10 June 2012

A Year-End Reflection: Rationale for Technology in the Education

I was recently asked by an administrator to write a piece on technology use in my classroom to be shared with others.  As one can see from this blog, if I was to write something comprehensive, it would be many pages long.  But he asked me to keep it to a page or two.  Below is what I composed; the best way I could briefly explain and give some detail on the rationale and some examples of the use of technology in my classroom.

Some see technology as a nice addition to education and as something that is not critical to students’ learning. My experience as a teacher over the past dozen years has taught me the opposite. In a time where connective and informative technologies are disrupting every major area of study and industry, an effective use of technology in all disciplines is critical. In fact, one might think that the discipline I teach, social studies, would be one of those least impacted by technology. And if one is wedded to the old idea of the history classroom with big, dusty textbooks, chalkboards, desks facing forward in a row, and a teacher lecturing for the better part of an hour, you might be right. But the social studies classroom of the 21st century doesn’t (and shouldn’t) look like this. There has been a quiet revolution going on in education, and in social studies in particular, attempting to make classrooms more inquiry-driven, critical thinking infused, and generally operating in ways that have students learn and do work in the ways that professionals really do them. If you were to go into the office of a historian or social scientist (geographer, economist, political scientist, archaeologist, etc.) or to a meeting of such professionals, you wouldn’t see much reading from textbooks, writing on chalkboards, or lecturing to each other. What you would see would see would be researchers using documents and data from internet databases, out doing various types of study and research in the field, working collaboratively with other researchers in the same discipline or other disciplines with various connections, and presenting their findings in print or digital form to their colleagues for peer review. This is the humanities and social sciences in the 21st century (and most other professional disciplines would look similar as well). If we want our students to be prepared for such environments (that they will encounter in their careers, but also increasingly in college) we must create such environments in our classrooms. The infusion of modern technologies gives us the best opportunities to do this and in the following paragraphs I will give you several examples of how this works.

Textbooks are notoriously bad. They are poorly written, contain boring material, give limited perspectives, and are outdated the minute they are printed. As a result, I don’t use textbooks in my classes. Despite this, my students read in my history classes daily. They read materials that are far better, more engaging and “real-world” than anything they can get in the textbook. They are reading primary documents, letters, journals, newspaper articles, and other accounts from various periods in history. In doing this, they are engaging in the real work that historians do in conducting research and developing an interpretation of historical events based on documentary evidence from the time, people and places we are studying. In this, they are engaging in a far more interactive and thinking activity then they would get from reading a sanitized textbook. The students access almost all of these documents via the web on websites like the National Archives and Library of Congress sites and through library databases. The volumes of documents available are thousands of times greater than could be put in any book.

Having access to the documents are not enough. Students have to be able to curate the appropriate resources for the topics they are investigating. Years ago, researchers would have piles of documents and monographs in their work-space. Today, this can all be organized and taken with you digitally using software such as Evernote, Diigo and Easybib. These services allow my students to create files online that can be indexed and shared for effective research and collaboration. For document storage and collaboration, students use cloud-based services such as Google Drive and Dropbox to store, date, and collaboratively compose drafts of their final research product. All of this can be checked and monitored by the teacher without the use of paper or turning materials in. All updates by the various collaborators can be followed and checked by the teacher. Various educational social platforms like Edmodo allow students and teachers to discuss class topics and research anytime and anywhere; expanding the opportunities for learning beyond the traditional classroom. In addition, it always helps to learn from the experts. It is difficult to get a professor or someone who experienced a historical event into the classroom, but with video-chat services such as Skype, those experts can be brought into the classroom. This past year I did this on two occasions, one with a woman who lived in East Germany and experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and one with a school alumnus and former classmate of mine who now lives close to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan and spoke about his experiences there.

Once the research and curation have been completed, students need to present and/or publish their work as professionals do. While the paper and the oral presentation are still very important, new forms of media are becoming important in various professions for publishing and presenting research and I use this as much as possible in my classes. Throughout the school year, I have my students create webpages with Weebly, make podcasts using Soundcloud, blogs using Blogger, videos using iMovie, online posters using Glogster, and multimedia presentations using Voicethread (just to name a few). This gives them various opportunities to write, compose, publish and present in different mediums. Then using the included tools in such platforms, or through the sharing and comment features in Edmodo, students are able to comment and critique one another’s work and receive feedback from me. The students then collect the products they create in an electronic portfolio that they update throughout the year, and can use to reflect up their growth over that time, and present their work to a wider audience.  Critical to getting my students work to a wider audience has been the National History Day program.  It promotes original student research that is presented at various levels for critique, reflection, improvement and competition.  I encourage all teachers in all disciplines to participate in similar programs to give you students those "real-world" experiences.

To develop students into learners who are creative, collaborative, communicative critical thinkers, technology needs to be part of the picture. Today’s brand of educational technology with devices like the iPad, in its increasingly mobile and connected features, allows for personalized, project, and problem-based learning environments that have not previously been possible. Technology in education is not an addition to education; it is integral to education in the 21st century.

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