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Education Technology – Weighing The Pros And Cons

by Kelly Walsh on June 22, 2011

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Consider the potential rewards and the risks of education technologies before moving forward with implementations.

Thanks to writer Justin Birch for his collaborative effort on this guest post. Justin “wanted to be a high school teacher, and then a college professor, before encountering the difficulties of graduate school and professional academia”. Now, as a writer and editor, he works to promote the quality and availability of undergraduate education in America.

Over the last decade, technology in the classroom has become a growing priority for many colleges and universities. With the widespread availability of broadband access to the Internet, the virtual flood gates opened, revolutionizing potential methods of both teaching and learning.

weighing the pros and cons of various education technologiesUnfortunately, with various technology companies making every attempt to get their products on the market before another company, some tech gadgets and time-savers have proven to be less fruitful. Many tech companies simply upgrade components of a competitor’s device and tout it as the next best thing on the market. As such, school budget officials have a hard job of choosing what types of devices will be helpful for students and teachers, and which gadgets may prove to be less than essential.

All technology choices require careful consideration of the pros and cons of implementation and use before taking them on. Here’s a few thoughts about a some of these technologies, and some considerations to be aware of when planning for potential implementations.

The e-reader
Over the last few years, the e-reader has become a very popular technological learning tool. Instead of purchasing paper and hardback books, an e-reader allows the user to download the text to an electronic monitor. As such, e-readers have become quite popular with the general public. For this reason, many schools have thought about incorporating them into the classrooms.

The general idea is to pay up front for the e-reader and recoup the expense by paying less over time for the textbooks in paper form. This may be a great idea in theory, yet there are certain aspects of this approach that may be more costly than initially estimated. E-readers may not withstand the dropping, tossing, spillage, and other bumps and bruises to which students subject regular textbooks. If a student has a damaged e-reader, this means he or she will not have access to books while the device is being repaired.

Questions have also been raised about how suitable current e-readers are to academic purposes, but putting those aside, if a school is going to consider using them at all, consideration has to be give to keeping the devices themselves in one piece from semester to semester. Students might be persuaded to treat e-readers with more care if they are made financially responsible for repairs or replacements. Providing sturdy cases or shells for the devices might spare them some hurt over time.

It is also important to do your due diligence in advance of rolling out e-readers, and inventory the availability of your school’s textbooks on the devices being considered for procurement. There is a surprising variety of “standards” out there, and few if any devices will be able to deliver all required text materials.

Video Conferencing
With businesses across the globe gearing more towards video conferencing for business meetings as opposed to expensive travel, college campuses have experimented with the concept as well. Some colleges that offer online education have courses that heavily incorporate video conferencing.

However, many students have reported a negative opinion of video conferencing in the classroom. One of the main complaints is the fact that too many things can and do go wrong. Video conferencing relies on a sustained connection for all of the people participating in the conference, and many students may not be on campus and may not have the robust Internet connections that campuses often have. Colleges offering video-based course access also have to make sure their servers can handle the simultaneous access demands of a whole class, particularly when large class enrollments might go past 300 students.

Connectivity problems may be out of school’s hands if they’ve done due diligence to set up and maintain a stable system, but the more significant issues with the medium are matters of human connection, rather than technological. Students often report feeling it is harder to ask questions of their professors because of the video conferencing format. The chief complaint of many students who are opposed to video conferencing in the classroom is that of the impersonal quality of the class. Many believe that video conferencing creates a sterile learning environment. Video conference classes may be a useful way to facilitate access to lectures, but they aren’t necessarily effective for smaller, conference style courses where discussion is important. Matching the technology to class format is key.

These downsides might be offset to some degree by being sure to offer more personal interaction possibilities – smaller discussion forums where questions can immediately by posted, or scheduled one-on-one communication slots using tools like Skype.

Virtual Lab Training Software
Another well-intentioned but often less than stellar technology used on college campuses is software-based laboratory training. Traditionally, science and physics labs were all hands-on, and allowed students to apply textbook material to real world examples. For instance, anatomy and physiology studies used a textbook to introduce concepts and followed with a lab that would show specific parts of the anatomy on cadavers or anatomical models.

To usher labs into this new technological age, some science software companies have created lab procedure software, replacing hands-on learning with a computer screen. Instead of creating a culture of bacteria and waiting for it to grow, modeling software represents a virtual lab where results are instantaneous. This creates unrealistic situations for the student, who may find themselves in a real world application without the knowledge to perform. These types of labs may be well suited for the middle or high school environment where hands-on experience is not entirely necessary, but many college students feel the need for more direct training, especially those in the science, math, and medical fields.

Lab software can be an excellent way to provide basic training in lab procedure, or even illustrate concepts beyond the textbook, but when it comes to actually culturing bacteria or performing a dissection, the screen is an incomplete substitute.

Conclusion
The tendency of academia to embrace new technology for educational purposes is definitely a step in the right direction. Technology in the classroom benefits students in ways from lightening their textbook load to augmenting the traditional, centralized mode of teaching to allow for more interaction and creative interconnection. However, technology within the classroom shouldn’t be used to stand in for effective teaching methods or to completely bypass personal interaction in class. 

Technology in the college setting has proven to be useful and hugely beneficial in many cases, but it will always remain necessary to weigh the pros and cons to avoid using technology for technology’s sake.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Let’s stop misspending education technology dollars
Instructional Designer James Hill Discusses the Ups and Downs of Technology (Interview)
Someday students will carry a tablet computer instead of books (it’s just a matter of time)

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer, and an adjunct faculty member, at The College of Westchester in White Plains, NY and is the founder and author of EmergingEdTech.com. As an education technology advocate, he frequently delivers presentations on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. Walsh is also an author, and online educator, periodically running Flipped Class Workshops online. His latest eBook, the Flipped Class Workshop in a Book was published in September, 2013 and is available here. In his spare time Walsh also writes, records, and performs original (and cover) songs (look for "K. Walsh" on iTunes or Amazon.com or check out his original song videos on here on YouTube ).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Autumn June 23, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Great point about being critical of the technology that is being used in the classroom. But I don’t think that we should be hesitant about using it to a degree. Teaching and educating is about learning…so the students and teachers shouldn’t be afraid to learn together. On the other hand, educators should know what they are getting themselves into. Proper research should be looked into before implementing them into the classroom. Determining if technology will enhance the learners knowledge base at the end of the lesson is the goal. I think its very important to look at the content of the lesson before the technology!

TestSoup June 23, 2011 at 11:59 am

Good writeup (and good follow-up comment!).

Of the three tech advancements you mention, it is the e-readers that I am most excited about. In fact, I see it going much further than just e-readers in the next few years. I cannot wait for truly paperless classrooms, which would be a reality with e-readers and tablet computers.

And I think you hit the nail on the head: make students responsible for repairs. Maybe families get one freebie, but after that they should have to pay. That will encourage students to be more careful.

Ron. Smallwood June 22, 2011 at 8:07 am

The last item, virtual labs, I’ve been fighting against since the last 70′s. Back then, we had an “educational computer systems” salesman come to our school. [Do any of the other Canadians out there remember the "bionic-beaver" out of the Ontario ministry of education?] One of the selling points was virtual lab where the students could do things like connect wires between a battery and a light bulb. You could even add in a switch if you wanted to! I asked the, to me, obvious question; “Why not do for real?” The reply was something like, “What if the teacher doesn’t know how?” to which I replied, in a heartless manner, “Fire the teacher.”

Simulations are not to cover ill trained teachers or budget problems. They should only be used where the process is too dangerous, expensive, or as a follow-up to the real thing.

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