Spotlight Cynthia Carter Ching

Cynthia Carter Ching

What About the “T” IN STEM? Is Technology the Answer?

Portrait of Cynthia Carter Ching

Among the oft-mentioned challenges in education is the challenge of preparing students for success in the twenty-first century workforce. Technology is just as often cited as the solution.

The hope is that the use of technology in the classroom (for example, the use of video or an interactive whiteboard) will raise student performance, particularly in math and science. But it turns out that unless the instruction itself is challenging and engaging, the use of technology won’t make any difference.

“Technology is just a tool,” according to education professor Cynthia Carter Ching. “Live streaming of a boring lecture is still boring.”

Ching, who is an expert on the use of technology for teaching and learning, says what students—and teachers—crave is “a real exchange of ideas.” Technology itself is just “a host of possibilities” for framing the dialogue.

The choices that teachers make about which technologies to use and why are what really interest Ching, who is working on a study about teachers and their perspectives on the use of technology in their classrooms.

According to Ching, we have years of research on how teachers implement technology, through studies on school culture or technology-infused curriculum, but we know very little about the ways teachers make decisions about their use of technology, especially in relation to the rest of their practice. Ching, who also researches the connection between technology and identity, has discovered a decidedly low-tech way to get at this question: storytelling.

“This is what teachers do,” she says. “They tell stories about their challenges, what worked well and what didn’t.”

But in telling these stories, Ching explains, teachers also draft a personal narrative. “The stories we tell ourselves become powerful. It is how we make meaning out of our experiences.” Ching surmises that as teachers use technology and build a narrative about their challenges and successes, they will become more savvy about its use and more effective as educators.

It is this connection between technology and identity that makes it so powerful for middle and high school students especially, but in the attempt to tap intotheir students’ milieu, teachers often miss the point.

“Tech for tech’s sake is still a mindset for a lot of teachers,” said Ching. “But students of this generation don’t remember a time before information technology was a fact of life. They don’t even really think much about any particular tool. They just use this tool for this purpose or this application for that.”

Ching sees a gradual shift in teachers’ perceptions, but they face a number of challenges to using technology effectively in the classroom. For instance, according to Ching, one of the biggest challenges is schools’ inability or unwillingness to allow students the freedom to use technology the way they do outside of school. Often, access to the Internet itself is restricted for fear that students will see inappropriate content.

“Teachers are really caught in the middle,” said Ching. “They often face really constraining school policies that block things like YouTube, so they struggle to find workarounds.” Meanwhile, most students have access to the latest tools and are left yawning at uses of technology in school that are often “ten years behind.”

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