Richard Van Eck examines the benefits of using digital technology in the classroom

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Richard Van Eck examines the benefits of using digital technology in the classroom

Many a Baby Boomer recollects high tech back in the day: flickering 16 mm projectors, typewriters and tests produced with hand-cranked mimeograph machines.

And just like it is today, tech was viewed askance by many back then. Old-timers from the days of the "Three Rs" — readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic — believed technology such as typewriters deprived youngsters of the opportunity to learn the "old-fashioned" way.

Today such arguments persist, only now they're about the noiseless digital tech gadgets and games that permeate the Millennial culture — the so-called "BYOD," or Bring Your Own Device.

How does today's technology and the questions we're asking about it compare and contrast to previous tech encounters in the classroom, for example, mechanical film projectors and typewriters?

"Change is always viewed with suspicion, whether considering the shift from analog to digital clocks, from shoelaces to Velcro, or from copper phone lines to wireless phones," said Richard Van Eck, a UND educator and global expert in digital game-based learning and other digital tech.

"I think we are biologically predisposed to dislike change, because our ancestors knew that once you had a way to survive, any change meant a potential threat to survival," he observed. "No matter that some changes could help you; they always come at some price."

The same is true for technology.

An instinct for the negative

"When technology comes out, we often focus on the negatives, and there are always negatives," said Van Eck, who served as graduate director in the multidisciplinary Instructional Design & Technology (IDT) program in the Department of Teaching & Learning (part of the College of Education & Human Development) until this fall.

"The trick is to figure out both the positives and the negatives and to push for a balance between them, rather than denying the benefits for fear of the negatives," he said. "We perennially worry that a new technology will 'replace the teacher' or that we will lose something valuable in the process.

"Usually, these things are valued because they are a part of our past, and nobody wants to see what they have cherished change."

Van Eck, a master of digital wizardry in the classroom, says he loves books.

"I love the feel of paper books and own hundreds of them," he said. "But I also appreciate the value of searching for text, bookmarking and highlighting key phrases in a nondestructive way that I can change, and carrying hundreds of books with me in my pocket."

On the sidelines or in front?

So the question becomes, how can we ensure that the new technology is used wisely?

"New technology always offers some benefits and will end up being used whether we think it should be or not," Van Eck said. "So we can sit on the sidelines and abdicate responsibility for its best use to younger generations, or we can lead the way in promoting its wise use."

Although digital simulations and games are still far from the norm in today's K-12 schools, Van Eck says that acceptance of those media as teaching tools is growing.

For kids, he noted, the gadget-saturated world is their reality, an ever-evolving electronically mediated transition from virtual to real.

Today's K-through-college students live life in the electronic lane.

"They're digital natives," Van Eck said.

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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