Responding to Technology

Lessons From The Frontlines: Responding to Technology

In early 2009, while completing my final year of university, I made a somewhat impulsive decision to participate in an exchange program organized by the Canadian government. A few months later I was unpacking my things in the small town of L’Assomption, Quebec, Canada, where I was to spend the next nine months teaching English to francophone high-school students.

Through this experience I was able to gain a great amount of respect for K-12 teachers. Sure, some classes were angelic with no disruptions, no attempts at cheating, and were filled with optimism and hope for the future. Others, well, let’s just say they resembled something more like a scene from the movie Gremlins 2.

Before entering the class for the first time I thought back to when I was that age, and I remembered how cool all the students thought the student teacher was. Remembering that I attended primary school before the Internet was widely available, I thought I was going to stroll into that school, meet a bunch of teenagers who thought they knew everything about technology, and then blow their minds with all of my rad Internet tricks.

Well, things were a lot different, much different. In five short years the game had changed dramatically.

Even if I was just five years removed from my own high-school experience, the entire mentality of the high-school student had been remodelled. While I did teach them a few new things, like which P2P downloading programs were least likely to contain viruses, and how to fix the tracking on a VHS tape, most of them had already designed themselves into teenage mutant technological warriors.

The hastened exchange of information outside of the classroom – propagated by smartphones and new media – has created a new generation of high-school students that consume and respond to information at an unprecedented rate. In that light, instructors shouldn’t lament this new evolution of teenage pandemonium, instead they should adapt their styles to reflect the expectations of delivery that are reinforced by new media.

Keep Things Fast-Paced

I remember that in Grade 11 my media arts teacher told us that our generation’s attention span was ruined by Sesame Street. She said the short segments of erratic information taught our generation to be restless for longer periods of time. Well, now imagine what that same teacher would say about the generation that is consuming an endless amount of one minute, totally disassociated, unrestricted content, on-demand and online. Moreover, the most popular videos are primarily cute animals and babies, or people getting hurt.

I think that teacher is now probably wishing the ”Sesame Street generation” was still in class.

From my perspective, while working with teachers in English classes, I learned that the best way to keep a student’s attention and improve participation was to prepare multiple, short, and digestible activities for each lesson. In addition, interactivity was a crucial element as the students are being raised in a media environment that is adjustable with the touch of a finger.

We would fill 75 minutes with 4-5 fast paced activities reinforcing the same subject from different vantage points, using different media to engage the students with different senses. Mainly, we used this method to maintain our own sanity as a bored class would only lead to rampant tomfoolery, so we would weave a fast-paced class between hands-on activities, videos, audio, and discussion. It was a constant attack of misdirection.

When I first entered the class and saw the planned rate at which we would switch activities, I was a little surprised. But through practice I found that a constant change of pace was, ironically enough, the only way to hold the attention of the students.

Online Technology Should Reinforce Social Learning

Some may say that new forms of communication have created social hermits who communicate more in ASCII than they do with verbal words. I couldn’t disagree more.

If you just observe a single high school class, students are still itching for every opportunity to communicate with each other. Whether it be a movie playing, a YouTube video streaming, or even a next-generation tablet equipped on each student’s desk, if a teacher leaves the room the class will erupt into conversation.

While texts, Facebook, email, and other forms of online communication have definitely become a dominating form of communication, they are all still just mediums used to create situations that people want most: real-life social interactions.

Comparing my experience teaching in Quebec to my own high school experience, students now seem remarkably more in tune with each other, and lines between exclusive groups of friends are more blurred. Sure, thereare groups of friends that hang out with each other more often than not, but in general the student body has more familiarity with each other.

This familiarity is because outside of class students are still communicating and learning about each other through Facebook and other online Web 2.0 mediums. They know more about each other,  have more respect about each other, and the ability to meet one of your classmates no longer requires painstaking social manoeuvring, but only the press of a single button.

With that in mind, online technology shouldn’t be seen as something that outstrips the importance of social interaction in a classroom. Instead, it should be seen as an additional medium that reinforces in-class social experiences. Instructors should encourage their students to take work online into the social networking space.

Don’t Underestimate Out-Of-Class, Self-Directed Learning

In English class, one thing that always amazed me was that I could almost find a direct correlation between strong bilingualism and kids wearing shirts baring the logos of The Doors, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. In short, those students who demonstrated passion for music as culture seemed to excel at acquiring a new language. After speaking with one of these students, I realized how integral a role that online access played in this development.

He told me that his friends would listen to songs they liked in English, research the lyrics, and then learn to thoroughly understand them. Moreover, they had access to online forums, discussions and chats to discuss these concepts with peers around the world. In all of these situations they were practicing English, and by the time they were in their final years of highschool they had become entirely fluent in the language.

With immediate access to information, if a student is interested in something, whether it be music, geography or politics, they will go out and learn about it at home. This accessibility of information needs to be respected in formal classrooms; telling students that the classroom is the only place to learn, achieve a diploma and be successful in life will only instigate a sense of disdain for the system.

Instead, instructors should stress the value of relationships, dialogue and social reinforcement that is found in classrooms, and how these elements can be used to support learning that one achieves at their own will, on their own time.

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