PBS Digital Media

This past week I watched the 1 hour special on PBS entitled Digital Media: New Learners in the 21st Century. There was a lot of interesting ideas and themes contained within the hour long show, but at the same time, there were also a lot of unanswered questions. I am going to use this blog to discuss the possibilities of the what the video showed as well as the doubts that I have.

I suppose let’s start with the bad news first. Throughout the entire show, as cool as the stuff seemed, I just kept asking myself the same question: how could my school ever afford this stuff? From what I saw, not only did every student have a new Mac laptop, but they were also working with advanced programs, projectors and software. All of that stuff costs a lot of money. I know that when my school recently purchased a projector for us, I was quite excited and that is nothing compared to what the students in the show were using.

Another unanswered question that I had was whether all this stuff worked or not. Not once throughout the entire show did they mention improved students achievement, grades, test scores or anything. The film obviously made everything look very nice and educational, but for all we know all the students were failing. In this past week’s class, it was mentioned that most, if not all, of the schools in the film were private charter schools. Since they are not public, they are not required to conform to standardized testing and AYP. Now I am not saying that I am a big fan of standardized tests, but before we spend millions of dollars on re-tooling all of our schools with a whole lot of technology, we better make sure that it is going to make a sizable impact. Therein lies another question, if a company guaranteed a 1% rise in student achievement or test scores for $5 million, would you take it? You are improving student success, but is it worth the cost? Obviously this is an extreme case, but it brings up the point of where do we draw the line between student achievement and cost – which I am sure will be an issue when deciding on technology usage.

Enough pessimism, now it is time to talk about what interested me from the video. Despite my complaining about the cost of each student having a laptop, the possibilities of what could be done with such a situation are certainly enticing. At the bare minimum, we would not have to leave the class room when we need to use the computers. Students could use the computer to type notes during lectures, they could quickly find additional info when completing assignments and they could actively participate in class discussions using chat boxes or forums. Active student engagement would be the best product of in class laptops. It would certainly be a challenge making sure that the students were doing what they were supposed to rather than just playing solitaire during a lecture, but certain programs or websites could be blocked using a filter.

Another issue in Digital Learners that interested me a lot was the use of video games. I like video games a lot myself, therefore, I know that when I really get into a game, I learn a lot about it. Now if the game is focused on killing aliens, what I learn is not so useful for the real world (unless of course there is an alien invasion). However, if games could be designed that focused on school topics but were as engaging as the “killing aliens” video games, then that could be a powerful tool in the class room. They mentioned during the show that video games are essentially just a group of problems and the way you beat the game is by solving those programs – otherwise known as problem solving which is a major topic in schools. So if a student could be led to believe that they are just playing a video game, but are in fact learning life-long problem solving skills, everyone wins. So I guess the question is, how do we create a really engaging game about not so engaging topics like Keynesian economics or quadratic equations. Somehow the real game industry, not the boring educational games that exist today, but the people who make games like Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft need to be enticed to create educational games.

Then again even if the top game designers work on turning linear algebra into a video game, is it ever going to be as fun as blowing stuff up? Is it possible to turn every topic into a really good video game? I’m not quite sure honestly. Which brings up the idea of perhaps not everything can be fun to learn, but that doesn’t mean you should not learn it. Perhaps we should focus less on making learning fun and more on teaching students to enjoy achieving success. When I was in school, I did not study because I liked to learn the topics necessarily, I studied because I enjoyed getting good grades. Maybe that is the problem, we are trying to make the learning process fun when it is not possible, but then again, how do we teach them to strive for success? Another question that I do not have an answer for.

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About Bryce Hartranft

High School Social Studies Teacher
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