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Technically Speaking with Edifide

October marks the annual fall reading break at Redeemer University College. Hallways normally bustling with students are instead filled with nearly 1,000 Christian school teachers from all over the province who come to Redeemer to attend the annual Edifide teachers’ convention. Edifide (formerly OCSTA) is a professional association serving Christian educators from across Ontario. This year’s convention theme was “Entering the Story” based on Psalm 145:4-7, “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.” Sharing stories is a powerful tool in education. In Christian schools, there is one story that forms the foundation of education because all learning, including the history of the whole world, is nested within the grand story of the Biblical narrative.

The Edifide convention this year was divided into four major strands: project-based learning, assessment, differentiated instruction and technology. I was privileged to be part of the technology strand of workshops, which included topics such as iPads and tablets in schools and using robots in education. The strand opened with a workshop I gave on how digital technology can be put in service of learning, things such as supporting different learning styles, providing additional information sources, facilitating visualization of concepts and helping with assessment. But technology is not neutral, so the undiscerning use of technology in education can lead to the technical “tail” wagging the pedagogical “dog.” I also shared with the teachers some of the ideas I wrote in my last CC column on laptops and learning. Using technology appropriately in service of learning begins by asking thoughtful questions: What are the merits and pitfalls of different digital media in the classroom? What might we lose when new media replaces traditional media? What is appropriate for different grade levels? Good educational research, sharing with peers and ongoing teacher education are necessary to help us navigate this brave new world of education.

The right questions
One helpful distinction to remember is that although educational technology has a technical foundation, it has an educational destination. Technology needs oversight from domain experts and not just technology experts. Just as the design of medical systems needs oversight from doctors, and the design of accounting systems needs direction from accountants, so too, educational technology needs direction from educators. And educators need to discern the subtle changes that technology brings in to the classroom and to be skeptical of educational claims made by many technology vendors.

Discerning technology begins with asking good questions. In his book Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Neil Postman highlighted six questions about media and change. Inspired by these questions from Postman, I recast these questions to address technology and education and posed them to the teachers at my workshop:

1) What is the pedagogical problem to which this technology is a solution?
2) Whose problem is it – the student’s, teacher’s, administration’s, parents’ or school’s?
3) Will students (or teachers) be less served by a technological solution?
4) What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
5) What sort of people or institutions might acquire special power because of technological change?
6) What changes in education are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

These questions provide a good starting point as we evaluate the use and adoption of various new technologies in the service of education. And, of course, we must continue to situate our technological and media perspective within the greater Biblical story. Each new generation will need to learn from the previous one and apply this story within the new context in which they live. Neil Postman once said that “children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” This story can be communicated in Christian education through various media to the next generation, but, in the words of media professor Lance Strate, “the teacher-student relationship is the most important medium of all.” Telling the story from generation to generation remains crucial and relevant, even in the modern, digital age into which our children and future generations will grow. 

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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