Not too long ago, while in line for a coffee, the customer in front of me remarked that many people nowadays are so distracted by all these technological gadgets. Apparently, he was looking at a passerby in the street outside who almost got hit by a car because he was texting while crossing an intersection. Guessing that he wanted someone to say something, I quickly said: “It seems so.” My short comment, instead of signaling a close to a conversation, seemed to encourage him to expound on this rather peculiar contemporary phenomenon. I figured I had no choice but to be listening. Our conversation quickly turned to education, and I found out he was a math teacher. He was rather skeptical with all these fancy gadgets installed in classrooms to supposedly improve learning. So, this led to the question: do we really need computers and all the online world that comes with them to learn mathematics? My interlocutor, quite radical in his answer, thinks all those things are not needed; he is afraid that all this “tech clotting” that many people have been convinced to think helpful is the result of marketing hype.
Later, thinking about this question, I find it to not get that easy of an answer. As it is the case with other technologies that one chooses to use, it seems one might need to ask to what extent this new product will be helpful and consider the possibility that it might also be a detriment if overused. Thus, it seems in some cases computers and all the accessories that come with them, including software, might help with the instruction of basic mathematical facts to a great number of people, which might not have otherwise been possible. In terms of class participation, is there too much of a difference between sitting in a lecture hall with 300 other students, where it is unlikely one would ask a question, and watching a video lecture on a computer screen? On the other hand, for small classes, such as seminars, maybe a board and chalk (or dry-erase markers) are all that is needed. Even in this case, one can imagine a “video conference” seminar, where it is possible for people from different locations to intensely participate. Of course, with all the texting and surfing on the web, one might be too distracted to pay any attention. So, whether or not those new gadgets are needed does not really have a simple answer, but as it is likely there will be more of them coming and many of us will be told they are effective instruction tools, it is a question that cannot be ignored.
So, do you use any gadgets for classes you teach or for your own research? Do you think they help? Have you had any experience when a gadget turns out to be useless or even detrimental to your teaching or your learning of mathematics?