How can you be against technology in education?!

I always find it perplexing that many educators seem to think that introducing new technology into education somehow equates with “the industrialization of higher education.” Whatever that means. Remember what technology actually is. A piece of chalk is technology. A chalkboard is technology. A pen is technology…and yes, a SmartBoard is technology. A tool is a tool is a tool. Tools change. Get over it. I for one, am glad I don’t have to clean a dusty chalkboard anymore.

Technology opens up many new options for learning. It eliminates the traditional stranglehold of the elite on knowledge and information. Isn’t that an extremely positive turn of events, the democratisation of information? It allows the poor in India access to free courses from MIT that they had NO ACCESS to in the past. Education is the solution to the world’s problems, so once again, who could be against this increased access to knowledge, thanks to online learning?! Fear of change is a bad reason. Fear of losing one’s position is also a bad reason. Why not try learning something new? Why not try to figure out the best way of harnessing something new in order to benefit future generations. WHY NOT?!!! I can’t think of a single good reason.

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Granted, and...


My greatest learning as a teacher came on the soccer field. We had been working for a few weeks on the same key ‘moves’ on the field related to creating ‘space’. After a few practices, the team looked good in the drills – they’ve got it! Next two games? Nothing: like we never learned it. Finally, in exasperation I yelled at my co-captain, Liz, one of the prime offenders in not using the moves practiced: USE what we worked on!! I yelled. Liz yelled back from the field: We would, Mr Wiggins, but the other team isn’t lining up the way we did the drills!!

There are two vital lessons here about learning:

  • 1) Transfer is the bottom-line goal of all learning, not scripted behavior.
  • 2) Transfer means that a learner can draw upon and apply from all of what was learned, as the situation warrants, not just do…

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Why MOOC’s are a welcome development

A comment I posted after reading this article in University Affairs on MOOC’s

If the true purpose of education is to help learners gain knowledge and skills then MOOC’s are a welcome development. They are another option for learning that allows anyone around the world with computer and internet access to learn at minimal cost. Those opposed to MOOC’s are pro status quo educational establishment types who are worried about losing their jobs, worried about traditional expensive universities disappearing, worried about losing power and control over information (and/or learners), worried that they don’t know enough about technology and don’t want anything to change, or at least not as rapidly as education is being forced to. Real educators should support anything that expands learner choice and access to education, and work hard to figure out how to leverage technology to accomplish this. Burying one’s head in the sand (and I still see lots of this in both highered and K-12) is not an option and is really pitiful (in the truest sense of the word). If you are not curious about new things and not willing to change and experiment then you really shouldn’t be in education. By the way, 20 years ago I knew next to nothing about technology as a new teacher in Japan. I took the time to find out. If I can do it (and I used to think that if a hard drive crashed it had just been involved in a physical collision), there is no excuse for anyone else not to as well….unless you don’t care about improving education access and choice and are bereft of curiosity.

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How can students be risk advserse and yet learn?

Ken, you ask a really good question. How can students be risk adverse and yet learn? I think that’s where the role of the facilitator becomes crucial. Students need to be in an environment where they can feel comfortable making mistakes. Simply put, one has to make mistakes to make real progress (and I wish there was a better word than mistake because it has such negative connotations – suggestions?) It is up to the facilitator (teacher, instructor, parent, etc.) to create this environment. Learners will usually be more comfortable taking risks if the facilitator makes it acceptable to do so. Facilitators need to take away the fear factor. They need to remove any barriers to learning.

As many have previously mentioned, establishing trust between the facilitator and the learners is hugely important in this matter. The facilitator needs to humanize him/herself in the eyes of the students. In this regard, I used to always tell a story (and I have many) of where I failed at first but ultimately succeeded (and the whole definition of what I thought was success changed in the process of achieving it). For example, when I went to Japan, I didn’t speak Japanese at all, I didn’t know anyone in Japan, I had never been to Japan, I hated sushi, I didn’t know how to use chopsticks, I had never taught before and the first day of class I had the runs and the first student I had brought their 2 year-old with them who took one look at me and started screaming in terror…to top it off I’d just signed a 2 year contract and wouldn’t be seeing my friends and fanily during that period. I felt I might have made a mistake!…but…I ended up staying 6 years, having the time of my life and now consider Japan my second home. Before I left Canada, my friends thought I was crazy to go. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them – they missed out on a ton of learning. Eisenhower was correct when he stated that one has nothing to fear but fear itself – facilitators need to convey through their words and more importantly, their actions that students can be creative and unorthodox with their solutions, without fear! Lisa and Taj did this at the beginning of the course when they basically said, feel free to experiment and then let us do so.

“Lyman (1997) and Bolhuis (1996) stress that teachers … must free themselves from a preoccupation with tracking and correcting errors, a practice that is ego-threatening (Guthrie, et al. 1996). Lyman and Bolhuis advocate greater tolerance of uncertainty and encourage risk-taking, and capitalizing on learners’ strong points instead of focusing on weaknesses, as it is more beneficial for learners to achieve a few objectives of importance to them than it is to fulfill all the objectives that are important to the teacher. Leal (1993) advocates allowing learners to explore ideas through peer discussions – even without fully intact answers – a process that can yield new and valuable insights. Corno (1992) suggests allowing learners to pursue personal interests without the threat of formal evaluation. Even if they make mistakes while doing so, the activities will sustain their interest, transcend frustration, and eventually break barriers to achievement.”

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East vs. West – are learners really that different?

In response to your first point that there is a big divide between Eastern and Western cultural/learning styles I would just throw out the following: Although there are some very noticeable differences, and when we talk about culture we tend to focus on differences, learners also have much in common regardless of where in the world they come from. They want to learn, succeed, get along with others, be valued, be respected. Also, as Ken, Andrea and others have pointed out, even if everyone in the classroom is from the same culture, the facilitator still has to deal with that culture…and as Jeff mentioned, a whole bunch of micro-cultures as well, some of which we really do not have anything in common with. In the classroom, as a facilitator OR learner, we have to try to achieve some coherence, consensus, sense of community sense of balance and negotiated meaning out of all of this diversity. But as humans, we also adapt to some extent to our environment or context. Especially those who are like trees that bend in the wind – doesn’t work out so well for those who remain rigid. In Japan, the rigid ones were the foreign teachers who did a “midnight run.” They couldn’t adapt and they broke – they would literally take off on the next available flight out of the country and leave their students and school manager wondering what the hell happened?!

I’ll never forget the following as long as I live:

I had been teaching in Japan for about a year. I was teaching a class which I really enjoyed. I forgot I was in Japan. I forgot I was teaching in a different culture. I forgot that my race and their race were different. I forgot that I looked different. Suddenly I glanced in the mirror and was shocked – gaijiin da! (there’s a foreigner) – I thought to myself. I realized that I had adapted myself to my teaching context to the point where I didn’t see, or more importantly, feel any differences, any barriers between my students and myself. I was amazed that that could actually happen. While on the outside I looked exactly the same, on the inside I had changed a lot! To varying degrees, depending upon a variety of factors such as time, level of immersion, openness to change, etc. that also happens to everyone who moves to a foreign country. Ultimately I LIKED seeing things through a different cultural perspective – it made me see my own culture in a different light as well, sometimes positively but also sometimes negatively and that’s GOOD. Otherwise it’s easy to go through life with cultural blinders on…you miss a lot….and misunderstand a lot.

So remember that just as we have a wide variation amongst people in our own culture, the same is true in other cultures. I had friends in Japan I had more in common with than some of my friends in Canada. That’s worth remembering. Friendship knows no boundaries.

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Student motivation and “success.”

My views on student motivation and what constitutes student “success” have always been coloured by my years teaching ESL in Japan. First of all, success in ESL means improving one’s English. Period. There is no failure in the traditional sense, for that makes no sense (that word, in the context it’s usually used, has caused so much damage to society, because it has stopped too many people from realizing their true potential). How can you fail “improving”? The only way I can think of is when you stop trying. Then you’ll fail for sure. I hate that word. The end goal is for the student to be able to use English as a communication tool for the rest of their life. For travel. For work. To establish friendships with people from all over the world. They can’t “fail” getting better at English. They can only get better at English – forever. Learning another language means learning forever because one can always improve. That many people don’t does not mean that they can’t. It’s a choice. Certainly the student has personal responsibility for this but a great teacher can HELP many students (not all of course, but many) by motivating them to make better choices. The main reason that I had ESL students in Japan was because traditional classroom instruction with pass and fail…didn’t work well. It destroyed their motivation to learn English and they didn’t learn English, they learned a bunch of words to pass a test…and then promptly forgot 90% of the words because they weren’t important to the student. At the end of 5 years of classroom instruction, many couldn’t carry on a simple conversation. Now THAT’s a failure.

We are motivated by what interests us. So teachers must find out what interests their students and then integrate it into what they are teaching.

In Japan, we interviewed students before they attended our classes. We made them comfortable. We found out WHY they wanted to enrol in our classes. We learned about their families, their personalities, their goals, dreams, fears, personal experiences, you name it. Through those conversations we were also learning about their English level and strengths and weaknesses at the same time. Then we ditched the dreary textbooks and rote memorization and error-filled dictionaries and designed curriculum that suited the students needs. This is when I first started to use the internet in my classes (1995!) as it allowed customization of content to student interests that beat the pants off of textbooks. I was so inept with computers I thought that if my hard drive crashed its moving parts had somehow collided! But I kept trying and improving and eventually made my living as a tech consultant. We told students that mistakes are good – in fact, making mistakes is the best way to learn a language (or anything). If you’re not making mistakes then you’re either perfect (obviously not the case) or you’re not trying because if you try to learn something new, you HAVE to make mistakes. I told them that making mistakes in my class was good – no one would yell at them or tell them they’re stupid, or laugh at them. We, as a class, would however laugh WITH them. Of course, I was a private teacher with small classes and teachers in public education don’t have as much leeway…still, there is a growing appetite for change (finally?) in education and these are exciting times. Anything is possible.

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