Milton Chen

Milton Chen

What are the characteristics of effective – or superlative – use of technology in the classroom? What kinds of programs succeed? As Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, educational television pioneer Milton Chen explores these questions.


Can you describe your work at the Foundation?

The mission of the George Lucas Educational Foundation is to gather and disseminate information about how our best schools and teachers are using technology. We’re trying to communicate the most inspiring stories and also provide a deeper level of information about how they came about.

In the process of collecting these stories, what are you learning about technology and students?

We’re very impressed with the way the younger generation reacts to technology. You can almost characterize each generation by its predominant medium. For my generation, we grew up with television as our medium. Some of us even remember black and white television, turning it on with a knob. For today’s kids, using the computer is as natural a medium as television was for us. These kids in many ways are ahead of their parents and teachers, who have not spent as much time with technology I see it all the time with my own 13 year-old daughter, who is much better with technology than I am.

Seymour Papert (MIT Media Lab) has said that “technology is only a technology for those who are born before it”. If you take our generation, we were going through our lives and doing quite well, and along comes this technology that we have to learn to master and use in our work and our recreation. For kids, they don’t view it as technology, they just view it as an appliance they use to get information. The question then becomes how do you use this technology to launch them into learning experiences.

How do you do that?

We like project-based learning as a general approach to teaching and learning. Projects bring in multiple disciplines – they are interdisciplinary, integrated not only between math and science or language arts and history, , but also across the arts and sciences. In the documentary we produced, “Learn and Live”, there’s an example of a classroom of students (at Clear View Charter School in California) who are studying insects for several weeks. They collect insect specimens; they send those specimens to entomologists at San Diego State University; they get a chance to go online and talk with the scientists in full two-way audio and video. They see the scientists as sort of virtual teachers in their classroom, and they see their own insects through an electron microscope. They also go out to the Web to get resources with an eye towards making multimedia reports about insects.

It sounds like what you’re talking about is technology not as the central focus of the project but rather as a tool.

Absolutely, it’s an enabler for communication between students, scientists, and teachers. It’s been interesting to us that in showing that segment even two years ago teachers would say, well I don’t have an electron microscope, I couldn’t possibly do that. I don’t have a fiber optic connection to scientists, entomologists. I don’t even have a nearby university. In just two years the University of Illinois has put together a website called “Bugscope**,” where they have taken insect specimens sent to them by kids, taken electron microscopy of the insects and put them up on a website. So now you can simulate what Clear View did with what was then high technology in 1996. Now, four years later, technology has shown a better way of making this content available to everyone.

One of the most powerful strengths is this ability to communicate with others who are interested in the same topic. Technology has a way of breaking down the isolation of a child or a classroom, and in our work we see isolation as one of the real barriers to learning and motivation. Isolation of students and of teachers.

What do you mean by isolation of teachers?

When you’re a teacher–and we talk a lot to teachers about their training– you’re trained to come out of the university program, you’re given your classroom, and that is your environment, your domain. Even basic things such as observing how other teachers teach, asking other teachers for help, giving help to other teachers–we’ve had teachers tell us that they were taught it was a sign of weakness to do those things.

That’s what we mean by the isolation of teachers. Individual teachers are very isolated. Technology can be one way to hook teachers up within their class, within their school. You see teachers and principals communicating online during the day with their colleagues in the school. There are listserves of teachers interested in certain topics, there are chat rooms, ways of connecting. Some of the major educational organizations are creating ways for teachers to communicate electronically. We feel that’s a big plus, and is part of what’s needed in school reform.

This idea of teacher isolation, at least as I’ve read in the school reform literature over the years, hasn’t received the attention it deserves. School reform has tried to change the curriculum, and change the way schools are financed, busing the students, mixing the students, grouping them in different ways, and I think we’re all coming back to the teachers as the key active ingredient in school change. It seems so obvious, but for many years I think we’ve overlooked the obvious.

How can we help teachers embrace the use of technology in the ways you’re talking about?

There are many aspects to providing teachers with these tools. Some of them have to do with larger school changes. Some have to do with obvious needs, like just placing the technology in the hands of teachers. We’ve heard of teachers who go to educational technology conferences who very patiently listen to the sessions that are using Power Point and web resources and high bandwidth connections to the Internet, and when they go back to their classrooms they have none of that. They don’t even have their own computer on their desk. So things that professionals in other workplaces take for granted, we still have not provided to teachers.

I’ve heard of one teacher who keeps going to these conferences but doesn’t yet even have a computer. She’s gone to Web design sessions, and the instructor asked her why she keeps coming, and she says, well one day I’m going to get one and I want to be ready for the day. That’s incredible devotion, but it raises the question why she hasn’t been provided with this basic tool.

Talk about a digital divide, we need to notice that there’s huge divide between teachers and the rest of the professional world. I think one thing that we have to do, while we’re working on policy and state level issues, is place the technology directly in the hands of teachers.

Thank you.





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