Technology in the Classroom

When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, audio-visual equipment consisted of reel to reel film projectors and overhead transparencies. Music was played on turntables or cassette tape recorders. Telephones had cords that plugged into wall jacks. When students wanted to communicate with each other from a distance, they had to wait until they got home to use their parents’ phone. Or they used a public coin-operated telephone booth. Surreptitious interaction in class took the form of passed handwritten notes. Schools and households did not have personal computers. Teachers wrote on blackboards with chalk and kept paper gradebooks. Student assignments were handwritten or typed on a typewriter.

By the time I first entered the classroom as a teacher at the end of the 1990s, much of that had changed. VCRs hooked up to mounted box televisions had replaced the reel to reel projectors. Compact discs had replaced LPs and cassettes. Cellular phones were now in their second decade and looked like walkie talkies. Most of my students didn’t have their own yet. Handwritten notes were still passed in class, but cable television and the internet had begun to transform popular culture and education. Schools now had personal computers, fax machines, scanners, and internet grading programs. Assignments could be written in Microsoft Word and emailed to the teacher.

Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, the changes were even more dramatic. Videos were streamed through internet sites or played directly through computer media programs, making televisions and VCRs obsolete. PowerPoint slideshows had relegated overhead transparencies to the dust bin of history. Dry erase boards had completely replaced chalkboards. Music could be streamed from iTunes or YouTube. Students were issued personal Chromebook laptop computers that could be individually recharged with portable cords. Most assignments could be posted to digital classrooms, eliminating the need for paper. Smartphones had irrevocably changed the way we live and learn.

I remember when cell phone usage became a behavioral problem in class. It was around the middle of the 2000s. Hand held flip phones had proliferated and allowed students to send text messages to each other, albeit with a small, clumsy keyboard that was hard to see. I immediately began telling them to put the phones away and soon was confiscating the devices until the end of the period. It was easy to catch a kid phoning, because their intense concentration on the area of their lap or bag was atypical. Some would hold the phone underneath a hoodie and try to deceive me, but I grew skilled at spotting their tricks. The worst offenders I called “phonaholics.” I reminded them that their cell phone was not a body part. The best place for the phone in class was secured away in their backpacks or purses.

The advent of smartphones allowed for greater access to information and more applications to perform practical tasks. This proved useful at times in some lesson plans, but more often than not it increased the unauthorized phoning issue. When my students were issued Chromebooks by the school district, I advised them that every assignment that involved the internet could be completed with the Chromebooks alone. The laptop could do everything the phone could do except texting and posting pictures on social media. This distinction made discipline more manageable for me as the teacher. The district had blocked all social media sites on the Chromebooks and allowed the students to connect to my digital classroom.

Technology has certainly opened a multitude of new possibilities for learning and lesson planning. But depending entirely on machines in class can also be a problem. When my overhead projector bulb burned out (as it did several times over my years in the classroom), I needed to have a backup plan for that day. Sometimes my printer broke or I had software trouble, and the campus technician was not always available. Copy machines jammed or broke down. Sometimes I ran out of paper (I rarely ran out of colored markers, as my students will tell you). It was always important to have a class set of textbooks to use in an emergency. When all else fails, read and write or hold a group discussion.

Now there are innumerable educational software application programs that help teachers present material and interact with students in creative ways. I applaud them all. PowerPoint presentations are still a good “go to” for both teachers delivering lectures and students sharing projects, as long as fair use copyright laws are respected in the type of material included. The same goes for films and video clips. Not all movies can be used in class (see my blog entry on “History vs. Hollywood“), and district and department guidelines must be followed. Most campuses have both computer hardware and software technicians and advisors to help teachers in their use of technology in class. Establish good relationships with these people on your campus and take advantage of their expertise.

In spite of all the advances in educational technology over the last four decades since I graduated from high school, I still believe that reading is the key to succeeding. If technology can be used to encourage and enhance literacy, then I am all for it. But in and of itself, technology cannot create moral and intellectual development. As educators, we are responsible for helping our students think for themselves in an increasingly digital and globalized economy. Technology can help in this process, but it cannot do the job for us.

The famous radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) once said, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” He was responding to the rising dependency of the public on television news and entertainment during the paranoid era of the Cold War. His words are prescient in today’s world of increasing scarcity of natural resources, exploitation of labor and the environment, and rampant cyber crime. As social science teachers, we can help our students find their place in this complex global marketplace. Using the latest gadgetry and digital programs to promote engagement with historic events and ideas is both our challenge and our opportunity to help transform students into active and productive citizens.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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