Technology Trade-offs in a Physics Classroom (Alice Flarend) by larrycuban
“Alice Flarend is a National Board Certified Teacher and is the physics teacher at Bellwood-Antis High School in Pennsylvania. She holds a B.S and M.S in Nuclear Engineering from University of Illinois and University of Michigan respectively. Alice caught the teaching bug while doing engineering doctoral work at the University of Michigan and has been teaching for over twenty years. She is currently working part time on a Science Education Ph.D at Penn State. She plans on remaining in her classroom to be a bridge between the worlds of higher education and public K-12 schools.”
One of the first uses of computers in many physics classes decades ago was to graph data using Excel. This innovation prompted lengthy discussions among physics teachers at meetings and conferences about the trade-offs of having students use this aid rather than graphing by hand. Excel could make graphing so easy, but the students could lose the skill of creating axes, legends, and interacting with their data.
I have found these types of discussions distinctly lacking as we move more classroom activities onto the digital world. I want to call attention to the often overlooked trade offs between efficiency and quality of information that occur when classroom tasks are handled electronically. While the examples I present are from my world of physics teaching, I have seen similar ones in my high school as we have moved through a 1-to-1 iPad initiative.
Physics classes are inherently hands on. We drop marbles and roll balls down inclines, usually with stop watches in our hands. Computer simulations and digital data collection for laboratory experiments are replacing those stop watches. Computers allow students to collect more and cleaner data than ever before. Calculations are done internally and instantly displayed graphically. Patterns are easier to discern. Multiple trials are accomplished with a click.
However, that simple click masks information about the data collection and processing. It hides the messy experimental and mathematical work that is the basis for the patterns. My students believe that any graph on the screen must be an accurate representation of a ball in motion, even the wildly inaccurate ones caused by ball being nowhere near the digital sensor. It is so easy for students to lose sight of the actual physical world as they analyze those pretty digital graphs.
My early experiences with an internet-based homework service were more positive than turning in paper homework. Particularly with difficult problems, paper homework tends to be more of a “I didn’t understand this but at least I got something to turn in” type of experience. Internet-based homework gives students a particular number of attempts so they keep trying a problem until they get it right. I could give my students challenging work and their grades would not suffer terribly because they could keep working until they got it right. Because my homework service does not have a sophisticated "help" function, students would come to me for aid. They gained a deeper understanding as we talked and I gained valuable formative assessment feedback.
In the last few years, however, there has been a disturbing trend of students searching online for solutions. The problem is these online solutions are not educative solutions. They just give a bare-bones derivation and students then plug in their numbers into the final equation. Students get the problem marked correct but they do not actually understand the solution. With increased use of these online tools, I have more students who take only a single try to get each homework problem correct, but then fail the test.
This automatic grading, a feature of many digital products, saves me time and the students get immediate feedback. They can be used in real time in the classroom. For the most part, these grading programs are limited to multiple choice questions or numerical solutions. As an experienced teacher, I can create these types of questions to probe my students' knowledge, but they are limited to more simple ideas and preprogrammed choices. I prefer open-ended types of questions where the students write a long enough answer so their misconceptions and uncommon ideas can emerge and be explained in unique ways. I can look at their work with mathematical problems. That is where I find the most useful formative assessment. With digital grading programs, I lose a lot of that valuable information.
Tools like Google Classroom are supposed to ease communication between teachers and students. They allow efficient dissemination of classroom materials to students and collecting their work. The perennial excuses of "I lost the handout" or “My printer ran out of ink” are no longer applicable when students can just download another copy or email me their documents. I can easily add comments to those documents submitted to me, helping students to improve their work. All of this can be done at any moment that the student or teacher wishes, at school or at home.
In my experience, I have seen little evidence that this ease of communication has increased the quantity or quality of my students’ work. Students who neglected to turn in paper homework also neglect electronic versions. Students who lose handouts do not download new copies. I can write many helpful comments on students’ work and they will receive a notification that a comment has been posted. Nothing in the program, however, makes the students read these comments and improve their work. Now the same can be said for comments written on paper, but in judging the large numbers of requests I receive for translation of my third-grade handwriting, my students do tend at least to read my handwritten comments.
Overall, this apparent ease of accomplishing classroom work has created a larger gap between the students. Students who work to understand the material and see a purpose in school, do take advantage of the affordances of the technology as they do all other supports. Many other students disconnected from learning in school are not lured into learning because of screens, despite the promises of the tech literature. They do not take advantage of internet tutorials to increase their understanding. They do not look at my comments and do a rewrite of their rough draft. They do not open up lines of communication outside of classroom time, despite having a device and programs that will do this with only a few clicks. This gap has always existed, but the digital aspect has increased it, or at least made it more visible.
What I have learned from these experiences is to be vigilant in the use of technology. It offers many advantages in making tasks easier and more efficient. It does not, however, easily transform any classroom activity into one where deep learning occurs. In fact, it can easily do the opposite and mask difficulties in a flurry of correct answers and perfect graphs.