“The Machine That Goes PING!”

In a Monty Python sketch from the The Meaning of Life, doctors ignore a woman in labor while they bring in one piece of fancy equipment after another, including the most expensive machine in the hospital — the one that goes “PING!” The film came out in 1983, long before cell phones and laptops became the norm, but its message about the blinding nature of shiny new toys was alive and well three decades later at a technology conference held last week at UNC’s School of Education.

Free material from www.gapminder.org

“It’s easy to get caught up in the technology, because it’s whiz-bangy, flashy things and ponies,” said Dean Bill McDiarmid, “(but) we have to really think about what it is we’re trying to do and then think about what are the affordances that technology offers that are going to help us get there.”

UNC’s School of Education hosted a daylong conference on technology in the classroom, one focused on a three-pronged approach known as TPACK, an acronym for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Jargon aside, TPACK is at its core a school of thought predicated on the true integration of technology, content and sound instructional practices. It emerged in the late 90s but has taken on greater importance as educators realize that the mere presence of technological wizardry does not necessarily lead to better teaching and improved test scores.

TPACK, however, is not just a school of thought. It has heavy duty backers, including Microsoft, and many practitioners who have put together very specific ways of integrating technology, curriculum requirements and teaching strategies in order to achieve what they like to call the “sweet spot.”

One example on display at the UNC seminar was an online program called Gapminder World, which has a wealth of animated graphic information that, among other things, depicts how life expectancy and per capita income have changed over time. Hit “play” and a series of bubbles representing each country starts to move, allowing students to learn the basics of mean, median and mode as well as a wide range of interpretive and critical thinking skills.

Other examples include online historical records that allow teachers and students to go well beyond the textbook; games and simulations that bring the complexity of the real world into the classroom; and filmmaking capabilities that, when used well, engage students in unprecedented ways.

“It’s not just a matter of giving you this bright and shiny new device, but how do you use it pedagogically? How does it make a difference?” said James Ptaszynski, Microsoft’s senior director for World Wide Higher Education. “Just because there are some cool education apps on there, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re integrated into the curriculum that you’re teaching…. You really need to systemically use it.”

Otherwise, he said, the history of the past 30 years will repeat itself and the machines that go “PING!” will continue to be viewed as toys, not tools.