Engaging the imagination: Owens pushes classroom technology

Carl Owens is one teacher who will never tell students to make sure their cell phones are turned off and their laptops put away before class starts.

Owens, with the growing support of many educators, takes a stand that today's digital students learn best by having the technology they've grown up with at hand in the classroom.

“At home and at play technology permeates their lives, yet we arbitrarily restrict it at school,” said Owens, professor and director of instructional technology in Tennessee Tech University's curriculum and instruction department. "In the classroom, we tend to give them the least creative time and tools, when that’s where they should be getting the most."

For instance, Owens, who is recognized nationally for his promotion of technology in the classroom, said today's college student has the ability to work on his or her laptop, check cell phone messages to screen for urgent calls and still pay attention to the professor holding class. But more importantly, teachers from the grade school to the university level can teach more effectively if they use technology to get a lesson across.

Research indicates that the seemingly constant exposure to multiple, overlapping sights and sounds has affected the neural pathways of digital kids’ brains, said Owens. Essentially their brains respond to sensory input differently than older, pre-1980 brains. Some researchers contend that in order to retain information and be able to put it to use, they must have multisensory input.

Owens, an Apple Distinguished Educator since 1998 and now a member of its national advisory board, helps lead a nationwide effort to give teachers the information, tools and support they need to integrate technology into lesson plans.

"Technology is being underutilized because teachers don’t have time to learn," he said. "They are busy preparing their students to pass standardized tests because that’s what they are evaluated on. We as teachers are the barrier for students unless we accept that technology can help us reach them."

He practices what he preaches. Showing up to interview Owens in his office with pencil and paper feels like being a lumberjack reporting for work with a kitchen knife. The tools seem a poor fit for the occasion.

As he swiveled and rolled in his chair from one gargantuan monitor to the other, he demonstrated some of the equipment and software he considers key to holding students' attention and spurring their imaginations. He opened "GarageBand," a program that allows a student to perform, record and create original music, and quickly composed an original tune.

“Who wouldn’t get charged by this?” he asks.

In a few more minutes he has contacted colleague Marco Torres, a social studies teacher in San Fernando, Calif., through an audio and video connection. Torres is a filmmaker who has worked with Lion's Gate and HBO. He praised Owens for encouraging educators to see the world differently.

“We have to challenge the traditional teaching methods in order to reach kids,” said Torres. “These are tools of liberation for teachers. Teachers can show students how to score a film or make their own movies. Or a science lab can become accessible to students with disabilities through the use of technology."

Owens mentions another colleague who takes her traditional writing course to another level by letting students write scripts and produce plays. She also invites professional writers into her classroom via technology.

“Script writing is still writing,” said Owens. “You may not capture a student’s attention with a composition assignment, but you can with an alternative. Or you can get an expert who writes for a living on the big screen and allow students to ask questions. You have students saying, 'Tell me what it’s really like so I can make choices about my future.'"

Initially access to technology was a problem for teachers in Owens' backyard. But he has put his influence to work for them, managing a $854,000 grant specifically designed to bring technology to rural educators. He also manages TTU's $1 million dollar endowment for technology through the College of Education.

As computers and software become more readily available to teachers, Owens said the challenge is to help them find time to learn and appreciate how students use the technology to learn.