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From the dean

Coming soon to a classroom near you – the Logans!

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Bill McDiarmid

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Learn more about TechFest in this blog post by Jim Ptaszynski (Ph.D. '89), Microsoft's senior director for higher education strategy.


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Bill McDiarmid at TechFest

Like some of you who roamed the Carolina campus in the ’60s, I remember a Psych 101 (Skinner ruled!) assignment that required me to watch a line of goslings follow researcher Konrad Lorenz around his yard and then to push levers to answer questions posed on a fuzzy screen. Instructional TV was going to revolutionize education.

We know how that worked out. At that time, Michigan State students, herded into auditoriums before TV screens a la “1984,” walked out en mass and marched to the president’s house to protest.

So, shouldn’t we be skeptical about the hype around emerging technologies for education? Skeptical, maybe. But resistant? No.

Certainly, some claims about the potential for these new tools are a bit over the top (Such as apocalyptic visions of abandoned university campuses where wild dogs roam in search of food scraps.) To deny that we have stumbled into a totally new educational world, however, is akin to denying that rocket-belted pigs could, indeed, fly.

Digital technologies offer a critical affordance that instructional TV and other prior technologies did not: Opportunities for learners to actively engage in knowledge creation, not merely information accrual. A major problem we face is that most educators are not taking advantage of these opportunities. In too many classrooms, students’ use of digital technology is limited to passive activities such as responding to pages of problems that require only information recall on one of a couple of computers at the back of the room. In these cases, educators’ failure to capitalize on new technological tools may reflect their ignorance of the tools, the absence of readily available and up-to-date devices, outmoded beliefs about learning – or all of the above.

The digital divide persists – yet another example of the resource gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” A recent Pew study found that in high-income schools only 21 percent of teachers reported that their students lacked access to digital technologies as compared to 56 percent of teachers in low-income schools. 

This gap is compounded as the affordances of digital technologies are expanding like the universe itself.

I recently was honored to be invited to Microsoft Corp.’s annual TechFest. Researchers and developers – Microsoft employs over 850 Ph.D.s, including some from Carolina, and spends $8 billion annually on research – from the company’s eleven labs around the world come together to show off their latest innovations.

The exhibition room was a geek’s dream. Using facial expressions to control musical sounds? A 3D scan fed into 3D printer to create a functioning monkey wrench? 3D imaging cameras that highlighted the smooth contour of my expanding bald spot? A juiced Smartboard that generates multiple representations of uploaded data? A map into which students feed data on endangered species to reveal their habitats and threats? A platform that annotates textbooks with links to videos from around the Web? A generator that creates new problems for students based on their individual responses?

And these were among the 20 or so whiz-bang innovations that outsiders like me were allowed to see. The next day’s session – closed to us outsiders– featured an additional 120 innovations.

Striking was how eager the researchers and developers were to hear the reactions, questions, and suggestions of us gawkers. I spent chunks of time talking with the electronic textbook folks about how to make their programs more interactive and with a problem-generator group about the nature of the questions and problems their program created. They were clearly committed to making their product as useful as possible to educators. And they readily admitted that they were geeks, not professional educators.

In short, alternatives to “electronic worksheets” abound. The question for us: How well are we preparing our students to take advantage of these and other emerging technologies? The need to do so is both imminent and urgent.

Recently, School of Education Assistant Professor Janice Anderson showed her elementary education students a short video of her 19-month-old son Logan, unprompted, navigating his way through her iPad. Her point? When her students become teachers, the Logans will be showing up in their classrooms.

As I have mentioned in a previous column, Janice and her colleague Assistant Professor of Literacy Julie Justice have taken on the challenge of getting our pre-service elementary teachers up to speed on using social media and other technological tools in the classroom. Other faculty who teach in our preparation programs are also using technological tools in their classrooms, modeling the practices they want their students to manifest in their own classrooms.

Given the ubiquity of digital technology and the speed at which it is changing, ensuring that prospective educators both value the opportunities that digital technologies afford and know how to use these technologies is essential to preparing them for the students they will teach. Equally critical is addressing the resource gap: Failure to provide all students with access to new technologies puts already disadvantaged students at an even great disadvantage.

Essential to better preparing educators is engaging partners such as Microsoft in trying out and evaluating emerging technologies in both P-12 and higher education classrooms. The developers admit that their products have rarely been tested in classrooms in the way they must be to improve them. Universities share with developers at companies like Microsoft a deep commitment to research and to improve learning opportunities for students.

Especially in education, we don’t have the resources to develop the kinds of technologies on display at TechFest. We do have, however, the capacity to conduct the research on the classroom use of these technologies that is critical to their effectiveness in supporting genuine learning. Forming such partnerships is a key strategy in preparing educators who can use emerging technologies to the greatest advantage of themselves and the Logans who are showing up in their classrooms.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.