Innovative ways to use technology in the classroom

The academic year is well underway for the country. While the classrooms have already been neatly arranged and bulletin boards decorated, teachers are never really “all set” for the year. Quality educators are constantly looking for ways to improve their effectiveness in the classroom, and for millions of teachers at all levels, that means looking for ways to better use and/or integrate new technologies to enrich their students’ educational experiences.

Innovation begins in the classroom
Classroom instruction is intended to prepare students for real life, and real life demands innovation—creativity and novel approaches to aged problems. School is where students are supposed learn how to be productive members of society—i.e., participants in civic life, members of an increasingly tech-reliant and tech-savvy workforce and smart consumers of information, products and services. One cannot deny the importance of technology in the workplace and everyday life, so by extension, one cannot deny the importance of technology in the classroom.

As a tech startup founder and a parent, myself, I think that if you’re ignoring technology around students, you’re ultimately handicapping them. Students can only be considered adequately prepared for whatever comes after graduation if they have been exposed to technology, understand how it affects their daily lives and can effectively navigate new technologies and use them to achieve their goals. So, I believe that technology should be treated like a core subject, on par with math and language arts.

Rather than separating technology as its own discipline, the approach most educators favor is using technology to enhance every subject. Jill Naase, a first-grade teacher in the Albuquerque Public School system, talks about using free (and paid) online resources to “support the lack of science and social studies curriculum we face” as well as providing experiences for students “who won’t have many opportunities to travel to different parts of the world.” Yet integrating technology doesn’t stop with science and social studies. APS teachers and educators around the country are making use of websites and apps designed to improve math and spelling skills as well as technologies that allow students to remotely participate in class when health or family needs require extended absences.

Innovative tech implementations in the classroom
Most educators recognize that teaching tech as an isolated subject minimizes its usefulness and students’ ability to apply tech tools and resources from one domain to another. So, teachers face the challenge of meaningfully integrating technology into the larger classroom experience and across subject disciplines. And for teachers like Naase, that task does fall solely on the teachers’ shoulders as the district provides the hardware but not guidance for effective implementation.

Teachers who want to move past the boxed solutions, online textbooks and token time in computer labs may experiment with these methods of implementing technology in the student and instructional experience:
Mobile devices as tools to create learning resources
Instead of fighting with students to put their cell phones away or stop installing gaming or social apps on school-issued tablets, have students put those mobile devices to work making multi-media study guides that can be uploaded to YouTube or other virtual community space.

Implementation quick-starts:

  • Video tutorials covering new and/or complex concepts
  • Video tutorials that demonstrate or practice a new skill
  • Video role plays or dramatizations that capture effective communication

Why it works:
Students retain more when they actively interact with the material, and teaching requires the most interaction because it requires a higher level of cognitive mastery before the material can be accurately conveyed to someone else. Tasking students with making learning resources puts them in the role of the teacher where they must grapple with concepts and skills at a deeper level in order to effectively help others learn them. And, because the resources they create become timeless through online publishing, there is likely to be a deeper investment in the quality of the work.

Online quizzes, questionnaires and surveys as classroom assessment techniques (CATs) and emotional climate indicators
There are countless inventories, surveys, quizzes, etc. to help teachers get to know their students, help students get to know each other, assess what students get (and don’t get) about a recently introduced concept or skill, etc. But most of these resources are intended for print/duplication. They are distributed once, used once and then cease to be useful (yet not entirely environmentally friendly). By using any of the myriad free tools available, like Survey Monkey and Kahoot, teachers can move these quizzes online where the results can also be stored and used for comparison to help students and teachers see growth and change over time.

Also, online surveys and questionnaires allow a greater degree of anonymity, which often encourages a greater degree of personal disclosure. That means these online tools can be an effective way for teachers to gauge the emotional climate in their classrooms and detect bullying, loneliness and other situations at home or school that may affect students’ mental and emotional well being (which, in turn, affects students’ ability to effectively learn).

Implementation quick-starts:

  • Getting to know you survey that can be repeated throughout the year and at year-end
  • Online reflection to complement an online or hard copy portfolio (ideal for writing, art and other project-based/capstone subjects)
  • Weekly (or bi-weekly or monthly) classroom climate check survey

Why it works:
Online surveys, questionnaires and quizzes give students a specific task to accomplish with their school-issued mobile devices and/or at home. The easy-to-complete and/or gamified nature of many of online quizzes is engaging and fun yet educationally relevant. Back-end tools make it easy for teachers to know who completed the online exercises (or at least a count when anonymity is important) and store results for easy tabulation and comparison.

Skype and MrOwl for collaborative projects
Although the classroom is intended to prepare students for real life, students do not often see or feel the real-life connection because so many classroom experiences lack evident real-world relevance. Collaborative projects among students, with students across the country or the globe and/or with industry professionals lends authenticity and relevance to the learning experience. Because time, distance and cost are often limiting factors in building collaborations beyond school grounds, teachers need to rely on technology to bring the real world to their students. Video chat tools and online resources that allow for effective sharing, storage and organization of materials—everything from links to images to documents—make this type of expansive collaboration not only possible, but cost-effective.

Implementation quick-starts:
Teachers likely have their own ideas for collaborative projects. What they really need to get started is the know-how with the necessary tools. Laura Candler provides a wealth of resources for teachers wanting to get started with MrOwl, a “community interest engine” that provides the sharing, storage and organization capabilities students need at the same time it provides a safe online space where teachers do not have to worry about inappropriate content.

Why it works:
Collaborative projects are among the most educationally valuable experiences any teacher can create because they challenge students to practice hard and soft skills. By working in groups, with strangers and/or alongside industry professionals, students must hone their communication skills, which may even require them to address language and/or cultural barriers. Groups must face the challenge of assigning leadership, delegating tasks and mediating interpersonal conflicts. At the same time, students must meet deadlines and generate deliverables that demonstrate their understanding of the material, the learning process and “the point” of the entire project.

The challenge with any technology implementation in the classroom is the time it takes to research, prepare and then experiment and adjust. Most districts are beginning to recognize and accommodate teachers’ needs for more prep time and professional development opportunities to learn new technologies and tools and share best practices. However, some schools and districts may need encouragement from faculty, staff and parents to create daily and yearly academic schedules that make technology research and implementation part of teachers’ regular duties instead of additional ones to be done at the expense of teachers’ personal time (and budget).

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