Teach-nology in My Classroom

This year, I’ve had the privilege to work in a district that encourages and provides opportunities to use various technologies in the classroom.  Because the community is generally “connected” and internet access is readily available, I’ve had the privilege of trying out several tech-savvy strategies for enhancing the educational process.  I thought I’d give a quick rundown of how effective these technologies have been in my own classroom this year (along with a handy ranking system out of 5 stars).

The Class Web site (*****)

This has easily been the most effective piece of internet-based tech that I have used this year.  Our district has an easy-to-use WSYIWYG interface called SWIFT – short for Simplified Web Interface For Teachers.  This straight-forward set-up allows for basic web-based communications tools.  My own site has a main page, a Documents page, a Discussion page, an Events page, a Links page and  Contact page.  It lets me upload any documents I want so students (and families) can download them, I have a virtual suggestion box that students can anonymously contribute to, I have a regularly updated calendar of everything we do in and out of class, I’ve posted several useful links (both educational and not-so-educational), most student and parent contacts come via the site, and perhaps most importantly, students and families are able to access students’ grades through my site (through a connection to the Skyward grading system).  This has proven to be incredibly useful.  I have gotten a lot of feedback from parents who regularly check their child’s grades and who stay up-to-date on class events. They quip that “my kids are just not reliable sources of information” – an observation that I laugh at, remembering my own adolescence.  I remember coming home, being asked what I did at school and giving the only response I felt could avoid a conversation with my Mom – “Nothing.” This web site removes that answer from the picture.  “I saw you had a Spelling Test today. How did it go?”

The Forum (****1/2)

Predecessor to my class wiki page, the discussion forum was mostly worthwhile.  I had students answer questions about their reading books on a discussion forum. Nearly all of them did this at home.  I created a virtual suggestion box (a student request) in order to garner suggestions for improving class.  I have a separate “Study Questions” forum for academic questions.  And, of course, I have had a couple of random forums where students can share their interests (and personalities).

Perhaps the most interesting result of the forums, however, is the development of students’ “alter egos” – pseudonyms they create for their online personas.  I can think of a couple (Bob the Builder, I Like Pie, and Captain Obvious come to mind) that are essentially extensions of their personalities, while others are much more discreet.  It makes me laugh even more when I hear these names brought up in the classroom – just goes to show that some of them actually do this stuff at home.

The Wiki (****)

I’ve also been experimenting with another web resource – the wiki.  This has had much more mixed results.  I initially created a class wiki that I hoped would encourage academic endeavors on the internet. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite turned out as I’d hoped.  Instead of seeing students posting notes from class and creating study guides, I’m seeing “The All-Holy Chuck Norris Page,” and “Bob the Magic Fly.”  Not entirely educational uses.  Though it’s not really educational, I have seen students take ownership of the wikis in ways that they do not take ownership of the classroom.  That in itself has been encouraging.

I also created a subject-specific wiki that I hoped would reach beyond just my classroom and begin to affect the school community as a whole.  I composed a separate page that I hoped would provide genre-sorted book reviews, all written by students, that could serve as a book-selection guide for other students.  I have recently finished the second assignment of book reviews – this time an in-depth essay analysis a la the New York Times Book Reviews – but have again run into some issues. Some students get confused about which wiki to post on – several posted on the entirely wrong site.  Other students are confused about where to post it on the wiki site – some posted on the front page, some created a page that wasn’t linked from anywhere, etc.  Still others simply couldn’t figure out how to post.  I realized that a simple, easy-to-understand directions document is crucial to the success of a wiki, as is step-by-step training. 

Part of the problems are certainly a result of me not knowing exactly how to maximize the efficiency of a class of 25, all in a computer lab.  These I have learned from and improved on (the best suggestion I have: train a couple of helpers beforehand, and they prove invaluable).  But part of the problems are an inaccurate assumption that most students are web-savvy. I realized that most of these students do not have basic internet skills beyond myspace and google.  So figuring out how to edit a page is a lot more difficult than I expected it to be.  These are things that I did not foresee but have become issues.

On the whole, however, I feel that the wiki is not a failure.  Instead, it has created a place where the disenfranchised (so to speak) have a place for their words to be heard.  I know of at least one student who continues to post book reviews, even though they are not assigned.  Another student is essentially making the wikis more “teen-friendly” by sprucing up my simple appearance with some pizzazz.  This is definitely encouraging. But this is all still in a sort of “developmental” stage.  A final verdict won’t be in on the value of a wiki for a while.

The Blog (?)

Not a technology I have had the students work with (yet), but one I have started trying to model right here.  I gave the students the link to this blog, and a couple have actually even commented.  I’m not entirely sure who all reads this, but if I know you, “howdy.” 

What I am hoping for is to have students create blogs of their own and start writing in them.  I want to show them why blogs are valuable – probably pointing out their use as legitimate media and how they got a certain TV anchor fired – and I want them to start putting their voices out into the world.  Although still in the planning stages, this technology has some serious potential. 

My biggest hope for the blog, however, is simple – to give students a reason to write outside of class.  I hope that in knowing their voices are being heard, they will begin to write regularly on their own time about their own interests.

Other Tech (****)

A couple of other tech resources I have used this year have been modestly received.  We got “carts” earlier this year with projectors and document cameras.  While I certainly prefer this set-up to the old overhead projector, I don’t know that the advance was truly worth the money. I’ve been told that students are already inundated with PowerPoints, so I’ve abandoned those.  I have probably used the cart more to show students examples of what I want them to do online (a model book review, how to edit a wiki, etc.).  I wonder if tech training wouldn’t have been a better use for the money.

The other major tech “gift” I got this year is a laptop. Our district just rolled out teacher-issued laptops.  I have to say, while I doubted the necessity of it, I have certainly logged some serious hours on this baby – and most of them school-related.  I love being able to take it with me to the computer lab.  I love not having to work off of a flash drive and back it up every day (my laptop backs up for me).  I’m also enjoying the software on this little gem – Office 2007 is especially helpful.  I’ve been using Outlook to plan out the calendar part of my units and to organize the things I need to do (like respond to parent emails).  I’ve been using Word to lesson plan, Excel to create charts and graphs (like a Test Score Averages chart to show students the correlation between studying and success), and I’m really enjoying using OneNote to plan lessons, take notes, and record ideas. All in all, I’m pretty happy with this particular tech resource.

Summary

The big question, of course, is how has all of this technology improved the educational process (or has it)? 

To be perfectly honest, I really feel that the majority of these technological resources have improved students’ ability to learn in the classroom.  I think the web site has vastly improved communication with parents, which is always the best way to improve students’ learning (because parents make the kids do their work).  The wikis have given students a voice and provide an alternative place to get the information they need, as well as a way to share information with others.  The laptop has proven incredibly useful in streamlining the lesson- and unit-planning process, as well as giving me a better way to work at home (not sure if this is a good thing or not), which gives me time to spend on better materials for my students. 

More importantly, though, it’s provided students with some incredibly valuable skills.  The most valuable, in my opinion (or, as they say, IMO), is that they have begun to develop their own internet ethics – guidelines for how to act on the web, particularly in a collaborative site like a wiki.  They are beginning to understand that they can’t just post anything on the web – there are still guidelines to follow.  Other valuable skills they’ve learned are how to use Web 2.0 technologies, how to navigate the internet, and how to be valuable contributors.

All in all, I’ve come to the conclusion that technology in the classroom certainly has benefits.  While there is clearly the potential (and likelihood) that some students will misuse it, careful monitoring and instruction in how to use it should make it beneficial.  Using technology in the classroom encourages students to become participants in a global internet, teaches them technological literacy, and let’s face it – they just have more fun.

Recommendations

I think teaching teachers how to use this technology in a productive and effective way is the key to making “teach-nology” work.  Things like websites, wikis, podcasts, and blogs are all well and good, but if teachers don’t know how to manage the technology (or are unwilling to learn) then students are better off not having the opportunities.  It is clearly better for teachers to use what they know to help students learn, rather than trying to teach what they do not know – that’s the whole push behind requiring teachers to have degrees.  If a teacher does not and will not know how to use and/or manage a wiki, then there is no point in even trying to do so – it may end up doing much more harm than good.

That said, if a teacher is willing and able to learn how to use the technology, and how to monitor its use, then it has tremendous benefits (so says the research, as well). The catch is that there needs to be sufficient training – usually a 45 minute lecture-style instructional session won’t cut it.  It will take a lot more than that to teach someone who is a self-proclaimed “tech illiterate” to use these impressive new tools.  But is it worth the time? I sure think so.

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