2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Technology Is Cool, But How Can We Use It To Help Kids Learn?


Tenth graders video

Tenth graders at New York City's Internation High School Experience learning through video technology.

You're a high school social studies teacher and you want to prod your students into a meaningful discussion of an issue of national concern-'"say, global warming. Standard practice is to ask some version of the tried-and-true question, "What would you do if it were your decision?"-'"i.e., get them to take the part of legislators or policymakers thrashing out opposing viewpoints.

That's good as far as it goes, but what if you could take it a step further? Suppose your students could play out the policies they're advocating and see the consequences? Suppose they could consider alternatives by manipulating variables and engaging in the tradeoffs-'"pragmatic, if less than ideal-'"that go into real world decision-making?

Now an online game called CO2 FX, developed by a team at the National Science Foundation that includes TC faculty members Charles Kinzer and Ann Rivet, does just that.

"The world and Brazil are as yet unaware of the impacts development will have on the global environment," players are informed. "For the next 100 years, you will be responsible for managing some of the decisions made by the Brazilian government. If you choose wisely, you can guide Brazil to a path of sustainable development and ensure that the world 100 years from now is a place we would want to live."

Players can choose to be the economic advisor, the budget policy advisor or the scientific advisor to the Brazilian government in the year 1960. They are provided with information about average global temperature and Brazil's actual 1960 government spending on development incentives, health care, science and technology, social services and agricultural subsidies. They can then adjust the spending in categories that fall under their purview-'"and when they do, they are shown the impact on other spending areas and on the climate in the years to come. The object of the game: to agree on a budget that effectively balances Brazil's competing needs.

"If your charge as the political advisor is to keep the population happy and functioning, you have different goals than the economic advisor, who really wants to maximize GDP and jobs in the community. The scientific advisor is trying to encourage scientific spending and discovery, especially about global warming," says Kinzer, Professor of Education in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology. "You're basically learning a number of things. You're learning to work in teams, and you're learning negotiation strategies because somebody has to give up some of their budget if you want more in your budget. You're learning systems thinking, and you're learning about global warming."

Despite all that's said and written about the vast potential of technology to improve education, there are still far too many classrooms that either lack equipment or don't use it. For faculty and students in Teachers College's programs in Computing, Communication and Technology in Education (CCTE) and Cognitive Studies in Education, changing that picture is a top priority, and CO2 FX-'"still in prototype development, but accessible to the public via the Web-'"is just one example of a new wave of innovation both here and in the field in general.

"Educational technology in general has cycles; we're possibly on an uptick of a cycle now," says John Black, TC's Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education. Black's work includes a project called ARIA, in which children in after-school programs build robots with Legos and then control them via computer. He's also leading development of a simulation tool called REAL (Reflective, Agent Learning Environment), in which middle school students can program a virtual agent to "learn" about something-'"say, ecology or statistics-'"and then implement its knowledge to create changes in an on-screen environment. Students then reflect on what they have seen and can make adjustments to the agent's knowledge. "What's most intriguing to me is the extension of the computer world into the actual classroom," Black says. "The integration of the real world with what's on screen."

Black is quick to add that game technology that effectively promotes learning must differ from commercial video technology in one critical way: instead of extending game time by masking why things happen, it must take learners through a discovery process that is challenging but fairly brief. He has also shown that giving viewers the ability to directly manipulate an animated environment results in better problem-solving and recall than passive observation.

Ellen Meier, Co-Director of TC's Center for Technology & School Change (CTSC), sounds a similar note.

"It's never about the technology alone; the focus needs to be on teaching," Meier says. "The simulation world is using its potential to make a powerful contribution to education, because computers have a unique capacity to accurately model physical objects and then allow users to manipulate those models in different ways." CTSC conducts research on the impact of technology on pedagogy and evaluates technology interventions in schools. Meier also is working with the New York State Regents on a statewide vision for technology.

Invoking technologist Marc Prensky, who describes today's students as "natives" in the technological world, Meier says it's still the educators-'"the gatekeepers-'"who are "immigrants."

"The question becomes, How do we help teachers -'naturalize' in this new world? Learning to integrate technology is a multi-step process. The ultimate goal is to transform curriculum using these powerful tools to help students build their own knowledge."

To that end, TC recently added an all-online Master's program in Instructional Technology-'"the College's first online degree-conferring program-'"to the roster of degree offerings from its CCTE program.

"We've had online courses for nine years," says Howard Budin, Co-Director of CTSC and Adjunct Associate Professor in Computing in Education, who is heading up the program. "We've also offered our Intensive Master's Program, where teachers come here in July to study, and the rest of the year they are at home working online. But prospective students kept asking whether we offered an entirely online program, and we think this is one subject area where that medium is very much in keeping with offering quality content and experience."

Supported by a tool called Breeze, online classes will have a specific meeting time and place; offer students live video of each other in real time, as well as chat capabilities in both voice and text; and provide shareable documents and Web sites. Budin, whose collaborators include Academic Computing, the Center for Education, Outreach and Innovation, and the Gottesman Libraries, hopes this technology will foster communities that will live above and beyond the courses.

TC technology students are also increasingly exposed to environments like Education Island, created by Charles Kinzer and hosted in the public virtual world known as Second Life. Education Island features a caf where you can sit by the fire and order a latte; glowing kiosks along College Walk; a mid-air floating classroom with on-demand showings of lectures and conferences, and more. The space is virtual, but real, live educators and others interested can come to discuss issues, develop and test new theories, or just socialize.

"I think these technologies can maximize what we know about how children should learn, and they give us tools to actually make that happen," says Kinzer, who teaches half of his course on virtual worlds in the classroom at TC and half in Second Life. "We know about the value of social learning, and the technology is becoming more and more social."

In a recent paper, John Black writes: "Leaders today seem to be suffering from what might be called a failure of the imagination. We seem to be continually finding ourselves in situations where the leaders say something like -'no one could have imagined that this would happen.'"

With learning technology-'"and with teachers who are "naturalized" in the new digital environment-'"maybe our imaginations will improve. Maybe the students imagined earlier are meeting right now on Second Life, imagining a strategy to reverse global warming. If they are, maybe we won't have to wait 100 years to find out.  

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