The other day I mentioned to a friend and former student that I thought we needed to change the way we taught teachers how to teach. Specifically I said that teachers do not leave college understanding how to teach with technology. His reply was that the college he'd attended (a very prestigious school known for its engineering and technology including computer science) had requires students to buy laptops. Unfortunately the laptops had been banned from classrooms because the professors didn't know how to make good use of them for teaching and learning. Ah ha! My point exactly.
The problem with many, perhaps most, laptop programs is that they start with the idea "give students a laptop and miracles will happen." That is in fact my big objection to Nick Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child program for the developing world. It makes lots of sense if you are ignorant of how computers work in the real world (i.e. anywhere but MIT). But in fact the numbers of students who figure out some amazing thing on their own is pretty small. Teachers and software are key.
The successful laptop and even computer lap programs start with knowing what software is going to be used, what subject are going to be taught with them and teachers all being trained to use them. There is some really interesting stuff going on at UMass for example in the school of business. The use Conference XP in the classroom and SharePoint Server for handling of data that follows students from one course to another. I've seen it in action and it is amazing. But the people in charge of the program know technology and have thought about how to make it work as a learning tool. You can read about their virtual cross-Atlantic classroom here.
What I mean when I say teachers don't know enough is that they are not using the tools to teach. Presentation software is much more powerful than a white board. Teachers could use a spreadsheet to do a much better job of helping students understand tables, graphs and how to really use and analyze data then they can by having them draw graphs with crayons. Science teachers using probes attached to computers sending data directly into spreadsheets
or other software lets students see more and more accurate data for lab reports. English teachers can do fantastic editing using the commenting and markup features of a tool like Word. Even spellchecking makes it easier for students to find the right spelling of words. I've seen dictionary software that lets a student press a function key to receive a definition of a word they don't know. Getting information easier makes learning easier. Games and simulations can also be a huge help to understanding.
For example at Brown they are using a tool called ChemPad to help chemistry students visualize molecules in 3D. They appear to be having good success helping students who have trouble visualizing on their own and getting those students to have much more success with the course it is used with.
But it all requires trained and motivated teachers with good software and good strategies to use the technology to improve teaching. I think that has to start in schools of education. Then it has to be supported by school districts as part of on-going training. Even teachers need to be taught.
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