Mathematics, technology, and 21st Century learners: How much technology is too much?

On a recent visit to a shopping centre in Sydney, I noticed a new children’s playground had been installed. On closer inspection I was amazed to find a cubby house structure that had a number of iPads built into it. There was also a phone charging station built less than a metre off the ground, for users of the playground to access. The playground had obviously been designed for very young children. So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t playgrounds be meant to promote physical activity? What messages are the designers of this playground sending to children and their parents? Does technology have to pervade every aspect of our lives? What damage is this doing to children’s social and physical skills?

While considering the implications of this technology-enhanced playground, I began to reflect on the ways we use technology in the classroom. Is there such as thing as having too much technology? I am a strong supporter of using technology to enhance teaching and learning, and I know there are a multitude of benefits for students and teachers, particularly in relation to the use of mobile technologies (Attard 2014, 2013). However, there are issues and tensions. How do we, as educators, balance the use of technology with what we already know works well? For example, in any good mathematics classroom, students would be manipulating concrete materials to assist in building understandings of important mathematical concepts. Children are engaged in hands-on mathematical investigations and problem solving, arguing, reasoning and communicating through the language of mathematics. Can technology replace the kinesthetic and social aspects of good mathematics lessons? How do we find the right balance? Do students actually want more technology in the classroom, or do they prefer a more hands-on and social approach?

Often we use technology in the classroom to bridge the ‘digital divide’ between students’ home lives and school. We know this generation have access to technology outside the school, and we often assume that students are more engaged when we incorporate digital technologies into teaching and learning. In the The App Generation, Gardner and Davis (2013) discuss how our current generation relies on technology in almost every aspect of their lives. They make some important points that can translate to how we view the use of the technology in the classroom, “Apps can make you lazy, discourage the development of new skills, limit you to mimicry or tiny trivial tweaks or tweets – or they can open up whole new worlds for imagining, creating, producing, remixing, even forging new identities and enabling rich forms of intimacy” (p. 33).

Gardner and Davis argue that young people are so immersed in apps, they often view their world as a string of apps. If the use of apps allows us to pursue new possibilities, we are ‘app-enabled’. Conversely, if the use and reliance on apps restrict and determine procedures, choices and goals, the users become ‘app-dependent’ (2013). If we view this argument through the lens of mathematics classrooms, the use of apps could potentially restrict the learning of mathematics and limit teaching practices, or they could provide opportunities for creative pedagogy and for students to engage in higher order skills and problem solving.

So how do educators strike the right balance when it comes to technology? I often promote the use of the SAMR model (Puentedura, 2006) as a good place to start when planning to use technology. The SAMR model (Puentedura, 2006) represents a series of levels of “incremental technology integration within learning environments” (van Oostveen, Muirhead, & Goodman, 2011, p. 82). However, the model is not without limitations. Although it describes four clear levels of technology integration, I believe there should be another level, ‘distraction’, to describe the use of technology that detracts from learning. I also think the model is limited in that it assumes that integration at the lower levels, substitution and augmentation, cannot enhance students’ engagement. What is important is the way the technology is embedded in teaching and learning. Any tool is only as good as the person using it, and if we use the wrong tool, we minimise learning opportunities.

Is there such a thing as having too much technology? Although our students’ futures will be filled with technologies we haven’t yet imagined, I believe we still need to give careful consideration to how, what, when and why we use technology, particularly in the mathematics classroom. If students develop misconceptions around important mathematical concepts, we risk disengagement, the development of negative attitudes and students turning away from further study of mathematics in the later years of schooling and beyond. As for the technology-enhanced playground, there is a time and a place for learning with technology. I would rather see young children running around, playing and laughing with each other rather than sitting down and interacting with an iPad!

References:

Attard C, 2014, iPads in the primary mathematics classroom: exploring the experiences of four teachers in Empowering the Future Generation Through Mathematics Education, White, Allan L., Tahir, Suhaidah binti, Cheah, Ui Hock, Malaysia, pp 369-384. Penang: SEMEO RECSAM.

Attard, C. (2013). Introducing iPads into Primary Mathematics Pedagogies: An Exploration of Two Teachers’ Experiences. Paper presented at the Mathematics education: Yesterday, today and tomorrow (Proceedings of the 36th Annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia), Melbourne.

Gardner, H, & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Puentedura, R. (2006). SAMR.   Retrieved July 16, 2013, from www.hippasus.com

van Oostveen, R, Muirhead, William, & Goodman, William M. (2011). Tablet PCs and reconceptualizing learning with technology: a case study in higher education. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 8(2), 78-93. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/17415651111141803

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