Monday, October 29, 2012

As Masters Degrees Become the Standard, Technology Intensive Education is a Must

(Sophia Foster’s article today takes a look at some of the many ways in which technology integration is essential to modern education -- an issue that should be very interesting to Successful Teaching readers. There has been a lot of debate and discussion in recent months over the extent to which Internet tools and “wired” appliances should be a part of classroom learning, and Foster’s take should promote some good conversations. Most of Foster’s work concerns finding accredited online graduate education, and she considers herself to be something of an expert when it comes to Internet-based learning.)

technologyIn the US, a record 10.9% of all citizens now hold a masters degree, a percentage that will likely grow rapidly in the coming years. Much of the increase in educational attainment can be attributed to the worldwide expansion of technology resources in recent years. Yet, as more people are interacting with advanced online technology, researchers are finding that these resources are not only aiding our learning, but also changing the way we think. Thus, in order to assure that humans continue to evolve our thinking at our optimal pace, technology use in our classrooms is vital.

Research from University College of London Professor David Nicholas has revealed that the internet encourages a form of associative thinking wherein users dart between pages instead of concentrating on one source, such as a lengthy book. Repeated exposure to associative thinking leaves the majority of users incapable of linear disciplines such as reading or writing, the staples of traditional academics. Prof. Nicholas was the first academic to systematically study people's online behavior by analyzing millions of anonymous data records suggesting the web's hyperlinked network of information was rewiring the minds of young people. He found that four in 10 people never revisited the same web page and that they viewed only up to three pages from the thousands available online. In contrast, people who grew up prior to the age of the internet repeatedly return to the same source instead of flitting between sites.

Findings by neuroscientist Gary Small, a brain researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles strengthen Nicholas' claim. Small has found that technology has actually influenced a number of changes in how the human brain functions. A study recently conducted by Small in which 24 people aged 55 to 76, half of whom were frequent and adept users of the internet and half of whom were not, used functional MRIs while performing web searches. Results found the brains of frequent users showed twice as much activity as novices.

“Our brains are sensitive to stimuli moment to moment, and if you spend a lot of time with a particular mental experience or stimulus, the neural circuits that control that mental experience will strengthen,” says Small. “At the same time, if we neglect certain experiences, the circuits that control those will weaken.” However, Small is quick to admit that no one is yet certain whether these changes are permanent or not.

A growing number of schools are embracing technology as a resource to better engage students in learning, and in many cases they are seeing significantly positive results. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education found that 5th graders in a rural school district who completed their daily homework using web-based tutoring platform ASSISTments learned two-thirds more than students who used traditional paper and pencil methods. Researchers claimed that through web-based education programs “teachers can ... pinpoint exactly where students are having difficulties and get reports on which skills to address in class for individual students of the class as a whole, thus allowing teachers to address shortcomings.”

For schools with “high-need” students, the results from technology utilization in the classroom appear to be even pronounced. Results from a recent State Educational Technology Directors Association report found a 31% increase in the “innovative use of technology by teachers in core subject areas” in high-need schools. The results were particularly significant in reading and math achievement, with increases of 17% to 33% in reading and 18% to 36% in math. “Educators are finding that the use of technology increases student engagement and empowers individualized instruction,” says John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association. Wilson asserts that “technology can address teachers' need for engaging curricula, as well as increase access to management and assessment tools to enhance the way students learn and teachers teach.”

The encroachment of technology in our lives seems inevitable, as does its effect on our thinking processes. Yet, as technology advances, human innovation will likely discover new ways for it to aid us in education. Technology experts predict that advancements in biometrics will likely allow teachers to adjust course material at any given moment in order to tailor it to individual student needs. Multi-touch surfaces and interactive web-based media can allow students to interact with peers around the globe, an excellent resource for understanding different cultures and languages. Though technology undoubtedly affects the way we think, in the end, human innovation from educators and technology developers may yet assure that new advancements are used to further our ability to learn and reason.

Image: 'The Underground Peoplemover to the International Terminal'

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