Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"The Human Factor"

At a meeting recently, I heard a speaker refer to the use of technology in her school and subsequent questions arising from this as “ The Human Factor”. Will technology rob us of what is authentic in schools? Will technology invite us to abandon face to face communication? Will technology trivialize education? How do we preserve our humanity in this digital world? Perhaps you’ve heard some other permutation of these very valid concerns as our society becomes more digitally oriented.

My personal viewpoint is that technology enhances education and brings additional experiences to people. While there is no substitute for field trips, books and face to face conversations, these sorts of activities can be built upon and amplified for learners. The trick for teachers is to carefully think about how technology is being deployed in their classrooms. Are you using technology for technology’s sake within a lesson? Or, are you using digital tools to demonstrate a concept to your class in a new and exciting way? This can be difficult territory to navigate when trying to improve instruction.

An example of using technology just for its pizzaz factor would be the one I cited in my Jump In post. In my early technology adoption years, the glamour of technology enticed me to use it in pretty superficial ways. I’d like to think that I’ve evolved in my thinking and that my class projects have improved as a result. One such project of which I am particularly pleased was a result of a collaboration between my students at the Laboratory Schools and Steve Bergen’s students at the Chapin School in New York City. Using email as a communication tool, our kids were paired up to research various millennial terms. Each group compiled facts, cited their sources, and then Chapin students built web pages by hand using HTML. Lab students designed banners using Photoshop and critiqued their partners’ handiwork. We also talked about New York City and Chapin while viewing an image of the school's neighborhood using Google Earth. While the primary goal was to help students develop a sense of our digital world through the study of millennial vocabulary, these kids also learned to collaborate over distances and to hone their written communication skills. Additionally, they learned a bit about the lives of kids living in another city. This two week project worked for us because it was simple, purposeful, and had specific deadlines. And, I might add, the social component of interacting with other middle schoolers was certainly appealing to my students!

This year, I morphed this assignment and just kept the project in house as Steve was working with older students. Using a wiki I created in Wikispaces, my students worked in teams to create an encyclopedia of digital terms. They included hyperlinks to sources cited and relevant embedded videos from Google Video. My students used the discussion tabs of our wiki to communicate about their work and peer edited the rough drafts of the project. I surveyed the kids afterwards using Quia and the feedback was generally very positive. My point in bringing up these projects is that effective instruction should change and improve over time. No one should be teaching the same thing 25 times.

Clearly, as noted in this recent New York Times article entitled The Overconnecteds, kids are learning and communicating in different ways and I think we are doing them a disservice if we do not address their changing learning styles and interests. Good teachers make the material come alive for their students and technology can play a role in this. Let us not stay the Underconnecteds!

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