I was recently reminded of the truth of Clive James’s words: “It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are.” There are many times throughout the year when my perceived dependency on technology is strangely heightened. Just last week, I completed my daily instructional duties and planned on working on some report cards at home. This was not to be the case, as some fierce Vancouver winter storms relieved our entire neighborhood of electricity for a few hours. Moving beyond my initial irritation, I counted the many ways this dependency has affected my professional life.
I have always held a fascination for technical things. I remember attempting to write a computer program when I was in elementary school called The Dungeons of Htam, which was designed cleverly to conceal the reviled math in the context of a game. This later proved to contain educational theory through the idea of embodied learning through games. I took to all sorts of these adventures through Sierra’s Quest games, taking me to places like California’s Gold Rush of the 1800s; magical, mythical lands from youthful fairy tales; inner-city neighborhoods; and even improbable lands on other planets. Problem-solving became a little fun and somewhat more meaningful.
Some years later, I returned to education’s domain, and began to see the potential for using my childhood passions in my professional context. Like many technological gadgets, it was entertainment that first attracted me to its use. But the more I used devices like a video camera, the more I began to see their learning potential. The problem was that a video camera was not that easy to use. Fast-forward a few years, and this problem virtually erased itself. The once-elusive school-owned camera became an artifact; many students and teachers now own pocket cameras on their cell phones and iPods, each complete with sophisticated editing software. These devices can easily publish content to a variety of locations accessible by the world.
Technology at Surrey Christian Middle School
Teachers at Surrey Christian Middle School have approached technology in different ways, some with hesitation and others with enthusiastic acceptance, though they have all attempted some form of technological integration within their practice.
Technology use is becoming more commonplace at our school. We are fortunate to have supporting technological infrastructure that allows teachers numerous and creative paths to meet curricular goals. Each classroom has two classroom computers that serve a variety of in-class purposes. In addition, teacher workstations are connected to ceiling-mounted digital projectors, giving teachers the advantage of projection. We have one computer lab with thirty laptops, ten netbook computers that classrooms are welcome to sign out from the library, and a number of iPod Touches. Some students also possess personal devices, and that adds to these numbers.
Communication within our school community has been enhanced through numerous media. Probably the most effective tool has been the classroom blog, which communicates curricular content, field trip photo albums, upcoming events, student work, and other miscellaneous items. The blog brings together many elements of classroom life to a single location. In many ways, the blog replaces the traditional classroom newsletter, adding multiple media layers, including images and video.
Students are able to document their work using a variety of tools. One of the more trendy methods of content creation right now is through video, which is what some teachers have students use to show what they have learned. Working in small groups, student video production teams collaborate to create projects demonstrating what they have learned. Handheld devices such as the iPod are well suited to this type of task, as all the necessary tools—camera, editing software, publishing software—are included in a single device. Video is a good medium because it facilitates storytelling extremely well.
The limitless nature of the Internet works for and against student learning. Its weakness is how difficult it can be to find appropriate resources that support classroom learning. Guidance is therefore needed. It is unhelpful for teachers to say, “Go and research topic X.” A student researching pyramids on a unit of ancient Egypt may not know how to proceed when an initial search yields more than forty million hits. But when students are directed to suitable materials and locations, the Internet opens up a world of knowledge that can be both relevant and engaging. Teachers can direct students to Internet links through blogs, Web sites, and even micro blogging sites like Twitter. Within my own practice, I have found that letting students wander the Internet with little guidance is more harmful than productive. A teacher can quickly create a project site using a service like Google Sites (http://sites.google.com). All project guidelines, relevant links, and assessment rubrics can be hosted on a single site. Equally useful is posting samples of previous student work.
Podcasting is a relatively simple technology. Similar to a magazine subscription, podcasting is the process of creating audio files to which a listener can subscribe and download. They are generally short, but they can be of any length. The podcasts can become more sophisticated as students tackle specialized topics and aim to produce more professional results. All that is needed to produce a podcast is a digital recorder or computer and a place to host audio files. Audio files can be improved with some simple editing. Programs like Apple’s GarageBand or Audacity (a cross-platform audio editor: http://audacity.sourceforge.net) enable users to mix multiple layers to produce professional-sounding recordings. Once a file is created and hosted on a site, creators can publish their podcasts on the iTunes store, which users can then freely download.
A number of our teachers have supplemented their instruction with external lesson sites like the Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org). This information is provided free for students and teachers alike. For topics from algebra to the current credit crisis, this site hosts nearly three thousand lesson videos. In addition to the Khan Academy, there are countless instructional sites of varying degrees of quality (e.g. YouTube, TeacherTube).
Challenges of Technology
There are a number of challenges associated with using technology in the classroom. In my role as a technology support person, the nasty “it’s not working” phrase can mean any of a number of different issues. Batteries dying, connections crashing, power failing, and links expiring all impede effective use of using technology within the classroom. These are common but not unsolvable problems.
The bigger challenge, however, is how to keep up with all the current technologies when time is already limited. It is a formidable task to find appropriate technologies and then attempting to learn how to use them, all while maintaining pedagogical appropriateness. Fortunately, there are many places to go for help. Many online technologies have in-house support services that include descriptive tutorials. Some even cater their services for specifically for education. Prezi, an online presentation system, offers a site license specifically for teachers and students (http://prezi.com/profile/signup/edu/). Animoto, a service that creates enhanced slideshows, offers an educator account, and this can be extended to students (http://animoto.com/education).
Social networks provide a measure of support for learning various technologies. Users can access communities of practice with those having similar interests. Sites like Classroom 2.0 (http://www.classroom20.com) are home to more than sixty thousand members. Members can create forums, share ideas, and ask questions of fellow members.
Teachers Learning Technology
I was curious to learn how other teachers were learning how to use various technologies within their practice. “Like life,” quipped one teacher, “learning happens one mistake at a time.” While it may seem like a cliché, learning within the technological realm seems to happen while doing. A great initial strategy is to start “playing” with a technology. From there, you may want to seek help of others who have used it before. This can happen in person or online through resources like communities of practice, or simply through tutorials on sites like YouTube.
A few years ago, I was curious about using video within the classroom, so I found a video camera and started recording what my students and I were already doing in class. Not knowing how to connect the video camera to my computer, I called my expert friend who instructed me. The first results were embarrassingly meager. Some years later, I have found that my students’ work with this medium has improved greatly as they are able to place their learning more intentionally into their creations. They are able to create short film clips that are meaningful to them because they have taken responsibility for their own learning.
- The Animoto sites states you can “turn your photos, video clips, and music into stunning video masterpieces to share with everyone.”
- Classroom 2.0 is a social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and social media in education.
- Google Docs allow users to create a variety of documents (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings, forms) online.
- Google Sites is a free and easy way to create and share Web pages.
- The Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. They are a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere.
- Microsoft: Teacher Resources provides lesson plans, how-to guides and teacher guides for using Microsoft products.
- Prezi is a cloud-based presentation software that opens up a new world between whiteboards and slides.