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Tech It From The Top!

July 30, 2010

This blog post is part of the Leadership Day 2010 campaign, a coordinated blogging effort to promote better learning and education leadership relating to technology integration.  The idea comes from Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant, a blog that addresses the fast pace of technological change and the slower pace of changes in our thinking.

So, it turns out that our “digital native” students aren’t completely tech savvy after all.  Yes, they can send a thousand text messages per day, stream and download media, and keep track of hundreds of friends on Facebook.  However, many of us know from classroom practice that students must be taught to use tech tools effectively for learning, regardless of how skilled they are at pursuing their own entertainment.  A recent study finds that many college students still tend not to apply any critical thinking or evaluation to the content they find online.  I remember teaching eighth grade in 1998 and having to explain to students that “the Internet” was not really a source, but rather a medium.  It sounds like some of these college students haven’t come much further, as the only information they knew about a source was that they found it on Google.

Now, if you work at a school, think of the teachers at your school.  Hopefully, most of them have figured out some basic truths about what the Internet is and what Google does, and hopefully, the scholarly use of tech tools is being taught better with each passing year.  However, I think we need to accelerate the pace, and for that to happen, I think we have to practice what we teach.  That means teachers always being on the lookout for tools that meet their professional needs.  And when it comes to schools developing a broad commitment to technology use for deeper learning, it means that administrators and education leaders must do the same.  It’s not a matter of learning technology for its own sake.  But rather, when you find you need information, you need collaboration, you need support, or you need to spread the word, look for new tools that do a better job.  If you haven’t learned any new tools or tricks in the past year or two, well, think about that.  You’ve stopped learning.  How do you model the use of educational tools and technology for students?

My own teaching practice is still a long way from perfect in this regard.  But one important lesson that I’ve figured out is that I’m more likely to use technology tools in the classroom, and help my students see uses for them, when I use them myself.  There are many tools out there that don’t sound all that interesting or powerful in the abstract, or when you hear about other people using them.  Then, as a teacher, when I use the tool for my own learning, I begin to see what I can do to help students apply the same lessons.

Here is a partial description of  technology tools I have used or plan to use in my classroom.  All of them are tools that I first used for my own purposes, and then seeing their usefulness, decided to integrate into my teaching.

Twitter – no, it’s not just a way to let people know that you’re at Starbucks.  As I learned from my friend Bill Ferriter, use Twitter to build a professional network and you’ll have a ready source of opinions and information on professional topics and resources.  (And if you’re on Twitter already, you can follow me, my co-bloggers Kelly Kovacic and Martha Infante, and also follow Accomplished California Teachers).  Or, check out the power of “crowdsourcing.”  When my students needed to conduct a survey of American teenagers, “tweeting” the request helped us connect with students around the country.  Last winter, we experienced a small earthquake during my 9th grade class – so small that half of my students didn’t even feel it.  As they continued working, I checked the website of the U.S. Geological Service, but found nothing updated yet.  I searched Twitter, and located not only the preliminary report on the quake, but had an instant list of people who’d felt the quake.  If I were teaching science, geography, or geology, think of the instant applications of that information.

The iPhone, iPad, iPod, Droid, and other networkable personal devices – last year I admonished a student for taking out her iPhone in the middle of a lesson.  She showed me that she was using her phone during class because we were studying “The Merchant of Venice” – and she had the iPhone application version of the complete works of Shakespeare on her phone.  Talk about the power of the purse – she had pulled out a device that could have also been used to view photos of Venice or costumes from various productions; we could have located the nearest upcoming production of the play, or downloaded a podcast from iTunes U to hear a college professor discuss the play.  (iTunes U has over 150,000 files of academic content, and can be accessed through iTunes.  Again, it’s a source I used for my own learning first, and then found files that my 9th and 10th graders could use as well).  Now that my school has an open wireless network and an increasing number of students carrying wireless devices, it’s time to unleash the power in their pockets.

Google Documents – this tool allowed me to collaborate with peers by working on a single copy of a document, instead of emailing attachments back and forth and trying to track versions and changes.  Now, students can share their drafts with me as often as we like, without worrying about printing and reprinting.  Students can share those drafts with as many people as they like, control everyone’s ability to edit, and recover prior copies if edits turn out poorly.  I also found out how to use Google Forms to make a survey, and after practicing that skill for my own uses, showed students how it could be used to gather and organize information.

Ning – at first, I thought Ning was just another cute name for just another web site.  Jim Burke invited me to try out the English Companion Ning, and so I signed up within the first day or two, and thought it was pretty cool to see dozens of other English teachers follow suit in a matter of days.  Now, as of the writing of this blog post, the EC Ning has 18,909 members.  Seeing how the platform could work, I started a Ning network for Accomplished California Teachers, and then once I was comfortable running a Ning, I made it the primary online tool for managing my classes.

Voicethread – I haven’t taken the leap yet to use Voicethread with my students, but it’s likely to be the next step.  This tool is another one that I thought wouldn’t be so useful, until I tried it.  (And once again, I owe it to Bill Ferriter).  Last year, I participated in an asynchronous, multi-day conversation about building professional learning communities, and saw first hand how helpful it was to gather people in a virtual sense around a certain question or idea, and then hear their voices (or read typed comments).

Garage Band – while I enjoy playing with the musical side of Garage Band (an audio application from Apple), I found that it was more vital to me to be able to record a voice.  Having now recorded an interview with my father, and some audio from public events involving me or my students, I’m now looking forward to having them try creating podcasts as a future option for sharing their work.

I could go on to discuss other uses of Google, wikis, and blogs, but you get the idea, I hope.  If my experience in technology in recent years demonstrate anything, it’s that technology implementation in education is more likely to occur when we are learning ourselves – learning not just how to use the tools in a technical sense, but more importantly, how to use them to meet our real needs.  As teachers, we need to spread the word within our own ranks, and share with our administrators and trustees just how these tools are helping our students learn.  From educational leaders outside the classroom, we need similar modeling.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a principal or district-level administrator invite staff to participate in a Voicethread conversation around a key idea or issue?  Wouldn’t it be helpful to have a school or department sharing bookmarks on Delicious, so that everyone teaching similar curriculum would be building up a collection of websites, podcasts, and videos that support that teaching?

And isn’t it about time to retire the “aw, shucks, I can’t use any of that new-fangled technology stuff the kids use” excuse?   If you’ve lived this long, and you believe in lifelong learning as one of your professional principles, then it’s time to do more than use email and Facebook.  You can’t lead a classroom or an educational community as effectively if you cheerfully admit you’ve stopped learning about how people are learning.  Let’s all make sure we’re adding to our tech tool box consistently, and then sharing our learning right on down the line.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Patten permalink
    July 30, 2010 9:33 am

    No kidding on the information literacy importance! Even the President of the United States and his leadership team haven’t quite mastered that one yet… (as evident by the USAD and Sherrod debacle.)

  2. kim permalink
    August 9, 2010 2:24 pm

    I am taking some “fun” classes from Learner’s Edge this summer. One class uses Will Richardson’s text Blog, Wikis, Podcasts. I have given myself permission to spend a few days surfing blogs. Thank you for verifying the fact that I am a life long learner who need to understand the web in order to navigate my students. I am trying:)

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