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The Wonder That Technology Brings to Education

While there are valid concerns about high technology (as with any new technology), as an experienced educator I’d like to point out a few of the revolutionary positives in the field of education. I’d also like to pause and take a moment to enjoy and celebrate the wonder of it all.

Technology has enabled students today to understand the world better than any students in history. It has changed teachers from being gatekeepers of knowledge from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and allowed students to be more active learners and participants in their own education.

To address “the wonder of it all,” here are just a few things I’ve talked about and done with my students over the years.

During one of the SpaceX launches, in an empty classroom in my rural school, my students had their phones in their hands watching the launch in real time and in full color. To give some perspective, when I was in elementary school during the first space launches, we were lucky to hear the news coming in over a classroom speaker from a radio station. If we ran home to watch it on TV, we usually saw people in a newsroom or a black-and-white slide of a Navy ship in the ocean near where the space capsule may have splashed down. Pictures were days away.

During the SpaceX launches, we were able to see the launch from the ground perspective — the capsule being launched and the fuel tanks. We watched the separation in real time and the upright landing of the fuel tanks on barges. And we watched all of this on phones that weren’t connected by wires to anything. On a whiteboard we sketched the signal path to our phones: Wi-Fi units in our room, to wiring in our buildings, to our server room, out to a dish, to another dish on a tower miles away. By land and through the air and some bounces into space, the signal traveled thousands of miles to us. And launch-picture video signals came down to Earth from cameras on the launch vehicles as clear as could be!

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If that isn’t amazing and wonderful, I don’t know what is. And it enables firsthand observation and firsthand education never before possible.

A more mundane feat of amazement happens every day, as I have students demonstrate for themselves. They open any browser and start typing words into a search. The appearance of a letter on a screen from the pressure on one key alone is amazing, but even more amazing is to see that the browser fills in the words being typed and offers many possible ways for the search to go. I have the students type slowly and watch this occur. Then, as in the SpaceX example, we try to understand how fast the signal travels from rural Oregon to and from the cloud and gives us a processed result faster than we can type letters!

Every day I take the time to notice how amazing all of this is, and my students and staff and friends and family are getting tired of me saying it. Ours is an international boarding and day school, and from our earliest days almost 50 years ago, our landline phones and phone booths were our students’ lifelines to their families, and there were always long lines at the phone booths. From collect calls to calling cards to the earliest flip phones, each wave of technology improved the ability of our students to be in regular communication with their families. Today I see students in live family video calls in a variety of school settings, and it is always fun to wave and say hello to families around the world.

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I’m sorry — that’s amazing and something we shouldn’t take for granted.

If you haven’t looked at the latest phones — with 200-megapixel cameras and high-definition screens, and features not even dreamed of just a few years ago — you are missing the wonder of it all.

And what does this mean for students and their own education? I will write more about this soon, but let me suggest that it changes everything. Everything. Hundreds of years ago, education was by lecture, because there weren’t books for students. Only a few years ago, students had to memorize things like countries and capitals because it was hard to have the information readily at hand. Political and cultural changes made it impossible to keep up with a current list of countries, while technology made it possible to rapidly access the information when needed. Students can stop memorizing things they can easily look up.

So just one little change in the education landscape is the shift from “learning to memorize facts” to “learning how to find accurate and up-to-date information in a world of changes and new discoveries.”

Another is the change of how we can access information. Years ago when studying American government, if my students wanted to read a proposed law, they had to call their legislator’s office and have it mailed to them. By the time it arrived, it could have already been amended or passed, and the delay prevented my students from communicating their thoughts to their elected officials. Today, students can access any proposed bill, watch testimony and hearings and learn firsthand how bills become laws! All of this is enabled by technology, and that is what I am celebrating as an educator. It totally changes the learning experience!

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I will take this topic up again in the near future, but technology has given students direct access to a world of knowledge never before available. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative changed the world of learning planet-wide, and Khan Academy brought more changes. As educators, we have new topics to take up, including how to determine fact from fiction, detect bias, and analyze data to draw valid conclusions. And we all need to focus on how students can keep themselves safe from those who would use technology to harm or manipulate them. But I celebrate the problems that it makes for us as educators.

I’m happy to move off the stage and facilitate my students’ self-directed learning. I see this as a way to bring out the genius in them all. And despite the many valid concerns, I celebrate the potential for technology to help our children be better educated than any previous generation, and to enable them to solve the world’s toughest problems.

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