Developing a mindful approach on tech integration in the classroom is currently something that is of keen interest to me. However, from the perspective of a student teacher, there is still a lot of foundational knowledge for me to develop on. As a result, I decided to make this blog post more of an effort in seeking out some advice from those around me who carry a wealth of knowledge from their vast experiences.
A role model to many, including myself, I decided to approach Dr. Tyseer Aboulnasr, former professor and dean at the Faculty of Engineering at uOttawa, to gain her perspective on tech integration based on her experiences and observations/interactions with her students. I also took this opportunity to gain some initial learning about coding/programming.
The following are some of questions/answers shared in what turned out to be an “email interview,” due to time-zone differences. At the end, I also provide some of my own reflections on the valuable insights I gained from this perspective.
Q1: Integrating technology into the learning process —is it essential in today’s teaching practices? Would it be a disservice to students if it wasn’t incorporated?
A: My whole argument on the issue of technology is that technology was developed as a tool to provide solutions to problems we have and to improve our quality of life; we should always differentiate goals from tools.
Technology is a tool and should never end up being the goal.
You cannot enjoy the advancements of technology and keep aiming for more advanced technology. You should always stop and ask; why was I doing this? what do I need it for? and not just focus on, how do I do it?
This is my general rule, so when it comes to education, you as teachers need to decide on the skill sets you need to impart onto your students and then see how technology can help you to get them to acquire those skills.
A secondary goal is that students will have to deal with technology all the time, so you need to get them to be comfortable with it and not scared of it by getting them used to it being part of their life. Sort of like what you do with diversity; they have to live with it in society, so you teach them about it and how it can add richness to their lives.
So yes, bring it in the classroom so they’re comfortable with the “tool” and prepared to use it later on as they need to. And when you incorporate it in your learning plan, use it to support your educational tools and do not make learning it the goal.
It would be a disservice if it is not included, but it is also a disservice if it is included at the expense of the basic skills of critical thinking, learning to learn, problem solving etc.
Q2: What is coding/programming and what kind of computational thinking is involved in this process?
A: Programming is simply a list of basic specific instructions that solve a problem. Think of a robot you have who cannot think. You need the robot to go to aisle 6 in the store, pick-up the red package on shelf #5 and bring it back. You taught the robot (like you teach a dog) a certain set of orders. So you use the basic set of orders the robot knows and then give them out in a sequence.
Take 10 steps right
Turn 90 degrees
Three steps left
(whatever algorithm that gets it to aisle 6)
Move up 5 shelves
Check package colour
If colour is not red, go to next package
If colour is red, pick it up
Take 2 steps back
In other words, you need to know exactly what needs to be done and then write the program or code which is basically the steps you as a person needs to do, articulated in the language the computer understands.
Different computers have different “hardware capacities” that can for example get him to check the colour of the package very fast. Also the “vocabulary” the computer understands can be rudimentary (one step right, turn 890 degrees, then two steps left) or (keep moving until you find a left turn) or …
You cannot program a solution if you cannot solve it yourself. The computer is just implementing your steps, faster, more accurately, but they are still your steps. You need to learn problem solving to be able to actually solve the problem and structure the solution in the most elegant way that is matched to the computer’s capacity to understand (or its set of instructions).
Q3: I heard you make mention before that it’s not about the technology itself, because by the time students graduate, the technology will have changed. From that perspective, what kind of transferable knowledge/skills should I be focusing on when integrating coding in the classroom?
A: I believe if technology is learnt as a tool, certainly, there is so much transferrable. In reality, most are fascinated by it and they focus more on the technology and not on the thinking behind using it.
You are 100% right, I learned vacuum tubes and a few years down, there were no vacuum tubes. Technology is now changing faster than education. You need to teach students to be comfortable with technology and to learn how to learn using it and what to do with what they learn, all while ensuring you maintain the concept of this is just a tool.
The best are the ones that learn how to program a lego kit for example and then tomorrow, they sit and learn a different language on their own because they understood that all languages are simply a set of instructions. You need to know what instructions are available, then look at what you want to do, and how do you break it up into a sequence of instructions from within this set.
Q4: What would a poor integration of coding into the classroom look like to you?
Poor integration is something where students are learning to program a game but did not focus on the problem solving process that they needed to write the code. Rather, on writing the code itself and playing the game.
Q5: What qualities distinguished your most innovative students?
The best are the ones that have enough confidence to try something new on their own and when they fail, it motivates them more to try again. It bothers them to not know how something works.
There are two key takeaways that stood out to me in the reflection process; technology as a thinking tool and technology for inclusion.
Technology as a Thinking Tool:
One of my math professors likes to use the term “thinking-tools” when referring to math manipulatives because they help provide learners with ‘aha-moments’ when working out a problem or trying to understand a concept. They allow students to interact with the learning and further stimulate the thinking processes involved. By the same token, Dr. Tyseer refers to technology in the same sense, continually reiterating that it is indeed just a tool; a thinking tool that we should be introducing to students or incorporating into our learning for the purpose of eliciting and stimulating that thought-process.
Technology is not the goal and nor is it just about the engagement level that it helps to create in the classroom; when integrated meaningfully, it can also help me add a new dimension to the thought-processes involved in trying to reach my learning goal(s) with students.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be anything fancy, and still requires strategic planning and support from the teacher to be able to capitalize on it well. Take for example using Pear Deck in a math class to try and engage students in a discussion. As a teacher, I know that some of my students are always hesitant at first to share their thoughts, so I make use of Pear Deck to anonymize their responses and create that safe environment for them. Students are then able to see everyone’s response on the screen without knowing who said what. The focus in the classroom now is strictly on the responses and ideas shared by my students. Added to that, of course, is my back-pocket cheat-sheet full of teacher prompts/questions to help me navigate the discussion, along with other strategies I planned out for this portion of the lesson.
In this sense, the integration of Pear Deck allowed students the space and time to be able to tap into their own thoughts and equally engage with the lesson. The strategies I planned out helped me to capitalize on the support that this technology provided.
This is a very basic example, but the main idea for me here is asking myself: how is this technology I’m bringing into the classroom supporting or “manipulating” my students’ thought-processes somehow?
Whether I’m integrating simple technology to help engage students in a discussion or using it as a more complex tool to learn about coding, the big idea is the same — the focus is on the thinking involved as students are making use out of this tool.
Technology viewed as a ‘thinking tool’ also reminded me about a recent post I came across by Nick Shackleton-Jones where he talks about tech integration in terms of “content-dumping” vs. “performance-support” in three short videos here. While the videos are aimed more for e-learning in organizations, they are still relevant to the classroom. The big idea mentioned here is to basically package technology in terms of a resource that can improve performance rather than a tool used to re-create a micro course or content online.
The following example and image are taken from the original post here:
Technology for Inclusion:
Technology for inclusion is often thought of in terms of an ‘assistive device’ to support learners with special needs. However, upon mentioning the idea of bringing technology in the classroom so that students can be comfortable with it and ready to use it later on in life as they need to, brought-up the question of: how inclusive are classrooms if technology is not incorporated? If the term ‘inclusive’ means meeting the needs of all my students equally and technology is currently a tool they’re using outside of the classroom to try and support their learning, then by excluding it from my classroom, am I really meeting their current and future needs?
Educators who are still hesitant to incorporate technology in the classroom are often not comfortable with using it themselves. But by not incorporating it, even though it is indeed a big part of our lives now, then we’re passing on that ‘fear of technology.’
As mentioned by Dr. Tyseer, we educate students about diversity in the classroom and how it can add richness to their lives because it’s a characteristic that defines our society and something that we have to live with. By the same token, technology is now also a defining characteristic of how we interact/learn in society and thus would be a benefit to students when educated on how to make proper use of it.