From the days of the clay tablet and the abacus, technology has been a mainstay in supporting teaching and learning. In recent years, with the advent of powerful handheld computers and ubiquitous communications, the rightful role of technology in the classroom has reached a critical juncture: the lofty promises have not always been matched by results. Amid the flurry of “next big things” and “latest technologies,” it seems education may have lost sight of two very important factors—the student and the teacher.
“We, as educators, have spent the last 25 years worried most about whether teachers are using technology in the classroom and not enough about how they are using it,” says Wendy Drexler, an assistant professor of educational technology at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Drexler recently led a reimagining of the school’s Technology for Educators master’s degree program. That effort was transformative and led to a new program called “Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology.”
Drexler is no neophyte to educational technology. Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, she was chief innovation officer at the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE), where she was responsible for setting international standards for technology in the classroom, among her many other leadership duties.
“In the redesign of the program, our focus was less on which technologies we should adopt and more on what the students actually learn using those technologies,” Drexler says.
James Diamond is a new assistant professor at the School of Education who accepted the reins of the Digital Age learning program from Drexler. Diamond was most recently a research scientist at the Center for Children and Technology in New York City, where he led research and development projects that focused on helping teachers and students integrate technology into other instructional activities. Diamond was also an adjunct professor at New York University, teaching courses like “Games and Play in Education” and “Designing Simulations and Games for Learning.”
Diamond plans to build from Drexler’s work and says that the evolution he is steering at Johns Hopkins is aimed at teaching the program’s traditional students to think of technology in new ways, as well as attracting new kinds of students to the program.
“There’s a whole new generation of educators – classroom teachers, informal educators, and administrators—who are thinking differently about pedagogy and the role of technology in helping students to develop,” Diamond says. “We want to give them the tools and skills they need to be leaders in coming years.”
This new breed of educational technologists and designers, he says, should have an understanding of learning science, a field that focuses on understanding how people learn in different types of environments. Diamond says graduate students today do not want to simply use existing technologies to do what is expected or what has already been done. Instead, they want to dream up and design their own technology-based approaches to education.
Diamond wants to empower forward-thinking students who are capable of either returning to the classroom to innovate or becoming district-wide decision-makers who transform classrooms and other sites of learning on a broader scale. One topic area that Diamond is looking to develop for the program is “computational thinking,” or problem-framing and problem-solving processes that include expressing solutions as computational steps or algorithms so that they can be carried out by computers.
Another recent addition, Assistant Professor Christopher Devers, joins the Digital Age learning faculty from Indiana Wesleyan University, where he was director of research in the Center for Learning and Innovation and an associate professor of education. Devers complements his graduate work in education with a background in engineering and technology education. He is acutely interested in how people learn through video, mobile devices, and online environments.
Devers says the key is to inspire graduate students to think of themselves as problem-solvers whose medium is digital. That requires both critical thinking about the root challenges of education, as well as a deep understanding of learning science and how technology can help solve problems. Like Diamond, Devers’ approach circles back to using a computational-thinking mindset to build new digital tools that support student learning.
“It’s not enough to know what digital tools are available on the market today,” Devers says. “You have to know the strengths and limitations of each one.”
Ideally, graduate students are empowered to think up solutions to their specific problems, if those solutions don’t already exist. Diamond and Devers both insist that computational thinking does not mean teaching teachers to code, per se, but to think of educational challenges in digital terms in order to design—if not necessarily build—the solutions themselves.
— Andrew Myers