Author Archive

June 18, 2009

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

It’s the first day of English class. You’re sitting in the third row, near the middle, minding your own business. Your teacher hands out a contract and announces that each student, and their parent or guardian, must sign and return it. The agreement reads something like this:
“I understand that my access to pencils is dependent upon my commitment to use pencils appropriately. I understand that the purpose of pencils is educational. Specifically, I will not use pencils for any commercial purposes, to infringe on any intellectual property rights, to distribute chain letters, or to libel or defame any person. I will not attach any peripheral equipment to my pencil without school permission. I understand that should I break this agreement, my access to pencils will be revoked and disciplinary action taken.”
You immediately realize that you are already in violation and surreptitiously remove the Hello Kitty eraser head from the top of your pencil, praying that no one has noticed, and trying your best to look innocent.
Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But substitute the word “computer” for “pencil” and you have a reasonable facsimile of the acceptable use contracts routinely distributed in classrooms from coast to coast.
Responsible use documents began appearing back in the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that the World Wide Web was becoming a permanent fixture in the classroom. It seemed prudent to administrators, school attorneys, and educators to set some perimeters for this learning tool. Then they installed filters on school networks to contain the information available on school sites (Although resourceful students quickly learn how to navigate around them—Last month, I witnessed a fourth grader circumvent a district filter by deftly redirecting his search through google.ca instead of google. us.) Inadvertently, those perimeters fueled the fear for many classroom teachers. They proceeded with caution. A couple of years ago, the National School Board Association released a report proposing that, perhaps, fears of the Internet use in school were overblown.
Even though it’s decidedly uncool to admit it, there still lingers a fear factor when it comes to computer use in schools, generated in part by the long list of don’ts, administrative cautions about inappropriate sites, lurking strangers, our litigious society, and other calamities astir when students access the Internet in school. Those cautionary tales are often compounded by the teacher’s self perceived lack of “tech savvy.” The fears simply outweigh the benefits for some educators. I encountered this recently, while working with faculty members and students in a large middle school. “I’m still afraid of the Internet,” confided one teacher. “I don’t want to be responsible for all of the things that can go wrong when students are unleashed. I know I can’t watch them all every minute.” I pointed out that students are using the Internet anyway. A recent study in the UK indicates that students are averaging a whopping 31 hours a week on the Internet, mostly for socialization and entertainment. The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Youth Project details how students learn and interact through the World Wide Web. Other teachers pass the buck. “If my kids need to use the Internet, I send them to the media center and let the media specialist deal with it,” another teacher told me.” That’s part of her job.”
That fear is certainly not confined to the United States. A quick Google search reveals that teachers in the UK are struggling with the same issues “afraid of technology, while underestimating the impact of students’ experience in technology outside school” while the Director of Education in Saudi Arabia is implementing teacher training programs designed to “break the technological fear barrier.” There’s even a guy on the Internet who promises to eliminate fear of computers by rerouting your bioenergy system—at a thousand dollars a pop.
There is a less expensive solution available.
It’s occurred to a number of folks that, if our students are spending massive amounts of time on the Internet anyway, perhaps we are all better off embracing the truth of that, and teaching them how to become responsible digital citizens. Mike Ribble and Gerald Bailey quantified and elaborated on the concept of digital citizenship by developing and describing nine themes of effective digital citizenship. These educators from Kansas State University’s College of Education spell it out plainly: Kids are not simply not going to become responsible and thoughtful users of technology unless we teach them how to be. ISTE supports this with a student NET standard cultivating responsible digital citizenship. And the new NAEP standards coming down the pike for 2012 remind educators that the time to take that leap is now.
There are a number of excellent sites that provide balanced information and training for educators and administrators to pass on to students. One of my favorites comes out of the UK. Digizen points out that digital citizenship “isn’t just about recognizing and dealing with online hazards. It’s about building safe spaces and communities, understanding how to manage personal information, and about being internet savvy – using your online presence to grow and shape your world in a safe, creative way, and inspiring others to do the same.” The site provides a range of information, ideas, and resources on just how to develop that in your home and classroom. Another excellent resource, Digital Citizenship, builds on Ribble and Bailey’s nine themes of digital citizenship education and pairs them with helpful links. The United State government developed a kid friendly site on cyberethics. Netsmartz provides games, activities, and videos that promote cybersafety. Students themselves are getting in on the act: Minor Elementary School in Lilburn, Georgia has developed a webquest on “safe surfing”.
Like any true change, digital citizenship is a learned and gradual process. It begins with awareness, follows with education, application, and lots of practice, and culminates in fluent use, evidenced by the choices that students make about the ways they access and use technology.
Are Internet safety issues real? Of course. Responsible teachers and parents must work together to find the delicate balance between censorship and information, common sense and fear. Surprisingly, the “what ifs” we fear most—online predators, stalking strangers, explicit sites—take a backseat to the single greatest Internet threat facing students today. Art Wolinsky, of Wired Kids, (who, by the way, originally came up with the clever substitute-pencil-for-computer illustration at the top of this blog) talked to me recently about Internet safety. “The greatest threat to students on the Internet is cyberbullying, “he said. He went on to tell me that a whopping 85 percent of students reported either participating or being the victim of online bullying. “It is need for education on all fronts. It is education, and intervention, that is most needed, and will do the most good.”

12:06 PM Permalink
May 29, 2009

The Long Climb of Technology Infusion

There’s always gonna be another mountain…we’re always gonna want make it move.”
Mylie Cyrus’ new tune (that’s right…..I’m quoting Hannah Montana….have I been working in elementary schools too long?) may have been targeted at tweens, but it could become our official Educator’s Anthem. After all, relevant education must keep in tandem with the times and culture. It’s no news that today’s teachers continually face new challenges. In the 21st century, that often means committing to the long upward climb of technology competency—acquiring skills, keeping abreast of new resources, and figuring how to apply them in the classroom to power up student learning.
One of the Everests looming on our horizon is the technology requirement that is being added to the national cocktail of standardized testing. Technology competency testing is on its way down the pike. NAEP is set to release a trial run this fall, targeted to be finalized by 2012. The goal is student demonstration of problem solving in technology rich environments. Wow. That sounds exciting. Rigorous academics combined with rigorous creativity and rigorous thinking skills. That’s substantial education! The directive is clear: infusion, not inclusion. (That’s edutalk for shaken, not stirred.) But, what, exactly, is the difference?
Most of today’s classroom teachers are comfortable with technology inclusion. It’s been around since Bank Street Writer introduced us all to the magic typewriter. Walk in most classrooms today, and you will see students using software programs to supplement or extend learning in some way. That’s inclusion. But try to place these activities on the New Bloom’s Taxonomy and you may find that they fall squarely on the bottom every time. Too often, the fingers may be moving, but the mind remains at rest.
Infusion is another paradigm altogether. It uses technology as a tool for critical and creative problem solving and communication. The word may conjure up images of students physically immersed in the Cone of Learning, Vulcan style (you had to See the new Star Trek movie to pick up on this visual), but it really means bringing technology into partnership with traditional programs. Learning is still curriculum based, but creative technology applications are woven through the curriculum. The students become active shapers of this form of learning. The teacher acts as a frameworker and manager, using multiple literacies to weave together standards and disciplines, identifying and applying appropriate tools to ensure relevant information literacy, integrating information and research skills to solve problems, and designing rubrics collaboratively with students so that all learners can effectively access the learning process. That’s the kind of stuff you find at the pinnacle of Bloom’s pyramid.
It sounds great, and it is. But it leads us to our next question: How the heck do we teach teachers how to do this? We are coming up on thirty years of technology instruction for teachers and technology resources for the classroom. The inclusion piece is firmly in place. The idea of infusion is still a long way away. Technology coaches Melanie Holtsman and Dayle Timmons have a few suggestions.
Melanie and Dayle are leading the climb at Chets Creek Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida. Together, they share the role of campus technology coach. Dayle works with K-2 teachers and Melanie focuses on the intermediate grades. Their mission: to infuse technology into the elementary classroom.
I’ve been following Melanie’s blog for a while, and decided to visit the campus a few weeks ago. Evidence of technology infusion is everywhere—from the Principal’s Book Club project to the second grade weekly news show. “We’re making strides with students,” explained Melanie, “but we are most excited about the changes we are making with teachers, because that’s where the real change happens.” Melanie was interested in the possibilities of technology in the classroom, and began following a blog by a classroom teacher in New Zealand. “She just talked like a teacher: here’s what I did, here’s how I did it, and this is what I learned. It encouraged me to think that I could do these things, too. Things turned around for me when I made the transition from thinking of technology as a “cute” add on to the curriculum to a way to make learning more purposeful,” she explained. “And the big surprise was that these activities weren’t necessarily harder. It takes as much time—maybe even more—to find and print a black line activity on Native Americans as it does to find a You Tube Interview with a Native American chief, describing his life and culture in today’s context. I made the connection with working smarter, not harder.”
At this point, relates Melanie, she decided to become a risk taker. “I began to make what I was doing transparent. I wanted other teachers to see that using technology—rethinking the role of technology in learning—actually made things easier for the teacher.”
“Teachers have so much on their plates,” added Dayle. “They work on a ‘need to know’ basis. So, we invite them to join us in learning projects. We don’t say ‘Here’s something you have to learn.’ We show them what’s in it for them—we spell out how it grabs students and engages them, how it addresses critical and creative thinking skills, and how it meets multiple standards.”
The technology coaches use a range of 2.0 technologies to introduce their teachers and their classrooms to learning through technology. “We introduce an idea, and say ‘This is an opportunity’. Everyone who participates moves forward a little bit—some teachers make leaps. We have a core group of teachers who’ve kept with it, and they are growing into team leaders for technology infusion. Teachers at Chets Creek are very open about sharing what they know with their colleagues,” Melanie says. “Teaching and learning are always about collaboration—you rise and fall with your team. We are always trying to encourage each other to think bigger about what we are doing in the classroom. Collective wisdom causes you to think deeper.”
Chets Creek accomplishes a great deal with a modest array of hardware. Every classroom is equipped with two desktop computers, a document camera, an LCD projector, and a DVD player. Each teacher has a laptop computer. The media center has the standard rounds of desktop computers for student research and the electronic catalog system. “We do a lot with free applications,” explains Melanie. “We want teachers to have a feeling for the range of resources out there.” For example, the faculty keeps a free blog site. Teachers attending state, national, and international conferences are asked to take along their laptops, and use them to share ideas, lessons, and reflections with teachers back home. Melanie and Dayle showed teachers to use Voice Thread to collaborate on a digital story to share with the student body. They used Vimeo to host classroom videos on a wide range of subjects (Our teachers love flip cameras,” says Melanie. They are so easy to use. And so inexpensive!”). Glogster becomes the tool of choice to communicate through imagery and text.
The greatest change brought about by technology infusion? “Teachers get excited about learning,” says Melanie. “When that happens, it rejuvenates the whole system.”

4:20 PM Permalink
May 12, 2009

Redefining the Role of the Teacher

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot
read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and
relearn.”—Alvin Toffler

Today’s educators teach in times that are both exciting and demanding. Many of us have witnessed—and have contributed to—significant shifts in education. Sometimes, we find that those shifts push us outside our comfort zones.
Without doubt, digital media plays a key role in the shaping of this new world. It brings a universe of information to our doorstep at the stroke of a key. It enables connection and collaboration, on a global scale—any time, and anywhere. It has created a whole new breed of learners and communicators, many of whose interests and focus lay beyond the classroom walls. And it holds deep implications for the future form, and role, of educators.
The Digital Youth Project, an in-depth study commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation, takes a close look at the way that students communicate and learn through digital media. That study, and its corresponding book, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media, spell out a serious disconnect between the 20th century lens through which many educational institutions view the instructional process, and the world that exists “beyond the bell” for today’s students.
This conceptual, informational age, and the children who have been born into it, casts a new light on the role of the teacher. Long accustomed to our traditional role as the “Purveyor of Information”, we suddenly find ourselves displaced in that particular arena. We just don’t have a corner on that market any more. Our job description has changed. The plain truth is, that, in order to remain relevant, our role must be redefined. But how? The answer to that seems to be organic in nature—a grassroots response of educators who are meeting their students where they are, who are making learning and communication relevant within the context of the world as it is today, and who keep an eye forward to the ultimate goal of developing true Digital Citizens.
So, what are savvy teachers doing today to acknowledge their interests and learning preferences, to hone into the ways that they perceive and use the world of information and to prepare them for responsible participation in a 21st century world? That’s a big question. And the models for that are everywhere.
Through my work, in schools of every configuration and level, I begin to see a few ubertrends of forward thinking educators:
Teachers as Frameworkers: These educators do a great deal of planning, organization, and management up front. They feel that it frees them up to work alongside their students as coaches and guides. These teachers are very likely to be open to learning alongside their students. Robert Miller, 4/5 grade teacher at Port Orange Elementary, in Port Orange, Florida, is an excellent example of this.
“I spend a tremendous amount of time on planning and management,” Robert says. “You have to have a well planned infrastructure. After you have established that, you have to be willing to take the risk of turning learning over to the students. I give the objective, describe the outcome, and we work together to establish the criteria. After that, I grow, observe, amend, and expand with them—managing, editing, and learning alongside their experiences.”
Teachers as Connectors: These teachers embody pure genius when it comes to bringing a world of learning to the doorsteps of their students. The process can be as simple as finding, and persuading, the right speakers, mentors, and specialists to participate in the life of the classroom, to creating and participating in connective software and Nexus points that broaden the view and knowledge base of students. New breeds of educators, like Roxana Hadad of Northwestern University’s Collaboratory Project, specialize in their role as edu-connectors.
“I’m not really a teacher by trade,” Roxana said. “I see myself as someone who uses available technology, in combination with sound pedagogy, to connect students, teachers, the community and industry. I try to encourage collaboration in a way that’s beneficial to all parties that are involved. Technology alone does not initiate collaboration. One has to create an environment that promotes critical observation and discussion. The goals have to be clear to everyone, with an understanding that we will only get to where we want to go with conversation.”
Teachers as Enablers: Magda Kahn, ESL instructor at Groves High School in Garden City, Georgia, was inspired by a digital storytelling workshop offered by the Massie Heritage Center in Savannah, Georgia. Ms Kahn quickly admits that her technology skills were basic. “I learned a great deal by working through the digital storytelling process myself,’ she says. “ I began to understand the power of technology and its relevance to learning. My big challenge was finding a way to translate it to the classroom.” She identifies two hurdles: her lack of technical expertise, and the constraints of current educational requirements.
“My philosophy (about technology inclusion) is ‘We’re all in this together’,” she explains. “If I’m trying to take my students through a step in the technological process, and I get lost, I ask them to help me through it. I have to be willing to learn with them. Sometimes, I will ask each student to identify a function on the toolbar or menu, spend some time exploring it, and prepare a short expository presentation on that skill. That way, my students meet the ESL goals of written and oral language, while we all become more proficient at technology.”
When we embrace the notion that how we teach is as crucial to the learning process as what we teach, we naturally begin to expand and reexamine our roles as teachers. As we reach into the world of our students, the everyday business of teaching and learning transforms into a shared, creative journey. And isn’t that when teaching, and learning, really start to matter?

5:19 AM Permalink
May 9, 2009

Is Piaget Déclassé?

Let’s face it. We love technology. We just do. It’s captivating, creative, and, yes, it’s hip. Most of us who bother to read posts like this one dedicate some time and effort to building our geek cred. If some technology is good, more must be better. We know what it adds to the learning arena. If it empowers high school students, engages middle schoolers, powers up cross curricular learning for elementary age students, it must do phenomenal things for babies and toddler, too. Right?
Many parents think so. Technology and digital media for babies is big business, infused into the earliest lives of our children. Consider the popularity of Baby Einstein videos or the wealth of software developed specifically for babies and toddlers. They have their own hardware, too! Check out the Comfy Easy PC Keyboard for babies, marketed through Baby Genius. Does this early exposure work? Are kids getting smarter, faster?
Not necessarily, say Dr. Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman, both of the University of Washington. Their research doesn’t bear up the benefits of toddler targeted technology. In fact, their study indicates that too much early exposure to these tools actually delays language development and over stimulates the babies, making it difficult for them to concentrate later on in life. The researchers worry that parents might believe that these products serve as a valid replacement for human interaction.
“Babies require face-to-face interaction to learn,” says Dr. Vic Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University Of New Mexico School Of Medicine. “They don’t get that interaction from watching TV or videos. In fact, the watching probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.”
So, when do we begin to infuse technology into the world of learning? Susan Haughland, a researcher with the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, believes that preschool is the best time to introduce the computer.
“Computers in the preschool and kindergarten classroom have great value when they are used in a developmentally appropriate way,” said Susan Haughland from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Compared to children in a similar classroom without computer experience, three-and four-year olds who used computers with supporting activities had significantly greater gains in verbal and nonverbal skills, problem solving, abstraction, and conceptual skills.”
If you want to know the secret of life, or just about anything else, ask a kindergarten teacher. I found several with plenty to say about the meaningful integration of technology into the kindergarten schoolscape.
“Technology is integral to the kindergarten classroom,” explains Patricia Kershner, a career kindergarten teacher, “because that’s the way today’s world works, and the job of the teacher is to prepare them for that world.” Kindergartners learn by experiencing a concept in many formats, she explains, and often need to work with a concept over and over in order to really understand it. “ It’s (technology) not a substitute for doing, or for sensorial experiences, or for good teaching, but the right computer activities can supplement and enrich students in unique ways. The computer has the added advantage of providing visual and auditory information and improves their eye-hand coordination. In the right context, it is also a forum for social and creative expression.” It comes down to knowing your students, she adds.
Colin Lankshear and Llana Snyder, authors of Teachers and Technoliteracy (Allen and Unwin, 2000) agree. “The role of the teacher is to move students from information to knowledge,” they write. Technology and digital media can contribute to this. “But,” they advise, “We have to make sure that technology serves educational needs and not the other way around.”
So, maybe Piaget, with his classic developmental stages and his concrete-to-abstract philosophy, has something of value to contribute to technology education in the elementary school. But just how do we approach technology education from a developmental perspective?
I like to provide physical models for my young students. For example, I press a jewelry box, with many drawers, into service to illustrate the drives of a computer. Fixing an image of a computer to the back of the box, I label each one of the drawers on the front face accordingly: desktop, peripheral, A Drive, C Drive, D drive, H drive. I print out a series of miniature photos and documents, and place them into the various drawers of the jewelry box. Using the drawers as an analogy for computer drives, I am able to show my students how the files can be moved from one drive to another, how files are integrated, and so forth. It isn’t high tech, but it’s effective—and it helps my students make that leap to the abstract functions of computer use and management.
Concrete to abstract learning applies to software skills as well. My primary age students use a manual cropping tool—a cardboard square with the center removed—to manually isolate an area of their photo. I demonstrate the way that technology can be used to crop photos and help them make the connection between the two processes. These same students select and manipulate real objects to create collages that represent the details of a story, or that express a concept visually, and then create a scan or a digital photograph of their work. Later on, these same students learn how to create images by layering and manipulating a portfolio of imagery using Adobe Photoshop Elements. Another of my favorite metaphors is to demonstrate the notion of layering images with Photoshop Elements by showing my students a stack of clear report covers, each with an image or drawn on them, a phrase added, or a color added to the mix. As I begin to stack the images, adding more detail, students begin to make the connection to the layering process of Photoshop Elements software. The same is true for storyboarding tools and digital storytelling software. We begin with a low tech mix of index cards, scotch tape, using yellow sticky notes to edit, add, and explain. Inelegant, but effective (and inexpensive!). My youngest students manually manipulate the visual and textual elements of their story, so that they can better understand the digital manipulation of slides and video insertions in storytelling software.
Want more ideas for developmentally appropriate technology instruction? Check out these suggestions from Susan Brooks, co-founder of Internet4Classrooms. Susan Krill from Southwestern School District in Hanover, Pennsylvania, has compiled a comprehensive technology link that exposes young children to information literacy, traditional literacy and learning through technology, creating with technology and age appropriate computer skills.
I think Piaget would be proud, don’t you?

12:31 PM Permalink