Technology in Elementary Education: Better preparing our children for tomorrow

In recent times, much controversy has been made about online education, with massive open online courses (MOOCs) being largely debated for their effectiveness all over the world.

However, much less focus has been given to the rising technology advances in elementary schools. In the past number of years, technology has been used in a variety of ways to aid student learning. Students in elementary schools use iPads for research, as side notes during class, for gaming and as a resource for curriculum data such as dictionaries, math problems etc. This addition of technology seems to have an overall positive impact. Young students value easier access to information, the ease and portability of the devices, and most importantly the kids enjoy it. When students are enjoying learning, it results in more engagement and motivation in the classroom.

As much as there appears to be benefits to technology in the classroom, not everyone is on board with the idea. A poll conducted on The Economist suggested that there is about a 50/50 split between those who see technology helping education, and those who think that it does not add value to education. Some people even blame technology as one of the reasons that American education has slipped so far in the past 20-30 years. The main concern for technology in education for me is whether or not we are getting the right type technology for our kids. Schools may jump at the opportunity of purchasing gadgets that they don’t necessarily need just to keep up with the other schools.  The cost of this technology is generally not cheap. Some critics argue that tech companies that sell educational software are simply in it for the business and do not have the students’ best learning interest in mind. A large review of online learning studies showed only a modest academic benefit in technology use in the classroom.

However, there is no doubt that using technology in schools is the direction in which we are moving. Technology is, and will continue to be a big part of our lives and our future. More importantly, it is not just the technology that has a positive impact on learning, but the combination of well-suited teachers in the edition of technology that makes the real difference.  Let’s take a look at some of these newer technologies and how they work.

iPads

The first iPad was released in 2010, and is now catching on with many schools and school boards across the world. iPads have proved as a helpful tool to help kids understand difficult concepts. Understanding massive scale differences such as the difference in the size of an atom compared to the size of the universe are questions that are easily answered with access to the Internet on iPads. iPads allow users to draw on neurocognitive pathways that are not generally accessed during traditional education formats, and this allows for greater learning of difficult concepts.

Think about it, if you were trying to teach your kids about the solar system, how much easier it would be if you could have a scaled model of all the planets in front of them, instead of having to use unscaled confusing drawings or pictures. The 3D ability of iPads can make it easier to visualize these concepts and enhance learning of the material at hand. iPads in classrooms also allow for full-class involvement and interaction in the learning process. Shy students may feel more comfortable contributing via iPads, and can build up confidence to eventually speak their opinions aloud. Many children are already very familiar with tablets and iPads alike, so using them in an educational manner makes for a comfortable transition.

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Although tablets can be expensive, large corporations are providing funding to allow high-need, inner-city schools access to the technology. Telus Technology for Teachers Fund, for example, grants schools up to $5,000 in technology upgrades. This is an effective way for companies to enhance their reputation. I would imagine that these kinds of donations will only increase in the future. Helping kids get an equal learning experience despite different socioeconomic backgrounds makes for a strong community and sense of equity.  Overall, the iPad seems destined to be eventually made mandatory in most school boards, as the novel neurological pathways that are triggered with this type of learning has clearly been deemed to be advantageous to a students’ understanding of difficult concepts.

The SMART Board

For those who don’t know, a SMART Board is an interactive whiteboard, connected to the teacher’s personal computer or desktop. The touch screen technology allows them to click the board itself rather than having to stand behind their PCs or desktops. With the use of markers or pens as a computer mouse, navigating to different slides during presentations, or opening up Internet sites in the middle of a class is made easy. Teachers are able to draw, erase, or move items to different locations on the board, allowing for interactive learning in the classroom.

What makes this board such an advantageous learning tool?  Let’s hear it from the teachers themselves. In a survey of teachers using the SMART Board, all teachers agreed that the types of creative presentation using the board is as or more effective in meeting multiple learning styles than small group instruction. In my opinion, this survey data alone is enough to make SMART Boards mandatory in all schools. Every student has a unique learning style, myself included. I feel I learn best in small groups where I can be interactive and have more time to talk out the difficulties I may be having. The SMART Board can help to accommodate students who learn in unique ways, and for that reason I believe it should be accessible to all teachers. Students who learn best tactically can best make use of learning by touching and marking the board. Students who learn best in an audio-visual sense can learn from visual clips and pictures, as well as auditory clips and movies, which can expand the content range of a course. Due to its simplicity, it’s easy to get the whole class involved in games and activities, making learning more fun and interactive for the young students. Funds similarly exist for lower-income schools to obtain SMART Boards, and along with iPads, should become a mainstay in our schools.

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Specialized Learning Programs

The iPad and SMART Board are technologies that everyone in a classroom can benefit from. However, upgrades in technology have also improved the ability for children with learning disabilities to make the most of their learning.

Any program, system or device that can help a student deal with a learning disability fall under the category of Assistive Technology. The aim of Assistive Technology is to allow students to use their strengths to overcome their learning disabilities. Assistive Technology ranges from a device, to a full system that helps overcome or compensate a learning deficit. Students who are usually very dependent on their parents and teachers can become successful, independent learners in reading, writing, listening, organization and math. Let’s explore an example of educational software that is currently being used in Southern Ontario school boards.

Kurzweil, a software program, transforms virtually any text into speech, making reading an easier feat. At the individual level, this software helps students with dyslexia, ADD, dysgraphia or other reading related disabilities thrive in the classroom. It can also be used in a school setting, helping students with low literacy ability improve and catch up to their peers. Another advantage of this software in schools is that progress can be tracked, and academic decisions can be made based on the progress of each individual student. I know from personal experience that being behind your classmates in terms of reading or writing can be very embarrassing and a cause for ridicule. Any technology that can help a struggling child perform better and be on a more equal playing ground as their peers is worth investing in.

What does this all mean?

Whether or not you agree with this increase in technology in elementary schools, the benefits noted here cannot be under looked.  The trend is shifting, and more and more technology is being developed to enter the education market. iPads now have much competition, from brands such as Samsung, Dell and Google, who realize the potential for education in this technology. Technology today has become such a huge part of our lives in many facets: medicine, jobs, communication, exercise, nutrition and more. Doesn’t it only make sense that we prepare our youth for the next generation of technology? Just because we didn’t grow up with it doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t; being a child today is different than when we were kids. How can you disagree with technology that so strongly benefits students with disabilities? Allowing these children to have a positive outlook on their learning experience is worthwhile. Children are our future, let’s prepare them for success.

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