When I took education classes as a post-baccalaureate at ASU from 1991 to 1993 there was plenty of talk about using technology in learning and the great things that might happen in education.
When I started teaching, there was much talk about how technology would change teaching. Getting enough computers in the classroom, or all working at the same time in the lab, was a huge hurdle. Something, usually money, or just as often, a glitch in the network, hampered efforts to really use technology easily.
Last week I saw a new effort to use technology to enhance and transform education. I went to talk to Mike Brown, Ph.D. and Jacob Shotwell, Ph.D. at Adaptive Curriculum at Sky Song, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center. The press release said, “Phoenix Schools implementing new state-of-the-art teaching technology.” Having taught 10 ten years, I had to see it.
Mark and his parents from the slope-intercept lesson.
Adaptive Curriculum is building an online resource that takes science and math for middle school through high school and uses Flash to illustrate and animate concepts. Not games, but animation and illustrations to bring concepts to life and make them real and relevant. Brown taught high school biology for 10 years and he found the schools woefully behind the scientific curve. The textbooks were teaching science current to decades ago but bearing no relation to science students will encounter in college and beyond.
I wanted to see an example of a concept that’s difficult to make cute: linear equations in slope-intercept form. You remember y=mx+b, don’t you? In their lesson, a guy, Mark, gets $50 allowance from his parents every month. He also has a job at an advertising agency earning $8 an hour. (At least he wasn’t living with his parents.) The lesson showed how to graph his monthly finances. Because he always took in $50 a month, that was the minimum and his earnings went up from there, so obviously, the y-intercept was 50. The equation was y=8x+50. I think I would have remembered more about linear equations in school if I understood what they could be about.
Data table for the graph
The animation was a quirky and amusing, not slick or trying too hard to be cool. Shotwell said they found that kids liked quirky. Students were asked to draw another graph assuming the parents decided to no longer cough up $50 per month. It wasn’t cute or silly and the explanations were solid. I especially liked that instead of saying “eight x” the narrator said “eight times x” because kids often forget what 8x means.
Shotwell said they refer to pedagogical research to make sure their teaching methods are solid. There’s more teaching than technology in the lessons; the technology illustrates and animates the concepts. It’s easy enough to teach kids about y=mx+b because it’s simple, but for them to understand what it means, and how it relates to life, is not so easy. Mark and his $50 allowance and minimum wage job gives the formula life and makes it memorable, which is the whole point of education.
Textbooks can’t come close to what an animated, narrated, illustrated video does. And teacher can’t create richly illustrated examples for everything they teach. Textbooks are fine for kids who learn that way, but most of us don’t have fond memories of textbooks.
Chemistry lab. The cursor can "pick up" and manipulate the objects.
I watched a lesson on the conservation of matter experiment. Yes, you can do experiments in the classroom if you have the materials, but can you show kids the experiment five times and let them do it five times on their own?
I did the conservation of matter experiment twice. When I got into the “lab” all the materials were there for me to click on and use. I put the calcium carbonate onto the scale, put it in the Erlenmeyer flask and lit the Bunsen burner, but only after I put the balloon over the top of the flask. Then I watched as the balloon inflate with the gas created from the reaction. I then weighed the balloon and compared the total mass of the ingredients at the beginning to the total mass after the reaction
As a student I had to remember to account for the one gram mass of the balloon to make the results make sense. On the computer it was easy to revisit and try different amounts of calcium carbonate.
Addition of mixed fractions with unlike denominators.
I did a lesson on adding fractions with unlike denominators. This isn’t as exciting as Columbus or dissecting frogs or blowing up stuff in chemistry class, but these lessons give immediate feedback to tell students whether they are right or wrong. Watching, listening and practicing is better than just reading the problem from a book and waiting until the next day for feedback after the papers are graded. Immediate feedback is gold in education.
All photos are screen images from Adaptive Curriculum.