This Isn’t Your Father’s Classroom: Technology in Education

In a week that had the Red Sox and Yankees fined for Apple Watches and clandestine dugout cell phones, it’s a reminder that even a stalwart like our national pastime isn’t immune from the infiltration of modern technology. Of course, ask any high school or college teacher about tech in the classroom, and the answer you’ll find is that largely no place is immune.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nationally, Governor Raimondo has poised Rhode Island to be a state largely free of Luddites, if all goes according to plan. Last year, she launched CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island), an initiative designed to bring computer science courses to every public school in Rhode Island. If the state meets the goal the governor set — compliance in every school, in every community by December 2017 — Rhode Island will be the first in the country to do so.

As much as we’ve begun to embrace the inherent benefits of teaching kids programming in a way that would become as natural as taking a foreign language, there’s still a trepidation about how students interface with tech. We seem to have accepted we need students to learn it to stay economically competitive. But we still aren’t entirely sure where the limits are within the classroom.

Take, for example, how some colleges ask students to remove their watches before exams. At its most elaborate, a group of medical school applicants in Thailand were busted last year, in a story that made international news, for using smart glasses to send admissions exam questions to a group of tutors, who then supplied answers back to each applicant’s smart watch.

But if we look beyond personal spy gear, educators often argue the merits of moving beyond paper and pencil. And even using basic tech — like Google platforms — requires training, despite the murmurings of, “BUT THESE KIDS ARE BORN WITH PHONES IN THEIR HANDS!”

Kristin Cassarino teaches freshmen World Civics in her class at Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln. Because Davies is open to admissions by students from across the state, she encounters a variety of learners. “Because we pull from so many middle schools, I saw some middle schools that were just beginning to use technology in the classroom,” she explains. “Some students don’t know what Google Drive is.”

Cassarino admits that while her students have textbooks, they seldom rely on them, opting instead for Chromebooks, which all students in her class are provided. “It doesn’t mean that our class is dominated by tech, but I would say that is it enhanced for tech. For social studies, it’s important they understand that,” she says. “We study the importance of primary sources. The other day we were learning about the stone age and went on a virtual tour of a paleolithic cave. Students were analyzing cave art. They wouldn’t have that experience with a text book.’”

In the classroom, Cassarino — who also teaches Ed Psychology at Providence College — says she’s noticed attitudes on tech change, even in the last five years. “People started to realize it fosters independence on the part of the student, college or high school,” she says. Discussion in her Ed Psychology course often focuses on learning styles. “By understanding what different students are good at, we can get to all of them,” Cassarino says. “Our big goal here is to teach students ownership. Tech doesn’t mean we’re doing any less of the teaching, but we are becoming more of a facilitator in a 21st century environment.”

How students take ownership can manifest in different ways. For example, some students, who definitely aren’t interns at Motif, cop that they use Google groups for collaborative learning during lectures. To take notes — and fact check their teachers on the internet — in real time.

Cassarino emphasizes that, despite using Google platforms in her classroom (all students are provided folders on their Google Drive with materials; she also utilizes a help desk where students can submit questions), the role of any teacher is to push students “beyond their natural tendency to Google” and teach different strategies for analyzing sources.

Ultimately, the task becomes about teaching students the tech they’ll need for the future … with the realization that students won’t all live their lives behind a screen.

“We match the amount of tech that we use with face-to-face interaction,” says Cassarino. “We start every day with a very loud discussion, teaching students to interact face-to-face, but then we also teach them the appropriate use, digital skills that they’re going to need.”

For veteran teachers who may be skeptical of blending learning, or tech-powered classes, there’s incentive to get on board. “Since I’ve seen comfort levels with technology increase with faculty, I’ve noticed that deeper learning and more complex learning is happening,” says Cassarino. “Because of that, there’s more active participation with students.”

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