Monday, March 23, 2015

Breaking the "Either-Or" Paradigm of EdTech Use

One of the biggest challenges we face is helping teachers understand that
technology doesn’t have to replace traditional teaching, but instead can support it.

The other day I was having lunch with a head of school, who relayed something one of her teachers said about technology.

This particular teacher said she was reluctant to use technology in her classroom, because she thought it interfered with her ability to connect with her students. She explained to the head of the school that she had a class of students with special needs and learning preferences, and she believed technology simply “got in the way” of teaching them.

I was perplexed to hear that, because—as I pointed out —one of the biggest benefits of technology is that it can help reach all learners. For instance, if a student isn’t particularly strong at decoding text, technology can help him hear the words spoken aloud as they are highlighted, which might improve his reading skills. Imagery can help students understand an abstract concept and technology provides access to multiple images and the ability to create pictures or video that illustrate an idea.

Another way technology can help us reach all learners is by enabling students to present what they know in different ways. One student might might show understanding by creating in prose, another might create in audio and images, and yet another student might create in video.

Technology—if used wisely—offers different avenues for getting information to different students and in a way they’ll understand. It also provides multiple pathways for different students to demonstrate their understanding. And isn't reaching all learners our ultimate goal?

The teacher the administrator was describing had fallen victim to a common misconception about technology use in schools: She assumed that technology was meant to replace traditional teaching -- instead of support it.

One of the biggest challenges is helping teachers understand that technology use is not an “either/or” paradigm. Because we integrate technology in the classroom doesn’t mean we must forgo face-to-face conversations. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon instructional practices that have worked successfully in the past.

If technology is used effectively, it should actually enhance traditional instruction. In this case, the teacher in question worried that technology was getting in the way of effective conversation. Yet, if the teacher administered an anonymous survey with questions such as, “Did you understand the lesson? What questions do you have? Was the homework difficult or easy?  Do you feel like you’re ready to move on to a new topic?” she would elicit the kind of insights that can improve face-to-face classroom discussion. Online surveys and polls are but one to a wealth of pedagogical information and a window into students’ minds.

Technology shouldn’t get in the way of good teaching. It should support good teaching by providing the tools to make teaching and learning more effective. Helping teachers understand that technology is not an either/or paradigm, and that traditional and modern methods can work in tandem, is critical to crafting a mindset for productive and successful learning.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Does Awesome Learning Look Like?

Innovation doesn’t start with tools. It starts with questions. 

EdTechTeacher teamed up with Google to host a Google for Education Jamboree in Boston recently. During the opening, I talked about what I think innovative teaching and learning look like.

For me, the process begins with engaging questions that challenge students to address issues and solve problems. Innovation doesn't start with technology, but technology can spur innovation through problem-solving research, creation, and collaboration  The key is to formulate questions that lead to deeper learning and engagement. As Program Manager for Google Play for Education, Marta da Silva said in kicking off the event: “If we’re just asking questions that kids can Google the answers to, then obviously we’re asking the wrong questions.”

During my keynote I played a video about the grand-prize winners of the 2014 Google Science Fair. Three 17-year-old girls from Ireland became interested in addressing the global food crisis after learning about the Horn of Africa famine in 2011. When they discovered nodules growing on the roots of pea plants while gardening, they learned that a certain kind of bacteria lives in these nodules and draws nitrogen from the air, storing it in the plant’s roots and enhancing their growth. Encouraged by their teacher, the girls wondered: How might this knowledge be applied to cereal crops, helping farmers in underdeveloped countries? Through experiments, analysis, and field trials, the girls determined that the bacteria could be used to speed up the germination process of certain crops, like barley and oats, by up to 50 percent—helping to meet the rising demand for food worldwide.

What can educators learn from their example? This life-altering project began with a simple question that sparked the girls’ interest and tapped into their desire to make a difference. When the right question enters a student's ear,  awesome learning can happen. So, let's continually work on asking questions that matter.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Student Screen a Distraction? The #1 Antidote

In a post that first appeared in Edudemic, I relate that I enjoyed the luxury of teaching in a 1:1 laptop classroom for seven years. In my classes, students took daily notes on computers, did research, created essays and various multimedia publications, and worked on collaborative projects.

Yet I knew that if I wasn't watching their screens, my students would at some point be doing something they were not supposed to be doing. So, while I was thrilled with the tremendous educational content available to my students, I was concerned with the less-than-desirable elements pervasive on the Internet.  Today, I stroll through many schools that are using technology extensively and invariably I see students using computers for Facebook, IM, playing games, checking sports scores, and all manner of other "evil" things. (BTW, this is as true in middle school classrooms as it is in graduate schools.)

Many teachers have decided that they need to crack down on -- if not entirely eradicate -- screen distractions in their classrooms. (A minority of teachers accept it as a form of 21st century doodling.) So, I regularly get questions from teachers asking if they can lock students into apps (yes, that's possible) or watch student laptop screens remotely (yes, that's possible, too).

Yet, I rarely indulge in discussions of "Big Brother"strategies. Instead, I prompt teachers to consider the most important truism regarding screen distractions:

The best classroom management tool is a good lesson. 

If the activity is engaging and challenging, there is an authentic audience, and proscribed time limits exist, students won’t mess around.

I see the phenomenon at work regularly in my workshops. The more time I spend "teaching" teachers something the more apt they are to check email, Facebook -- or whatever. The more time they spend "doing" in a challenging and engaged environment the less they go off task. And if they know they'll have to present their product to the group, or post it online, they're focused.

More importantly, it happens in classrooms all the time.  I know because when teachers relate stories of engaged students using technology, their students all ask the same question:

Can I have more time to work on it?

The ingredients for cooking up engaging activities vary, but certain elements are constant. For one, the activities are challenging. There's no "click-along-with-me-and-do-what-I-do-kids" passive activity in these classrooms. Instead, it's more like: "This is hard. And I'm not going to tell you how to do it. But I expect what you create will be excellent."

There's also an authentic audience. Tell students you're going to present their work at conference, or submit it to a state publication, and then watch that heightened focus in their eyes. Note that the audience doesn't necessarily need to be outside the school walls. Just tell them you're going to show their work to other classes and teachers. As one teacher noted: "I didn't realize how little I mattered, until I told my students that I was going to publish all their work to an audience."

And great teachers figure out other ways to make kids care. They personalize the content -- drawing connections to kids lives -- and help students understand why what their doing is important.