Thursday, May 1, 2014

Microwave Nation: Technology & Education

For a while now, I've used the term "microwave" to describe or define a situation in which a problem exists because someone/everyone wants the simplest, fastest solution that requires the least amount of thinking and energy. 

In other words, we want to be able to pop a problem in the microwave, hit the button, and make it better at super-fast speed. Anything more than 30 seconds is too long, and we don't want to take a lot of brainpower to figure out which buttons to push. 

Let's consider a common problem for teachers:

Was the original intention behind integrating technology into a classroom to make it easier for students to learn? For teachers to teach? Technology is a fantastic way to make more information, tools, and ideas accessible to more students and teachers, but are we expecting too much from it?

I had a student in my office yesterday who told me that one thing he was very proud of was how he'd learned to not be distracted by technology when he got frustrated. This was a process I'd never considered. 
  1. Student begins assignment
  2. Student gets stuck and gets frustrated
  3. Student needs a break, so opens up YouTube, Facebook, etc.
  4. Student loses track of time on said website and never returns to assignment
That key movement between #3 and #4 is what got me. I've advocated for years that taking a break and 'zooming out' is a great way to approach a challenge on an assignment. 

What's more, this student told me that it compounds itself, especially in our technical programs. The assignment isn't done, student isn't prepared for the next day, isn't ready to do the next assignment, and so on and so on. And THEN, this student told me, the rest of the lectures in the semester are spent browsing the Internet or texting. 

Some claim technology to be the "microwave" solution to [insert giant overarching education problem that can't be fixed with one fell swoop]. These are usually former high-achieving students with strong, supportive backgrounds who often have a hard time understanding how difficult simply being a student can be. Fundamental processes like time management, focus, and sifting out important information were learned somewhere. Basic needs like safety and food were checked off. 

But when we throw technology at students and teachers without considering that some of our students aren't in that ideal situation - or, even worse, when we RELY on technology to teach - isn't there a potential to make that gap wider? And, of course, what role does a school play in making sure those needs are met? 

There are some fabulous technology tools available for teachers and students (my favorites are listed here and here), but the "microwave" expectation promotes these tools as sort of magic beans. Colleges that rent laptops to their students often regret that decision because not many students can find that balance between tool and toy. But as we continue to look at how to help incoming students be successful, we need to provide both the tools and the instructions to get what we expect from them. 

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