Sunday, July 14, 2013

Using Digital Tools To their Maximum Benefit

Earlier, I wrote about the question of using digital rather than analog learning tools and learning management systems. I ended that article by saying that it's important to embrace both kinds of tools. It's all about balance. It's good to avoid either-or thinking. 

It seems that with the advent and evolution of Web 2.0 tools, where students can participate online in numerous ways that promise to make them more engaged learners, has come a pendulum swing in educational theory and practice—again.   I grew up with teachers who saw themselves as the "sage on the stage", the movement in education today is toward a "guide on the side" approach. The extreme form seems to believe that kids will figure out what's important for them to learn and it's our job as teachers to just stand by their side and guide them. Why does it have to be either one or the other?

I tend naturally toward being a "sage" because that approach was modeled during most of my formal schooling. Because of this natural tendency I tend to underutilize my classroom technology. My projector displays what's on my laptop screen almost all day long. My laptop even sends the video and audio wirelessly, so I could easily carry it around the room and invite students to demonstrate what they can do. But, I like to control my technology tools! (Note: I use a Macbook Pro connected to an Apple Airport Express via WiFi to an Apple TV and an analog-to-digital-converter hooked to my Viewsonic projector and Bose speakers to do this wireless A/V projecting)

It's a very cool arrangement, much simpler than it sounds, and it looks and sounds great in the classroom! However, I could use it more effectively to leverage my students' curiosity and motivation. I need to relinquish control of the tech tools before this will happen, however. 

I have a Bamboo pen my students love to use. While reflecting on my practices as a netbook teacher I've come to realize that I need to teach a mini-lesson on how to use the Bamboo pen with Mimio software so my students can "write on the board" or show what they know, right from their desk. In my fifth grade class we had to come up to the board to complete problems. With modern tech tools students don't even need to leave their seats. However, instead of hogging all the technology tools as my presentation devices (as the sage), I need to enable my students to use them to demonstrate what they know and can do (and then "guide" from the side as needed). I can leverage the technology tools and get much more bang for the bucks that were spent on them. 

I use digital tools to manage a fairly traditional classroom. For example, we use 3x5 notecards instead of some sort of computerized system for taking notes and organizing our research papers. I have good reasons for this and have written about them elsewhere. However, there are probably a dozen free tools available for doing this with our netbooks instead of notecards. Some students work more effectively with digital tools than with paper-based analog ones. One digital tool that comes to mind is Evernote, which I use daily to keep track of things I want to remember. On the other hand, one homeschooling parent managed her 4 kids' learning journeys with 3x5 cards for years before moving to Moodle. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Storing student work in "the cloud" enables forgetful students to get something done while at school, while students who work well with 3x5 cards and remember to bring them to school should be allowed and encouraged to continue using a system that works for them. 

Everyone can become more effective and efficient with the tools they are most comfortable with from years of usage. It's also important to learn new workflows using modern tools because they also may be useful both now and in the future. The bottom line is to use the tools as effectively as possible for the job at hand.

Teaching In a Traditional Classroom With Digital Tools

I believe it's alright to be a traditional teacher managing a traditional classroom. By traditional I mean a place where we use assignments, activities and projects that we've done over and over for years because they work to help us achieve our learning objectives. Kids need to learn and explore much more than only what they're interested in, so they'll need a "sage" to prod them from time to time. A sage is someone who is wise and who probably knows something you don't know.

Even those lucky enough to work at Google are required to spend 80% of their workday on assigned projects. Granted, they have 20% time when they can work on anything they want. However, I would imagine that most workplaces require more than 80% time-on-task, working on management- or company-chosen tasks and projects. I believe kids need to learn how to work on assignments, projects, and activities that are good for them even if they would rather not. This builds character and responsibility traits that every student needs.

On the other hand, there have been countless times when a student has taught me something I did not know, and I need to be more open to new and better ways of doing things. I've stopped mandating a certain way of organizing a binder, desk, or computer hard drive, for example. Now, I only require that students have some sort of learning management system that works for them and produces results. When students turn in their assignments on time, apparently their learning management system isn't broke, so I don't try to fix it. There are many ways to organize a workflow to accomplish the final outcome. An assignment that's in on time while reflecting student understanding of the material is something to be celebrated regardless of the process used to get it done.

When a student demonstrates that he or she has trouble with assignment completion, then it's time for a series of mini-lessons on how to organize and manage his workflow. I believe in using the best of both systems, analog and digital, to help a student manage his learning and the evidence of it.

*******Watch this before you go on!********

Requiring Digital Learning Tools and Management

I found Scott's video thought-provoking, and the world certainly is changing as he describes. I think it's still important to maintain a balance between age-old analog tools and the digital ones we now have available to us. The thing is, my students must function within a system that uses a mix of tools and procedures. As hard as we've tried, we still have plenty of paper-based products in our school and in the world-at-large. I scan almost every piece of paper that comes my way before shredding them on the way to the garbage. However, I still write plenty of quick notes to myself because that's the only thing handy. Some people find that they're more productive using paper-based tools to work and plan. If a certain assignment is due digitally, do I really want to allow an analog version for one or two students? In the interest of differentiation of instruction for students with special needs and who work better with paper, I have allowed paper-based assignments to be turned in when the primary learning objective wasn't hindered by it.

However, I think it's also important to help students learn to manage their learning digitally, because digital tools will be even more commonplace in the future when my students enter the world of work. I'm doing them a disservice if I don't force them to some extent to participate in the digital world. 

Getting the Most Bang for our Buck

Our school is blessed. We have most of the latest and greatest digital tools. We have a 1:1 computing program in grades 5-8. We have a reliable wireless infrastructure. Kids pull out their netbooks and Internet connectivity is ubiquitous. However, not every instructor on our staff utilizes digital technology to its maximum benefit for kids, including yours truly. What is a busy teacher to do? Well, in my case, I'm evaluating, reflecting, and preparing to utilize all the tools at my disposal more effectively. Over time my best practices will get better, one by one.  I'm excited about the Next Big Thing and in finding out how to use it to make our learning management systems, both digital and analog combined, work even better.

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