How Technology Changes the Teacher-Student Relationship

In “Partners in Learning: Twelve Ways Technology Changes the Teacher-Student Relationship” (THE Journal, April 1998), Beth McGrath discusses twelve ways technology has transformed the teacher-student relationship, and several of the themes she describes are present in the wiki design work I’m doing. For example, McGrath notes that student motivation and interest in course work is dramatically increased when technology is used. This is especially useful for reachingunder performing students who don’t respond well to other non technology-based approaches. One of the arguments some risk averse educators have used against technology is that “the novelty will wear off” and tools that are popuar now will eventually fade away, so there’s no sense in investing time to use them in courses. The reality is that new technology tools come out which replace the existing ones by dramatically improving them, so technology reinvents its own “it” factor regularly enough to keep impressing people with its relevance. This is why students continue to show sustained interest in technology, and why it can be especially useful for cases like a student who’s shy in class but is an eloquent, engaged contributor in online discussions.

McGrath goes on to discuss how technology encourages greater collaboration, and gives students an opportunity to demonstrate their unique talents. The site I’m working on for this class is based on wiki technology, which is a platform for simple, browser-based, collaborative editing of information. Tools like this help make the promise of greater collaboration a reality, because they’re simple enough to encourage users to keep coming back. Difficult, hard-to-learn tools get used a few times and don’t catch on, but very simple tools like the wiki that don’t distract students from the information they’re learning show how valuable technology can be. Web design tools like Dreamweaver have long been the only choice for teachers who want their students to create web sites, and there’s an inherent inequality built into this, because Dreamweaver takes a significant investment of time to learn. Thus, students who already have the expertise become the bottleneck through which all information must pass, whereas the wiki gives every person equal ability to directly contribute their information, and edit theexisting material at will. This then has the potential to improve the student-teacher relationship by means of increased informal interaction, because the teacher can see exactly who posted what, make changes if necessary, and provide appropriate guidance directly to each student.

Technology enables students to become more adept at working with information, rather than just digesting it in raw form, “regurgitating” it, then quickly forgetting it. Collaborating on the development of a wiki page on some topic requires students to synthesize and understand the information, so they can use theirjudgment to decide what should be communicated, and how it should be presented. Furthermore, the knowledge that their work may be seen by a larger audience than just their teacher or classmates is an infinitely better motivator for students to produce their best quality work, and this changes the teacher-student relationship to one where the teacher becomes a facilitator and expert reviewer, much like a peer-reviewer for an academic journal. No longer the sole reader and perceived, “end of the line” the teacher can be seen as a resource, offering suggestions for improvement and refinement of the work, and helping students write for the audience that will see their work. In McGrath’s article, Cornelia Roger, a teacher at P.S. 22 points out that when her student were corresponding with peers at schools in South Africa, Japan, and England, “They were also much more careful about grammar and spelling, since many of our partners were not native English speakers.”1 Publishing on a wiki also offers the opportunity to bring practicing professionals into the fold, to provide insight from the context of working in a field, and especially in upper grades and higher ed, students will be motivated by the fact that their audience may include future employers.

Technology also affords students the opportunity to study more problems in greater depth. When I was an undergraduate, I remember my engineering math professor told us that the reason were were learning how to solve differential equations by hand was so that if every graphing calculator in the world suddenly stopped working, we’d know how to solve a diff. eq. I felt uneasy about that answer then, and now I think that if that really did happen, we’d likely spend our energy getting the calculators to work again instead of getting reams of paper and just solving by hand. Here’s why – by using computers andcalculators to solve differential equations, we can solve more of them, at a faster pace, and accelerate our knowledge by exponentially greater proportions than if we did it by hand. In the introduction to “The Beginner’s Guide to Mathematic V4” Theodore Gray and Jerry Glynn make this case through a humorous simulated interview:

Theo: To think that a modern human should be able to do everything that previous generations have been able to do (hunt, speak Latin, do square roots by hand, etc.), and also have any time left over to learn anything new (microbiology, email, calculus), is basically insulting to all those previous generations, since it implies that they under-employed their intelligence. It is also quite false.

Jerry: I think it matters that students spend their time thinking and learning. People seem happiest if they are good at something. But I agree it doesn’t matter whether they learn all the same things their parents learned. Not learning Latin is a problem only if you need to speak to Latin people on a regular basis, or if people will make fun of you on the playground. Not learning to add is a problem only if you have to add regularly, or if people will make fun of you for using a calculator to do: 5+7=12

Theo: Well, you probably do think people should learn to add. Adding is not that hard, and it’s a fairly practical skill in the day-to-day world.

Jerry: In the old days (before television), being able to add up a long column of numbers without making any mistakes was a valuable skill. People would pay you a living wage to do nothing but add numbers well. Not today.

Theo: Today, it’s nice to be able to add small numbers, and larger numbers in a pinch, but the specific mental tricks and habits needed to get the right answer consistently when adding lots of numbers are just not helpful. Not being able to do this does not represent a failure of the intellect, any more than not knowing which fields in your neighborhood have the best rabbit hunting: both were, at one time, failings that would get you laughed at.

Jerry: But, you’d agree that being able to estimate the sum of a column of numbers is valuable. I would spend more time learning to do that well than working to reduce my error rate in doing exact sums.2

Technology is already showing that it can transform the learning experience and the relationships between teachers and students in ways that make education more relevant, real, and rewarding. This has the best chance of happening when the tools are conducive to this outcome, teachers are willing and able to invest a reasonable amount of time to understand technology and apply it to their work, and students are given the chance to learn in this more real, and less simulated, environment.

  1. McGrath, Beth. “Partners in Learning: Twelve Ways Technology Changes the Teacher-Student Relationship” THE Journal, April 1998. (April 20, 2006).
  2. Glynn, Jerry and Theodore Gray. “The Beginners Guide to Mathematica V4″ (April 20, 2006).
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