudes and skills these students need to cope with the many challenges in their lives. Though he admits that technology has some valuable contributions to make to this process (his students learn keyboarding and use computers for some self-paced study units in science, language arts and math), just as often his students need better homework habits, community awareness, reading practice and positive social interactions to improve their academic standing.

"I do have a telephone and a fax machine in my classroom, but I do not have an email address on site," he says. "I'd rather spend my time working one-on-one with the kids than reading bulk-copied messages."

Curtis began his alternative school teaching with woodworking classes for Grade 10 students. He sees the learning curve of woodworking as appropriate for that of technology. "First you start with basic skills and hand tools. You learn to use them and take care of them," he explains. "Then you move to power tools, learning to respect their power and to make full use of their capabilities. Finally, you take on a big project and work with a team of other builders."

Making the best educational use of technology is a learning curve for teachers and school administrators as well as for students, comments Hansen. When the teacher is as willing as the student to make mistakes, learn new approaches to a subject or problem and ask other teachers or students for assistance, then the student quickly sees technology's potential for exploration and new ways of learning, she asserts.

Striving for Balance

Computers and other technologies are obviously here to stay. "What we really need to do is learn to balance technology in our lives and remember that it's just another tool in a wide range of educational tools," says Hansen. "Technology should be used to enhance and augment academic learning, not replace it."

Technology can augment traditional learning. For example, the increase in communications made possible by technology has also meant an increase in worthless, time-wasting communications, such as spam, junk mail and "soap box" websites. Hansen suggests that "we can use this as an opportunity to teach research, filtering and critical assessment skills."

Unless carefully monitored, technology can replace authentic academic learning. The technology that helps us connect, such as email and the Internet, can also lead us to isolation, since it promotes solitary reading and writing. To counter this tendency, "I never allow students to work alone," says MacCorkindale. "They've got to learn teamwork and respect for each other as much as they need to learn how to read an engineering plan or work a lathe."

It is all about balance. To retain the human side of technology, the increase of technology in the school and the workplace must be balanced against solid academic learning, and the tendency towards isolation must be balanced with an awareness of our need for social contact and relationships and the benefits of teamwork.