Monday, January 19, 2009

Virtual Reading

"It now appears that books in the form so beloved by Uncle Alex and me, hinged and unlocked boxes, packed with leaves speckled by ink, are obsolescent. My grandchildren are already doing much of their reading from words projected on the fact of a video screen.
Please, please, please wait just a minute!
At the time of their invention, books were devices as crassly practical for storing or transmitting language, albeit fabricated from scarcely modified substances found in forest and field and animals, as the latest Silicon Valley miracles. But by accident, not by cunning calculation, books, because of their weight and texture, and because of their sweetly token resistance to manipulation, involve our hands and eyes, and then our minds and souls, in a spiritual adventure I would be very sorry for my grandchildren not to know about."

-Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, 1997

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Learning Through Technology: A Response to E-TIPS

In reading over Sara Dexter’s E-Tips [PDF], (how to integrate and implement technology in education) I’m wondering a few things.

She emphasizes the importance of using technology where it can enhance learning, only where it can further our learning objectives. This is, of course, essential. We want to choose the best of all resources to further our learning objectives. But is technology ever the objective itself? I get the sense that Dexter is arguing against technology for technology’s sake. Which, at first glance, sounds good. But what about objectives like proper keyboarding, technology/Internet safety, responsibility and ethics, the use of digital photo/video and editing, and web design? Some of these objectives could easily be integrated into the curriculum, but some are likely more effective as stand-alone lessons.

Secondly, while theoretically I agree that technology should only be used when it is driven by the desired learning outcome, one could make an argument that technology can support almost any learning outcome, if it is engaging to the students and therefore motivates their learning.

I think what’s really important in the integration of technology in the classroom is balance. I would not want to use technology to the point where face-to-face interaction was diminished or nonexistent, where pen-and-paper writing was rare, where information was found only online. But we live in a technological world now. Children are introduced to technology at a very young age, the vast majority of careers now utilize technology in some way, shape, or form. Using technology as either a platform or door for learning situates learning in real-world context.

I do, however, appreciate the emphasis on a collaborative and supportive school environment toward promoting an effective integration of technology. I have found that teachers are often left to discern how, when, and why to integrate technology into their classrooms on their own, with little technological or curricular support. This is not entirely surprising to me, despite the increased importance of collaboration in schools, I find that classrooms are still largely independent entities, “owned,” in a sense, by the individual teachers. I have seen a shift toward additional collaboration but still see resistance to it from some teachers who view it perhaps as an infringement on their classroom teaching or one additional task to take on, instead of viewing it as it should be viewed: as a way of improving teaching and learning and actually making our lives easier. I would add to the e-Tips by recommending that collaboration among teachers and within schools could itself incorporate technology. Teachers who couldn’t find enough time in the day could meet for 15 minutes or so in a chatroom without all having to be in the same physical location, they could create a grade level blog to discuss curriculum and pedagogy, choosing either to keep the blog and commenting private or to open it to the larger community.

While I think Sara Dexter offers some important ideas to think about regarding the implementation of technology, I think it is difficult to define a specific outline for doing so, as it depends largely on the school and its resources, the classroom, the teacher’s knowledge and the student interests. Of course, as is the case with all educational resources and goals, we have to choose carefully and consider our students before determining which path is best.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Little Bloggers

In ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology, Brenda Sherry writes in “Teddy Bears Go Blogging” about her successful use of this website to promote literacy, communication, and technological skills in the primary grades.

She utilized for second graders to communicate with a form of “pen pal”: her Canadian students exchanged teddy bears with students in Australia, and the students then chronicled the daily lives of those teddy bears, allowing students a glimpse into a foreign student’s life.

Writing for a purpose and audience are an essential component of the literacy curriculum in the primary grades; utilizing blogger for writing supports that goal in a very organic way: it’s not as contrived as many traditional assignments. Being able to see their writing published immediately provides students with a real sense of purpose to their writing.

The best aspect of blogger, in my opinion, is that it is the perfect venue for discourse. The moderated commenting allows the teacher to ensure safety and appropriate discussion, and can allow students to discuss amongst each other, as well as with parents, friends, relatives, and so on. It allows students who have difficulty writing or speaking for various reasons to participate in classroom dialogue and students can actually go back and look at how their thinking and discussion develops and deepens over time.

I would use blogger for almost anything, and in any grade. Literature circles, historical discussions, debates, science observations and inquiries, ‘publishing’ classroom art, and so on. It's a great way of integrating literacy and writing with content areas.

One idea in particular that could utilize blogger to teach across the curriculum is chronicling family history research. This can be done at a rudimentary level in the primary grades, increasing in complexity with age. Students can write vignettes about an ancestor – they could practice writing nonfiction using only the facts they know, and they could also extend that to writing historical fiction, using their imagination and the facts to develop a scenario for their ancestor. Students can then share their research and writing with immediate and extended family members, and use the blog as a place to centralize the pieces of history each family member might have.

In curriculums that incorporate social activism, students can use as a platform to raise awareness or discuss the issues at hand. Teachers can choose the audience: deciding whether to keep the dialogue only within the class, expand it to families, expand it to students in classrooms around the world, or the entire Internet audience, with the help of moderated comments to keep it G-rated.

The possibilities are endless. One could even dream that students might use it in the summer to continue learning.

A Radical Notion: Who Are Today's Learners? (Hint: Ask them.)

I played Atari when I was a kid. The first one. It had a joystick. That’s it. Now we have the Wii, the seventh generation of console games systems, which detects movements in three dimensions. And the Xbox with it’s 10 button wireless controller that vibrates, headsets, remotes, steering wheels, and so on. I still have one of these in my basement. 2 buttons and a directional. That’s as far as I’ve been able to come in the video game revolution.

I’ve fared better with computers.

Home computers entered the market a few years before I was born, but few people had them. The first time I ever used a computer was in fifth grade. We managed to get one computer, a MacIntosh, that we’d take turns on. It was great. Of course, no Internet then, but we played with that still-great Kid Pix.

Utterly amazed at this technology, I managed to convince my parents not long after that to get one. We still have it. The MacIntosh II. Simple word processing, simple games.

Later in middle school, the schools started to move to the idea of computer labs. We had one attached to the library. We played the original Oregon Trail. (I loved that game.) Back when floppy disks were floppy. And huge.

High school, we used computers to take typing classes. For word processing. Some spreadsheets. Still had that MacIntosh at the house.

We had a different computer some weekends, at my Dad's house. PC. Had Internet. Old-style, where you had to dial up, listen to the ringing and buzzing, and hope it would go through. That was 94, 95. Just when the World Wide Web was entering the mainstream. I was 14. I wouldn’t have full time access to the Internet until I went to college.

Funnily enough, as a member of my generation, called the Millennials, Generation Y, the iGeneration, the Net Generation, I’m old. The general earliest demarcation of the generation is 78. I was born a few years later. The last cutoff for the generation is about 2000. My experience, and that of a child born in 2000, or even 1990, is hugely different with respect to technology. I’m among the last of people who remember life before the Internet. I used card catalogues. I wrote letters. I had a Pen Pal I bought international postage for. I bought CDs. Well, records, tapes, and then CDs. I used phone books and asked people for directions. Or got a trip ticket from Triple A. I wrote, privately, in my diary. I had to call people to stay in touch. I had to call the movie theater, and listen to the whole automated thing to find out what time my movie was playing. I researched in the encyclopedia. Britannica. I called my friends before I left the house to tell them I would be there in 10 minutes. I made tapes by putting one boom box next to the other and keeping my finger on the record button.

Not a single one of the students I will teach will know that life.

Perhaps more importantly, I won’t know theirs. Technology may be the most significant realm of the curriculum where teachers now entering the field must be prepared to learn from their students. Constructivist theory shows us the importance of learner backgrounds, of meeting our students where they are, so to speak, to connect new learning with personal experience to make education meaningful.

Christine Greenhow’s article, Who Are Today’s Learners? provides an excellent starting place for doing this. She reports on a survey of attitudes, use and knowledge of technology in today’s students. The survey also does what some might call radical, what I would call necessary: asks students their recommendations. Their advice for teachers.

Students report enjoying technology the most in their school day, and recommend engagement on their level of technology use (outside the traditional educational uses such as word processing, spreadsheets, research). Students imagined “more “creative,” “interactive,” and “media-oriented,” classrooms” where wireless, portable technologies were the norm. They also recommended “loosening up” restrictions on technology and incorporating some of the technologies they use at home into the classroom, such as “mobile computing and Web 2.0.”

Web 2.0 includes things like blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and video sharing sites, among just to name a few. Some in the field look at Web 2.0 as the “participatory Internet,” while Web 1.0 is “Information-source Internet.”

If you’re anything like me, stuck somewhere around Web 1.5, this site may be of interest, linking to a plethora of sites considered Web 2.0.

The World Wide Web is often the only place I feel old. My sister, only seven years younger than me, knows her way around Facebook much better than I, always knows the latest mp3 site, and is constantly introducing me to cool new sites.

If we can keep up, we can do some pretty great things in the class through technology. Social networking across the globe to raise awareness about the cause students are working on. Comparing cultures by sharing pictures with students thousands of miles away. Chat rooms for homework help or literature discussions. And so on.

We’re probably always going to be playing catch-up. But we’re lucky. We’ve got our students to teach us.