June 2018

Is Technology a Universal Equalizer?

As my research focuses on how technology can be used to engage students in meaningful mathematics and science learning, I continuously think about the educational (and societal) impact of modern technology. I also keep asking myself a simple question: why despite such a proliferation of novel and often free digital tools for education, we still face huge issues with learning mathematics, science, languages, and just having an educated population. While the words “critical thinking” will appear in many modern educational documents, I am not sure we are succeeding at helping our students become critical thinkers. Where are the educational breakthroughs promised to us by many educators who saw technology as a universal equalizer and the tool that will change everything? Why haven’t things improved or why haven’t they improved as much as we would have wished? I keep asking myself these questions and reflecting on my own learning, as well as on the experiences of my teacher-candidates who are soon going to become secondary mathematics and science teachers.

I love learning… and I love learning with technology (I think this is something my parents taught me and it is still there). I also try to learn new things outside of mathematics and science. Thus, in recent years, I became very interested in how technology can support us in learning new languages. A few years ago, my son challenged me to explore Duolingo, which I did. As I have been using Duolingo for more than 3 years, and I can now reflect on my own experiences with this tool (I have been trying to study a number of languages there and have completed two big courses and are working on a few others). Duolingo successfully combines what we know about language learning, the power of technology (audio, video, etc.), effective gaming elements, a learning community, and large number of volunteers to support lunguage learning. While it is not sufficient to become fluent in a foreign language, it gives one a great start and a connects us with the people who want to learn as well (a motivational element). To me, Duolingo was a big motivator for keeping up with the language.

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And now I am using other tools as well, such as Yabla, to help me make one additional step via watching online movies in foreign languages, and learning new things while also learning new languages. This is something one couldn’t have done if not for this new technology.

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I cannot make sweeping generalizations, but I think technology is not going to be a universal equalizer unless we educate students who want to learn. Otherwise, I have a feeling that technology is only going to increase the gap between the people. I would say it will increase the gap between the people who want to learn and who don’t.

Having a computer at your disposal doesn’t mean you will use it for learning. It has never been easier than today to entertain yourself to death (paraphrasing Neil Postman) and not to learn anything. Yes, we have amazing tools at our disposal, but what if one doesn’t want to learn, these tools will mean nothing? I see it over and over again in my own interactions with the students both at university and at K-12 levels. While the information is widely available and the tools for learning are available as well, many people are just not interested… Many of us just do not care… Learning online or not, requires an investment of energy and thinking power… It also requires patience and perseverance. Yes, there are many amazing tools to learn languages, mathematics, science or many other fields, but one needs to be motivated to learn them…

Maybe this is something we, as educators, have to try to do – to help kindle this thirst for learning in our students. Maybe we should show how we use technology to improve our vocabulary, to learn new things, to make sure we understand the ideas and not only gloss over them superficially. Maybe we should show the way to our students. I know that is what I experienced with my own parents. If not for them, I would not have been motivated to keep learning. If we don’t show our students with our own example that learning is important, this unprecedented wealth of modern educational tools will make little difference in helping educate the next generation of our children… So the availability of tools is important, but the desire to learn is what will make a difference in the 21st century. And teachers are to play a key role in inspiring our students to learn with technology…

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