What is next for technology in science education?

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John Walker raises questions about the issue of technology integration in science classrooms.

If you have ever flown in an aeroplane you will be familiar with the acceleration down the runway as the plane builds up speed to get airborne. The force pushing the seat into your back is a clear sign of the plane’s increasing speed. A similar thing happens if you are sitting in a car, especially a powerful one, when the driver “floors” the accelerator pedal. But which produces the greater acceleration, an aeroplane or a car? And more to the point, how would we find out?

I recently had access to some sophisticated equipment that could measure acceleration, and this happened to coincide with me taking a trip abroad in a plane and travelling in a fast car. So, always keen to investigate something new, I eagerly set about taking some measurements. The plane was an Airbus 320 and the car was a 3-litre BMW with sporting credentials. Which would win? At a recent conference where I presented this question most people opted, quite understandably, for the car — at about 2t it definitely had a lot less mass to shift than the Airbus, which tops the scales at over 80t. Unfortunately, according to my measurements at least, the Airbus was the clear winner, exceeding the car’s acceleration by about 25%. And to rub salt into the BMW’s wounds, its acceleration was measured on a downward sloping gradient whereas the Airbus was on a level runway.

Addressing scientific questions

So what is my point? There are in fact three. First, for science to arouse curiosity there has to be a compelling question we want to resolve, and I would venture that the plane versus car scenario is just the sort of thing children would find interesting as a context for learning about forces and motion. Second, in the absence of a “correct” pre-ordained answer, unlike many school science experiments where the outcome is known in advance, it is more scientifically authentic. Finally, and importantly, technology was the only viable means to adequately address this question. OK, so we probably couldn’t arrange for a class to have a lesson in an aeroplane, but there are other things that accelerate, like trolleys, bikes and skateboards that we could use in school.

Technological difficulties

But what about the “sophisticated equipment”, I hear you ask. Yes, I confess that this might be a real sticking point, because the “equipment” was something schools are really struggling to get to grips with the smartphone. All I needed to measure the acceleration of the plane and the car was a freely available app on my phone.

The rather frivolous things which many people use smartphones for obscure the incredible potential in people’s pockets. Most smartphones contain a host of clever sensing devices whose scope for educational purposes, especially in science, is huge. I admit that I am not optimistic that most children will ever benefit from this potential during their schooling however, unless something changes. The smartphone, with its dual potential to educate and to disrupt, is a curveball like none that has ever come before. How can we embrace such powerful technology within a school system that is built on principles of rigid control? It seems to me that we can either extend that control to the smartphone itself, which would probably require layers of technological bureaucracy, or we can take some tentative steps towards loosening the culture of control in schools: stop confiscating phones maybe, a difficult choice.

Digital natives? Maybe not…

Maybe the answer lies with a generation of younger teachers. I suspect it does, though not because of any intrinsic factors about their generation but because they will be the ones to inherit the problem. A seductive idea which gained popularity in the early years of this century was that of the “digital native”1; the person who, through immersion in the trappings of digital technology since birth developed a natural affinity and skill for understanding and using it, in contrast with the older “digital immigrants” for whom such skills had to be learned as adults. More recently, doubt has been cast on the validity and applicability of this idea2. There is no evidence, for instance, that the operational skill involved in using digital technology translates into the higher level skills needed to make effective decisions about its utility in education. A study in Singapore3 made the surprising discovery that it was older, more experienced science teachers who made the most frequent use of a type of technology called data logging in their classrooms. The younger teachers seemed to be more preoccupied with other aspects of their teaching; perhaps not unusual given the demands of behaviour management, lesson planning and assessment which dominate early career teaching. This suggests effective educational use of digital technology may require experience that less experienced teachers could not possess.

The impact of regulation

Policymakers have tried, without success, to legislate for more effective technology use in science. In prep rooms across the land, trays of under-utilised data loggers are testament to schools’ previous efforts to comply with past iterations of National Curriculum requirements. Had this regulation succeeded, this potentially transformative equipment would have indeed transformed things. Instead, pupils’ digital experiences which I observe in today’s science classrooms are a massive dose of Microsoft PowerPoint. What is to be done…?

References

1Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1, Prensky, M (2001). On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.

2The ‘Digital Natives’ Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence, Bennett, S, Maton, K and Kervin, L (2008). British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775–786.

3Datalogging in Singapore Schools: Supporting Effective Implementations, Tan, K C D, Hedberg, J G, Koh T S and Seah, W C (2006). Research in Science and Technological Education, 24(1), 111–127.

Last reviewed 24 January 2018

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