Saturday, January 24, 2009

The imminent shift in uses of technology in science education

Technology has long been a part of science teaching and learning. From using some of the first personal computers to collect and analyze data to using the latest visualization tools to help approach abstract phenomena, many of us in science education have a long history of using technology. In my first teaching job back in 1997 I tried to incorporate the use of probeware/microcomputer-based labs (MBL) into every activity I could. Obtaining and having available that kind of technology (not easy to get at that school and in that time) greatly helped me to design inquiry-based activities for my students and I to engage with. Further, graphing tools made engaging with mathematical concepts (such as integration) much more approachable and tangible for my students. More recently in my last teaching job, I made extensive use of visualization and simulation software to help the students and I think about complex and abstract phenomena such as electric and magnetic fields and the variables which affect those fields. 

Those are just a few of many possible examples from my own experience, and I'm sure they echo with some of your own. I always tried to incorporate new technologies based on what they afforded me and my students, not just because they were cool or new. My hope was that I would know when I achieved appropriate use of technology when a student walked into my classroom and didn't notice the computer and MBL apparatus, much like they don't ever notice the existence of a chalkboard as something special. Full, everyday integration was my goal. 

While data collection, data analysis, and visualization/simulation technologies are great and, I believe, will continue to be a very important part of science teaching and learning, I think there is an impending shift on the focus of technological use in science education. We now have the opportunity to move beyond just using technology for facilitation of data collection, etc. and need to embrace how technology can help us with communication and collaboration. The National Science Education Standards are clear on the necessity of communication and on the social endeavor of the scientific enterprise. It seems that we have only begun to see how new communication technologies can help us to enact these goals in the science classroom. Of course, there are some great existing collaborative or communicative projects in science education (e.g. the JASON Project, the GLOBE Project, etc) but they are very focused special projects and don't reach every classroom. What can individual teachers do on an everyday basis to utilize new communications technologies and platforms in their own teaching?

Blogging, texting, IM'ing, tweeting, or any one of a host of other digital communication forms can greatly enhance our students' understanding the importance of communication and community in the scientific endeavor, and they can be adopted and used rather easily on many levels, from one-on-one interactions to one-with-many. I know there are a lot of educators out there exploring these possibilities using mobile phones (see this wikiLiz Kolb's blog, and my last post on formative assessment w/mobile phones to name a few). Here's a great blog post from Tom Barrett about using twitter in a science lesson about length of day. Students communicated with people all over the world in order to find out about their current length of daytime. I also just recently discovered GCast, which allows you to create podcast recordings straight from your mobile phone. This has great potential in classrooms, and some are already using it with their students. As I continue to look into this, I'm sure I'll find more existing applications in the science classroom. 

Having students write about and share their ideas and work in science class makes learning more authentic as well. We know from a host of literature that having an audience for student work beyond the teacher or classroom increases the authenticity of the task for the student. Further, use of these technologies and modes of sharing increase the learning network far beyond the walls of the classroom. A more global scientific community is within our reach as teachers and students. 

I really do think that we are on the cusp of a shift in how we use technology in science education. We will not eschew our current uses for data collection, analysis, simulation, and visualization, but we will begin to incorporate more communications technologies using the web and mobile devices. This can only help science learners and teachers to become better communicators and members of a global community of scientists and science learners. I look forward to seeing how this all takes place. 


  1. blogging is all well and good but today's classroom is overcrowded and a teacher has trouble keeping students on the correct website and off inappropriate ones.