How important is technology in education?

Will technology change the way your children learn?
Will technology change the way your children learn?
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The world is changing, and sometimes it probably seems you're in a race to catch up. The latest technology probably takes a chunk out of your yearly budget, and then you have to reeducate yourself about how to do things in new and different ways -- like how to turn the flat screen on and off or set the programmable timer on your HVAC system.

Sure, technology is neat. It can make it easy to video conference with your associates in Tokyo or read the headlines on your tablet while Web surfing at your favorite java joint. You can bank, shop, research your medical symptoms and get free legal advice all online. You can use technology to plot your driving route to Disney World, complete with turn-by-turn verbal instructions. If driving is too much of a hassle, you can investigate the best airline deals and accommodations with a click of your trusty mouse. And these are just a few of the more straightforward things technology can do to make your life easier.

You may be concerned about the collateral damage caused by technology, like loss of privacy, but like a rushing tide, technological advancements are always coming -- and they're coming fast. From the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to nanotechnology that may make it possible to cure a disease using microscopic machines that operate like mini-medics inside the human body, technology impacts so many areas of modern life that it's impossible to ignore. Using it as a teaching tool and also making it a topic of study in schools is an important feature of a comprehensive, broad-based education. Like reading, writing and math, technology is fundamental.

On the next pages, well take a look at some of the ways technology and education blend and occasionally clash. We do live in interesting times, and the surprises just keep on coming.

Innovative Uses of Technology in Education

The multiplication tables have become a hot topic of discussion when it comes to technology in schools. Memorizing them sure makes it easier for kids to do math in their heads, but will children memorize their multiplication tables (or learn how to figure fractions or practice learning to read an analog clock) if it's easy for calculators and computers to do the heavy lifting for them?

The question is less about technology, which is actually just a set of tools, than it is about discovering ways to integrate technology into school curriculums in thoughtful and productive ways. A New York Times piece published in September of 2011 focused attention on these concerns by reporting on the stagnant test scores achieved by students in tech-intensive schools within Arizona's Kyrene school district. The article posed some interesting questions: Does the use of advanced technology really help students learn and retain information; and is making huge budget allocations for technology in schools a good idea, especially if it means larger class sizes and budget shortfalls in other areas like music and physical education?

One problem with making assumptions about the relationship between technology and learning is that research in these areas is ongoing, and one of the most effective ways to get solid evidence is to implement technology-rich programs and study the results.

There is something we do know. It's easier to tailor classroom instruction to fit the needs of individual students using technology as an aid. Self-directed tutorials, for instance, allow children to work at their own pace. That's a good thing. Disputes start to crop up when school districts make the choice to fund their technology budgets by cutting back on teachers or dropping other services. Technology is important, but small class sizes and plenty of teacher-student interaction is important, too, especially for younger children.

If you think the book, pencil and paper style of learning is underrated because that's the way you were taught, take a little test. Peruse a book about the Smithsonian Institution, for instance. Photos of the National Museum of Natural History may look good, but the only thing that beats the virtual tour is actually being there. This is one of the areas in which technology shines. It places interactive multimedia at a child's fingertips. Whether it's a tour of the Louvre Museum (Musée du Louvre), or a bee's eye view of life inside a hive, technology brings the world to the classroom. It has the potential to present difficult concepts in dynamic and engaging ways. When kids are engaged, they learn more and retain the information longer.

The Importance of Exposing Kids to Technology

Your children won't be kids forever. When they decide on careers, they'll have to compete in an arena with other young adults who are tech savvy. How many typists do you see in the workplace these days, or typewriter repairmen, or switchboard operators for that matter? Understanding how to use emerging technologies is a key advantage in the workplace. That won't be changing any time soon. The more comfortable your kids are with technology today, the better equipped they'll be to function in the world of tomorrow.

Think about the ways technology has changed the world in the last five years. Consider the pace of those changes. It's staggering. Now imagine how new technologies will transform the way your children live in 10, 15 or 20 years. One of the tasks educators are faced with is preparing children for the technological advancements they may encounter not just today but in the future, too. The downside is that finding the right mix of methods and just keeping up can be a big challenge. The upside is that the very technology educators are trying to keep pace with is creating new ways to make teaching more immediate, interesting and varied. Is the U.S. educational system experiencing growing pains because of new advancements in technology? It is, but so is almost every other sector of society.

Preparing for the future isn't the only consideration. Your kids are part of the new information age this very minute. They keep in touch with friends and family using social networking. They make videos on the fly and expect instant access to information. According to a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism survey, 65 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds rely on the Internet as their main source of news. It's also estimated that 75 percent of kids 12 to 17 have their own cell phones. Here's another point to ponder: According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study, children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend over seven and a half hours every day using electronic media devices like computers, TVs and cell phones.

The world is changing, and technology is driving much of that change. To be prepared, children need to have a working understanding of current technologies and a high level of confidence in their ability to master newer and more complex tools. That way, they'll be in a better position to tackle practical challenges, and recognize the amazing opportunities, they'll be faced with in the years ahead.

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