Try going anywhere urban and see if you can find someone without a smartphone or connected device of some kind. Virtually impossible in today’s wired(less) world. This holds true for schools as well. Both staff and student alike connected 24/7. This holds both potential and pitfalls for our education system.
Student information systems have been a part of everyday life for school staff for well over 20 years now. With this the presence of computers in the classroom has become a must. Teachers are required to input attendance daily and marks on an ongoing basis. Administrative staff use the system daily to adjust schedules, lookup demographic info, schedule courses, etc. Our reliance on computers has taken hold in some classrooms with teachers adopting connected tech to engage students.
Fast forward to 2016 and smartphones are a reality in every classroom (to varying degrees depending on socio-economic circumstances). What are we doing to harness the potential devices walking into our classrooms each and every day? Is there a sign on the door claiming no phones allowed? Is there a bucket at the front of the class where phones are deposited? Are students encouraged to record homework using Evernote or OneNote? Are apps like Remind being used to keep students on top of upcoming assignments? Is Google translator being used to help students understand a new language? Are videos being created to demo dissections in a biology class?
From my experience the reality is all of the above. Yes there are still the classrooms where devices are taboo and must be kept out of site but there are those classrooms that fully utilize the potential of these powerful portable computers. As an educator with a distinct bias towards use of technology to enhance both teaching and learning I cringe every time a device is handed to me after being confiscated. Students have a responsibility to ensure they are being responsible in their use of smartphones by not texting or snapchatting during class but we as educators also must recognize that these devices are here to stay and we can either resist or realize the Borg were right all along.
My overhead projector is blurry and can only focus on part of the screen at any one time. That makes writing notes on the overhead or putting up information problematic. The convenience of throwing up a word here and there makes the overhead a still useful technology but the fact that they are being discontinued will soon put them in the same pile as filmstrips and laser disc players. Enter the multimedia projector and my laptop to save the day. Why not take note-taking up a notch and use PowerPoint to wow and amaze? Sounds good on paper but the fact remains… it is still note-taking.
Now don’t get me wrong I still use PowerPoint, quite a bit in fact and I still insist, from time to time, that students take down notes. I believe this to be an important skill and something that will remain in our repertoire as long as post-secondary institutions still require this of their students. But I am moving towards using PowerPoint as a conversation starter and not a hand freezer. Posting notes online so students are free of copying every last word allows them to sit back and take in what the presentation has to offer. The key for me is being able to speak to each point and not overloading the screen with words and concepts. Pacing a PowerPoint is like pacing a good lesson, you recognize the purpose and try to get your point across in the most effective means possible. Adding graphics, sound and video clips pushes the presentation beyond the realm of overheads and into the digital era. Is this enough to capture the attention of your students, probably not but it is a start. We must be careful not to simply use technology as a replacement for technology. Sound complicated… remember the blurry overhead projector? 21st Century Learning has as its heart the engagement of the students. If technology can be a vehicle to that engagement then full speed ahead to the digital age and all the power to school boards to provide the infrastructure to make these tools more effective. Well it isn’t that simple… any good teacher knows that sound pedagogy is the heart of student engagement and no fancy toy can ever replace that. Using PowerPoint in the same monotone voice will only get you so far but showing your passion for the subject matter and changing up your lessons to provide variety and change of pace will always prove effective. Developing a PowerPoint lesson that takes into account areas for discussion, questioning and critical thinking fully utilizes the technology and makes it another choice for a teacher and another source of information and inspiration for a student.
I am more of a bells and whistle kind of guy. I enjoy the latest technology and consider myself an early adopter (if cost isn’t a major factor of course). So when my department opted to purchase 3 sets of whiteboards (portable dry-erase boards for student use) I was a little taken a back. I would much rather see iPads or Smart Boards put into classrooms, not plastic boards with markers and erasers. Far be it from me to discourage those in my department so we went ahead and now have 4 class sets of whiteboards spread out amongst the department (12 boards = 1 set). I still wasn’t sold on the idea and resisted using it until giving a lesson on Genetics and Punnett Squares and made a quick decision to have the students work out problems using the whiteboards… well I am now sold. The students did not hesitate in the least to complete the questions and worked cooperatively in groups of 3 or 4. I was able to quickly move around the room and instantly see where students were having difficulty and address the problems right away. By the end of the block all students had completed the questions without complaining or struggling individually at their desks.
I used the whiteboards 2 more times that day, once with my Biology 11 students on DNA and with my AP Biology class on Dehydration Synthesis / Hydrolysis reactions. It was so easy to do and took no effort at all. Instead of insisting students take notes or work individually at their desks they were able to talk, discuss, try, erase, try again with ease. Such a simple tool that took the potentially difficult and made it palatable for most. Of course I won’t be using it every class so the cache doesn’t ware off but I will definitely be using them more than I would have had I not made that spur of a moment decision to try something new.
Here is a link to Jacob Martens blog where you can find information on how to obtain your own set of whiteboards. Thanks go to Jacob for bringing this idea to the department last year.