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Integrating Technology within the Curriculum

articles & presentations

Integrating Technology within the Curriculum

M Cline

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What is the purpose of technological integration?  Is it to promote learning – stimulate and engage, present information in new ways, collaborate, give feedback, or in other ways enrich the curriculum?  Is it technological literacy – general computer literacy and specialized technical expertise?  Or perhaps it is, in part, to “extend the classroom” outside of school walls, helping increase student contact, and promote learning, engagement, and collaboration (and at the college level, to increase revenue streams).  Is it about developing the Next-Generation Classroom . . . don't get left behind.   Or is it more about promoting ethical behavior – social awareness, empathy, responsibility? 

The primary goal of technology integration is not to promote learning (or at least it should not be).  That is, it is not to build a better mousetrap.  Putting technology in the classroom, generally speaking, does not translate into better teaching.  While technology may be used to create a more dynamic classroom, in practice, it fails to reach this goal.  Are students better at reading, writing, and arithmetic than they were before?  There are tried and proven ways to improve student performance.  Investing millions of dollars on technological integration may marginally increase student learning, but why not use more effective and less costly approaches - creating a dynamic classroom has more to do with content, delivery, effective classroom management, appropriate feedback, etc., than with the toys we have. 

If the point of integrating technology into the classroom is not better teaching, is it computer literacy?  Not exactly . . .  the primary goal of technological integration must be to teach students the skills necessary to be able to function in the modern world and to be competitive in the workplace.  Technological literacy is part of this.  Students need to be able to use a computer.  They should have an intuitive understanding of how to use a computer (something my grandfather does not have), and be able to use specific tools and applications.  Yet here, we are still missing the overall picture.  Students need to have a world view and skill set that allows them to intelligently function and interact in a networked society.

Technological development has led to important changes in social, business, and academic life.  The development of the telephone changed how people did business, altered social interaction patterns, and brought up concerns over privacy and identity theft.  It increased long distance communication, led to the development of suburbs and skyscrapers, promoted specialization and urbanization of the workforce, and promoted globalization. 

Like the telephone, computer and Internet technologies promise to redefine almost every domain of human activity.  Although we are unsure what the future will look like, we know that it has something to do with computers, and we want to give our students a head start.  If you are preparing a school trip to Spain, it is important for students to learn a little bit about the culture and the language before you go.  If you are going to jungles of Papua New Guinea, it is important to be sure that everyone is well prepared, even if you don’t quite know what you are getting yourselves into.  We must ask, “What knowledge and skills will students need to function effectively in jungles of Papua New Guinea?  How do we avoid mishap?”  Analogously, we may ask, “What skills do students need to be successful in a networked society?  What skills do they need to be successful in the marketplace today?  What do they need to do to stay safe?  What will give them a competitive advantage in college admissions and in the workplace?”                                                     

In order to prepare students for the future, we do not need interactive white boards or Moodle, we need to give students exposure to some of the exciting technologies being used with the academic disciplines and within the workplace today.  That is, we need to integrate "some of the ways" technology is being applied in science, business, or within the academic community.  The point is not to integrate the technology within the classroom, but to teach people how to live in a world in defined by technology.  That is, the goal of technological integration is to prepare students for the future, by integrating new technologies within the curriculum, helping students understand the world that we live in, develop marketable skills, and take responsibility for their actions.

Students need to understand how computer technologies are changing the way we do business, the way we approach research, the way we interact with one other.  They need to be able to use and apply computer and communications technologies in school, in the lab, and in the workplace.   They need to understand the consequence of their actions online, and their role as citizens in a networked society, as standards of acceptable behavior are negotiated within the social arena.  Or to put it in a different way, students need to develop an appreciation for the ethical and political dimensions of living in a networked society.  We could describe this in terms of "responsibility."

Integrating Technology within the Curriculum

We need to integrate technology, not within the classroom, but within the curriculum.  We do not need technology to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, we need reading, writing, and arithmetic to teach technology.  Technology must be integrated within the curriculum, as an integral part, which reinforces, reflects, and extends the existing curriculum.  Here it is important to note that it is not possible to separate technology from its social context and usage.  Human tools only make sense within a cultural context.  Therefore, it may be argued, technology cannot be properly taught unless it is integrated within the curriculum. 

Secondly, without the inclusion of technology, our curriculum is incomplete.  Technology is changing the tools that we use in math and science.  It is changing our focus of study in social science.  It provides topics and themes in art and literature - raw, contemporary, relevant.  It is a driving force in history.  We cannot talk about politics without talking about the changes in the Middle East, and how they were facilitated by social media.  No discussion of economics in complete without a discussion of globalization.  Technology is changing how we spend our time, how we interact together, how we do business, and what we do for fun.  If we are not integrating a technology within our curriculum, we may ask, to what degree is our curriculum current, and to what degree is it relevant?

 Perhaps nowhere has there been more excitement over the impact of technology than in social science.  Communications technologies are leading to important changes in social and economic life.  Furthermore, the virtual world is often described as a laboratory for social research, giving us insight into how we interact in social groups, adapt to new technologies, etc.  If social science is the study of humans - and humans spend a great deal of their time in virtual environments - then social science is naturally the study of humans in virtual space.

But is integrating technology into the curriculum really relevant in a subject, such as mathematics?  Well, yes and no.  Technology is changing the way we do mathematics, as illustrated by the changes that have been made to the AP Calculus curriculum over the last 10 years.  Technology is changing our "toolset" in mathematics, and in many cases, it is no longer necessary to do long calculations by hand.

Not only is technology changing the tools that we use, it is changing the problems that we focus on.  The mathematics curriculum was designed to prepare students for careers in engineering and physics.  The "liberal arts core" was replaced by math and science in the '60s, after the United States fell behind in the "Space Race."  But today, jobs are in computer science.  If we are to prepare students for careers in computer science, computer graphics (remember the video game industry has the same revenue as the Hollywood box office), and online marketing, it will be necessary to update the mathematics curriculum.

Integrating technology within the mathematics curriculum also helps generate student interest - the best way to increase student engagement is to develop exciting curriculum.  Students are interested in how Google uses statistics to build user profiles and target advertising, how matrixes are used in computer graphics, how inverses are used in cryptography, how massive parallel processing may be used for facial recognition.  Students are not interested, by and large, in linear regression, inverses, or graphing quadratics, they are interested in things that have cool real-world applications.  But math does have cool real-world applications, we have simply failed to demonstrate it.  The classroom is not so much defined by the tools that are used, but by the curriculum.  In this way, technology may be integrated within the curriculum, helping to make the curriculum relevant and meaningful.

How do we integrate technology within the curriculum?  We may start by asking, "How is technology leading to important changes in your field, to how you do research, to what you study or talk about, to how you approach questions within your discipline, to what you do at work?"  We may discuss the impact of various technologies, illustrating important concepts with real-world examples.  If you are studying business and economics, you can discuss how we have seen a shift to online and advertising based revenue models.  This is an excellent entry point for discussions in the field of economics, history, or philosophy.  Develop key assignments that help students to understand how the technology works and how it may be applied within the discipline.  Look at contemporary issues, such as loss of privacy, illegal file sharing, and online bullying, and talk about the suicides of Jesse Logan and Megan Mier - stories that hit home in a way the moralism never will.  It is important to do more than, in the worlds of Marshall McLuhan, look at history through the rear-view mirror.  What kind of world do we want to make?  What is the potential impact the choices we make?

Here it is important to note that a standards based approach is not without its difficulties.  It is easy to teach a someone how to bake a cake.  But if we described this process in terms of abstract learning outcomes, no one would know what to do?  In a similar manner, if we ask teachers to have students, ". . . demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and process using technology . . . use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others . . . apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information . . . use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions using appropriate digital tools and resources . . . understand human, cultural and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior," they don't know quite what to do, how to integrate it, or how to do so without taking time away from the material that they are actually supposed to cover.  It is important to articulate standards, but we also need to provide clear, tangible, and easy to follow instructions.  Simply put, we need to tell them to bake a cake (to mix metaphors).

The example of baking a cake also gives us insight into how to integrate technology within the classroom.  In chemistry, we can study the chemical reactions that take place.  In anthropology, history, and social science, we can look at how meals are ritualized and what functions desserts fulfill in society.  In English, we can look at how dessert is used as a literary device; and we can put what we have learned into practice, by writing stories of our own.  In this way, technology may be integrated within the curriculum, not as excess baggage, but as a meaningful part of the curriculum.

Thus, in review, we should not talk about integrating technology into the classroom, we should talk about integrating technology within the curriculum.  It is simply an issue of keeping our curriculum current.  Technology should not take away from the curriculum, it should add to it, illustrating important concepts, introducing relevant technologies, bringing up issues of ethics and social responsibility, and promoting student engagement.  By keeping the curriculum current, we give students the tools that they need to be successful in the real world, giving them an advantage in college admissions and in the job market, and helping them to understand the world critically. 

There are opportunities for people with strong computer skills in the marketplace and our instructional focus should reflect this.  In particular, there is a growing demand for people in computer science, not in chemistry, physics, or biology.  With the development of any new communications technology, we see the development of a new, upwardly mobile, technical class.  Every discipline has its era and the important work today is being done in computer science. 

From curricular perspective, this suggests the need for curriculum in media studies, social science, interface design, and programming - computers are no longer just about the code.  Students with this interdisciplinary background in computers are going to have a competitive advantage in the design of social media and software, in marketing, and in the workplace at large.  In order to provide a cutting-edge program, however, it will be necessary to hire staff with the requisite background knowledge, and to invest resources to help and encourage teachers to integrate new technologies within the curriculum.