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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Brain on Technology

Guest Post by Lindsey Wright

Many people can recall the required silent reading time from elementary school days. Some children dove right in and got lost in their books, others sneakily passed notes, and some just stared longingly out the window willing the bell to ring. Given the variety of different learning styles, it's no wonder that reading comprehension is a skill not everyone possesses. However, the advent of new technologies makes it possible to engage children regardless of their learning styles, and help each child reach a higher level of reading comprehension. The neurological and developmental benefits of learning technology for reading deepen understanding and allow children to grasp concepts that might've been previously out of reach. By understanding the effects of technology on the brain, educators in kindergartens to online college courses can bolster teaching strategies and enrich the classroom experience.

BRISTOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 10:  Kerrie Gr...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Neurologically, technology can hard-wire the brain to engage in higher-order thinking and advanced problem-solving. Based on research, polls and statistics, Cisco Systems' Technology in
Schools Report delves into the use of technology in the learning process. The report cites research findings that suggest using video, including short segments known as learning objects, allows
children who might otherwise be non-readers to feel engaged. Learning objects often include multimedia segments for reading programs, as well as writing prompts. Another study included in the report found that middle school
 students who viewed a story in an interactive format recalled more information than their peers who read a text version of the story. Such research shows that video and other digital media add context to learning without increasing the cognitive load.

Technology also helps learners develop metacognition, which in turn strengthens executive functioning abilities. Both are essential to reading comprehension. Metacognition in the learning process refers to the conscious control of cognitive processes engaged in learning. It consists of metacognitive regulation and metacognitive knowledge. For example, when students read an assigned text, they must engage in self-questioning to determine if they understand the concepts in the text. If they can't answer their own questions, they must then evaluate what needs to be done in order to reach the cognitive goal of comprehension. Self-questioning is a common form of metacognitive regulation.

Metacognitive knowledge refers to students' ability to understand their own learning processes. This is evident in students when they know that studying in a quiet environment will be more productive then in a noisy one. In a study  published in the Australian Journal of Educational Technology, researcher Julie Gordon stated, "computer software environments should be used as facilitators of thinking and knowledge construction so that students can devise their own ways of handling the information that is presented in multiple modes of representation." This leads to enhanced metacognition. With features such as scaffolding, support templates, and flexible tools, such educational applications can be a powerful way for students to become aware of their own learning needs.

Learning technology also facilitates improved information processing and visualization. Based on scientific studies, Cisco found that computer-assisted instruction software has been shown to significantly improve reading comprehension in middle school children. Exercises based in that software help students to understand, process, and use language more effectively. Many of the programs adapt the exercises to fit students' current ability. As students improve, the exercises become more difficult and the modified speech sounds become natural speech patterns. This retrains students' brains through visual and auditory processing and language training.

The findings concerning technology and young brains are encouraging and can help revolutionize teaching strategies, but schools and teachers cannot rely on technology alone. The greatest success in improving reading comprehension was found in schools that used both the traditional classroom approach and technology. Using technology to create a student-centered learning environment creates a place where all students are more readily accommodated.

For instance, Gordon suggests having students keep self-reporting journals. This practice supports students' metacognitive awareness of their learning processes. Students who keep self-reporting journals become more proficient learners in a technologically integrated classroom, even though the journaling itself is a simple, low-tech exercise.

Teacher proficiency and professional development are also crucial to integrating technology into any curriculum. Teachers must be proficient with the programs they use and also be able to identify and choose technology-based activities and methods that have the highest rates of success. This means reviewing research and even testing software. Flexibility is key when changing curriculum to incorporate new and evolving approaches. If it's a viable option, teachers should observe classrooms that have been successful in technological integration. Fortunately many educators' blogs also represent readily accessible resources for bringing technology into the classroom.

Technology utilized to support reading comprehension keeps students engaged in the classroom, allows for higher-order thinking, and improves information processing and visualization. Students are able to partake in an individualized learning path, which enables them to develop reading comprehension skills in a way that suits their individual needs. At a time when large classrooms often don't allow for individual attention, technology integration is a much-needed way for teachers to improve the education of each student.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.
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