Curriculum Changes Key in Utilizing Classroom Technology
Technologist and mathematician Conrad Wolfram talks about best practices for tech use in K–12 education.
by Meghan Bogardus CortezTwitter
Meghan is an associate editor with EdTech: Focus on K–12. She enjoys following all the ways technology is constantly changing our world.
Teachers have reported that they’re more confident than ever about educational technology, but a recent study from AdvancED found that there are still very few classrooms where technology is a regular part of the curriculum.
Could the curriculum be the real culprit?
Education Week’s “Technology Counts” survey found that 30 percent of educators listed “state/district curriculum demands” as a challenge to using technology for more innovative class work.
Though the United States has made strides to incorporate more tech into mandated curriculum through the Common Core State Standards, that hasn’t boosted technology use beyond test drills.
In an online story posted by Education Week, Stephanie Villegas, a former elementary school teacher and instructional coach at Austin (Texas) Independent School District, said that technology isn’t being actively used for collaboration and innovation because there is a “continued focus on test-based accountability.”
“Schools that are on the chopping block because of [poor test scores] are pigeonholed into using tech just for test prep, with rows of students wearing headsets in computer labs working on remediation,” Villegas told Education Week. “At a school I used to work at, the technology department tried to shut down labs to create makerspaces, but the principal flipped out.”
Using Computers to Reshape Math Curriculum
Conrad Wolfram, CEO of the European branch of Wolfram Research, founded Computer-Based Math, an organization that works worldwide to help incorporate technology into math curriculum to better reflect real-world arithmetic use.
“We’ve got a complete confusion about the reason for technology in the classroom,” says Wolfram. “The technology is being dumped in the classrooms without [administrations] either helping the teacher with the process of learning or more importantly, helping the teacher with a new curriculum that actually lets them use the technology for the subject.”
For math curriculum in particular, Wolfram notes that there is a huge discrepancy between what is taught in classrooms and how math is used in the real world, a topic he’s been discussing since his 2010 TED Talk:
The current “tech skills gap” also reflects Wolfram’s position. Code.org, a nonprofit that seeks to expand access to computer science, reports that there are currently 525,293 open computing jobs nationwide, but only 42,969 computer science graduates in the last year.
Wolfram’s solution for helping to close this skills gap and increase technology use in classrooms is one and the same: Develop curriculum that incorporates computers and other tech.
“[Math] is a subject predicated on hand-calculating, and that’s the bit that the computers should be doing. Humans should be doing a higher level of problem solving using the machinery,” he says.
In workshops conducted by his organization, Wolfram says he gives students a complex problem they care about — like how they can make their bikes go faster — and then instructs them to solve it using math and a computer.
“Teachers should supplement what they have to teach with technology,” Wolfram says. “Don’t worry about how hard to solve something is. Let students do that on their computers.”
Prepping for STEM Careers Starts with Classroom Technology
Reshaping math curriculum to add abstract problem solving and coding brings it close to what students might use in the real world, but Wolfram says all classroom tech — and how it is used — needs to be as much like the real world as possible.
“The gap between technology you can get in education and what you use in real life has absolutely narrowed,” Wolfram says.
Wolfram says notebook computers like Chromebooks are fairly equal in computing power to what is used by tech professionals.
One of the biggest benefits of Chromebooks in the classroom is the ability to use them immediately after booting up. Wolfram stressed the importance of making sure the tech given to young students is high caliber and not afflicted with technical issues.
“You need the best technology for people who are just learning,” he says. “If you have software that keeps crashing, you are adding another layer of complexity.”
Wolfram also says that, for classroom tech to be fully utilized, teachers need to take a step back and let that use be as open-ended as possible.
“I think teachers are incredibly important, but I think their role needs to shift a little bit. They’re not the people who know everything anymore. They are the people that can help the student working through the problems. In the future, they’re more like the CEOs of the classroom.”