Learning Motivation and Technology

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(Made with Spell with flickr)

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Why do we learn? Many learn because they have to. It’s the law up to a certain age in this country. Others learn because they are expected to. Yet others learn because they are interested or even passionate about a topic. Some learning is a by-product of other life activities.

While reading the latest issue (August 2008) of Learning & Leading with Technology, I ran across something that made me think. If you are not familiar with this periodical, for a while now they have had a current issue in educational technology where opposing views are represented. This issue’s topic: “Is educational technology shortening student attention span?” (PDF)

David Marcovitz, an associate professor at Loyola College in Maryland presents the “Yes” argument (I suggest you read it. He has worded it quite well) while the CIO of a school district and VP of that state’s association of technology coordinators presents the opposing view.

Now, there is no doubt that the use of current tools by students in schools is a motivating factor for them. For some reason, when a traditional worksheet is digitized and put on line for students to complete with a few glitzy animated graphics and a little feedback, it is a whole new experience for students. They attend better and persist longer. However, this form of learning is no more meaningful and certainly no more powerful than the paper/pencil activity done at their desks. So much with educational technologies can be described this way… simply digitizing traditional forms of learning and calling it innovation – 21st Century Learning… Blah! Is it just about controlling students… getting them to do what we want in the easiest way possible… even if that way is inferior to others, less messy… almost “effortless”?

What bothers me most about the “NO” view presented here is the following quotation:

“Technology has the power to capture our children’s attention by making learning interactive and fun. I have walked into classrooms where students were using technology to share, create, and explore. Those students were excited and engaged in the content being presented to them.”

The latter part of the quotation has some merit in the right contexts. However, the first part of the quotation is what does not sit well with me. Yes – technology does have the power to capture children’s attention by making learning interactive and fun. But what worries me is the seductive nature of this. Let me add a few words to this statement:

Technology has the power to capture our children’s attention by making (disguising) disconnected, rote learning interactive and fun.

The result – we are able to maintain the status quo and change very little simply by making it more fun and interactive.

Later in in this same issue, there is an article on Mathcasts. To make this contrast even greater, a quotation from this piece states:

“Perhaps the greatest motivation for your students will be their increasing self-confidence and improving attitude toward math. Students who regularly create mathcasts take ownership of the math concepts they explain. Mathematical ideas become more meaningful to students…”

So, what do you think? Is motivation best when it results from increased self-confidence and improved attitude that comes from meaningful learning? Or, do we just shoot for “interactive and fun”, keeping kids entertained?

Back to the initial arguments about technology and shortening attention spans… which type of learning described above may lead more to shortened attention spans? As David Marcovitz and Neil Postman suggest (in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business), that every technology is a Faustian Bargain (and here)- “for every positive benefit, there is an often unseen and very serious downside”.

So, how best are we to motivate children? With technology or with powerful, meaningful, relevant learning opportunities (that may or may not involve newer technologies). Sorry, I know the question is redundant. I have always told my preservice college students who want to put “fun” first in their lessons that “fun” is a result of developmentally-appropriate, relevant and meaningful learning. Engagement comes from that. Fun is a by-product – not a goal.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on all of this, as I am thinking out loud here.

5 thoughts on “Learning Motivation and Technology

  1. We seem to be at a point where technology is developing a life of it’s own and our students are driven by this force and we teachers are the ones placed at the helm to help guide this crazy train…there’s no stopping it that’s for sure.

    This post leaves me in a wake of thinking and the one idea that rings loud is “balance.” Kids are brutally honest, and they let us know when they are no longer “having fun” no matter what tools they may be using.

    I spend a great deal of time from day one with my students focusing on deep thinking and helping them realize what to do when their minds wander or they are off task.

    After months of slowly releasing responsibility it’s ultimately their responsibility to recognize when this happens. If they do recognize that they are not understanding the reading, their minds are wandering, or they are thinking about something else besides the topic at hand then I ask,”what should you do when this happens?”

    At the fifth grade level, these conversations seem very refreshing to them and I think that this is the first time that they hear a teacher say, “it’s OK that you are off task.” It’s natural for all of us to loose interest in something, especially after the novelty wears off, however the difference is that I am expecting them to make the decision to get back on task, or get their minds back into the story, or project they are working on.

    I think part of the motivation intrinsically comes from their success of being free from a label of being a bad student and being able to say, “hey I had a really hard time focusing today and I need some help figuring out what I can do differently.”

    It may not be the end all or be all but we are talking openly about our habits of mind both off line and online. My strategy thus far, has been to help students take what they know about effective reading habits and use them online and understand that it’s ok that their minds may wander but to then make effective decisions to get back in the game.

    These type of authentic positive experiences usually drives the motivation in my class.

  2. John, it’s great that you are able to have these conversations with your students – whether it is due to their lack of discipline to be able to focus for prolonged periods of time, lack of interest in the task at hand, developmentally inappropriate tasks, or the impact of a multi-tasker’s world where multitasking masks one’s inability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. Regardless of the cause, it’s great that you are helping them recognize when this happens and discuss strategies that they can proactively employ to get back on track.

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