Friday, April 1, 2011

Using Technology to Transform Teaching & Learning

Students’ use of digital tools should be promoted in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.  Without a broader vision, technology may merely automate what has always been done.  Using PowerPoint as part of a lecture is an example of automation, regardless of how interesting and informative the lecture is.  Similarly, students in a computer lab may complete the same problems that previous students solved on a worksheet.  With automation, nothing has really changed.   Techno-cheerleaders, as explained in the previous blog post, may assume that technology automatically yields benefits, but that is not the case.  
Focusing on a broader vision for teaching and learning increases the likelihood that technology will transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices.  In York County, Virginia, our efforts to tap into students’ interest in digital tools are occurring in the context of our efforts to engage students in rigorous work.
Designing students’ work with digital tools so that it reflects the Schletchy Center’s design qualities helps us realize the potential of technology integration. 
Design Qualities That Promote Student Engagement
Product Focus:  Are digital tasks and activities structured so that what students learn is linked to a product, performance, or exhibition to which the student attaches personal value?  Tabb Middle School Algebra students recently created tutorials in Animoto to teach solving two-step equations, converting fractions to decimals, and other skills. They then posted the instructional videos on the class web site. 
Similarly, students in an Algebra class at York High School recently used cell phones, flip cameras, and video cameras to record the answers to an exam review on topics such as algebraic properties and solving inequalities.  They posted the videotaped answers on the class web site and on SchoolTube. 
The teachers report that their students took this work seriously because they wanted their explanations to be accurate and easy for their peers and others to understand.  As Alan November explains, publishing student work on the web gives students a compelling sense of leaving a legacy.  November states in Empowering Students with Technology,
As children grow up, they have a developmental need to know that they can make a difference and be productive in society.  Using communications technology to add value to the world is one way to teach students that they can make a difference and that their work is important.”  (p.43)
Affirmation of Performance:  Are we designing digital tasks and activities so that the work of students is visible to persons who are important to students?  Is it clear to students that the quality of their performance matters to peers and others whose opinions matter to students?  Students at the Waller Mill Elementary Fine Arts Magnet School are preparing for a film festival during which each class will screen one or more videos for popcorn-eating visitors, such as “Math Wars” and “Rock Cycle Video.”  Although Oscars will be awarded, the public display of work will be even more affirming. 
A fourth grade teacher at Bethel Manor Elementary School arranged a videoconference with one of her student’s parents who was deployed in the Middle East.  The student treasured reading a story that he had written to his deployed father.  She certainly felt affirmed by this school-to-family connection.
Affiliation:  Are we designing digital tasks so that students have the opportunity to work with peers, parents, outside experts, and other adults, including, but not limited to the teacher?  A Yorktown Middle School student loved connecting with survey respondents from throughout the world.  She created a health survey as part of the study on global obesity that she was doing for a culminating IB Middle Years Programme project.  She enlisted friends and staff members in seeking responses via e-mails and Twitter.  By the end of the first week, she received more than 200 responses from the United States, Canada, Korea, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.  Energized by the global affiliation through the survey, she is analyzing her results using Excel.
Novelty and Variety:  Are we giving students the opportunity to use a wide range of tools in a variety of ways?  Seventh grade English students at Grafton Middle School worked collaboratively with one another using a variety of tools (GoogleDocs, MovieMaker, PowerPoint and Audacity) to create and publish  presentations regarding the Holocaust. 
Choice:  Do our students have the opportunity to choose either what they are to learn or how they learn?  Students will be more engaged if they frame questions to answer and identify problems to solve  even with significant guidance and structure from the teacher. 
Authenticity:  Are we linking the work of students to topics of interest to students?  In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and the start of the nuclear crisis in Japan, York High School students videoconferenced with a teacher eighty miles from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.  Student interest in the crisis in Japan drew them into this lesson.

Designing student work with digital tools that reflects rigor also helps realize the potential of technology integration.  In creating student work, we should focus on rigor as envisioned by Tony Wagner, rather than traditional notions of rigor which emphasize covering content.  Wagner emphasizes that in a rigorous school, student work involves the following skills:
·         Critical thinking and problem solving;
·         Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
·         Agility and adaptability;
·         Initiative and entrepreneurialism;
·         Effective oral and written communication;
·         Accessing and analyzing information; and
·         Curiosity and imagination.

Skills:  Are we designing work with digital tools that requires problem solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication and other skills, often referred to as 21st century skills?  Students at Yorktown Middle School create a weekly, school-wide broadcast with news and feature stories.  The students choose story topics, write the scripts, film each segment, edit footage, and assess their broadcasts.  They overcome technical difficulties, cancelled interviews, and other challenges as they work to meet their deadlines.
These students have a sense of ownership of their work, rather than just seeing it as an assignment from their teacher.  Their teacher plays a key role, helping students choose story topics and suggesting approaches to stories for their consideration, but the students have a strong sense of responsibility for their learning and work.  This teacher’s approach reflects the philosophy that Alan November articulates as he advocates shifting control to students so that they own the learning.  As November observes, “the process of shifting control of who owns the problems can result in some of the most motivated and focused student work possible.”  (p.55)

The Rigor/Relevance Framework, developed by the International Center for Leadership in Education (, integrates the knowledge taxonomy and an application continuum.  The framework shows the connection between levels of rigor, as reflected by the knowledge taxonomy, and relevance, involving the application of knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.  Applying knowledge to unpredictable situations is the highest level of application.

Rigor/Relevance:  Does student work with digital tools develop cognitive skills throughout the knowledge taxonomy and involve adaptation and application of knowledge and skills?  Fourth grade students at the Yorktown Elementary School Math, Science, and Technology Magnet participate in the Stock Market game ( Students manage a virtual portfolio, starting with a $100,000 balance, analyzing investment opportunities via the internet to assess which stocks to buy and sell to try to increase the value of their portfolio.  They work in teams, taking turns serving as captain, researcher, trader, and checker.  Cleary, they are applying knowledge and skills as they invest in the volatile, unpredictable stock market. 

These examples illustrate the power of promoting the use of digital tools in the context of a broader vision of teaching and learning.   They reflect an assumption that the use of digital tools is not the ultimate goal, but rather a means to an end.  As Alan November emphasizes in Empowering Students with Technology, “The real problem is not teaching technology skills.  Many of our students can learn about technology as fast as-if not faster than-adults.  What our students cannot learn on their own, and what makes teachers more important than ever, is the urgent need to teach critical thinking and global communication skills.” (p.32)  Clearly, using digital tools to engage students in rigorous work can help transform teaching and learning, rather than just automating old practices!

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