Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Well Equipped Computer Lab - Feedback Encouraged!

I have the wonderful opportunity (and responsibility) to research and select some software for our elementary school computer labs. I have a moderate budget, but it is enough to purchase 3-5 new titles depending on costs. The committee will meet throughout this year and hopefully make its decision by March. I am very interested in the feedback of others, both within the district and elsewhere.

We currently have some software in the labs that are still being used. This is an opportunity to fill in some gaps. I also want to go on record as stating that I recognize that there are many websites, free or otherwise, that can meet some of our needs. However, as we collect websites for specific skills and concepts, we are learning that there are often drawbacks to many of them, whether it is the fact that they are not part of a cohesive program that can track progress and individualize instruction or that they have many distracting elements on the screen.

I also feel strongly that the core of our software should be constructivist in nature, giving students the opportunity to create, analyze, and communicate. Still, I believe there is value in software the focuses on specific skills (like math operations, for example) if it can allow for regular formative assessments that inform and direct learning for each student.

I am interested in your thoughts about the following questions:

1. What are the most important concepts that need to be covered by this software?

2. What specific titles have you seen or used that we should be looking at?

3. What titles do you recommend specifically for our kindergarteners who often don't have appropriate software in the lab available to them?

4.  Any other thoughts you have about software in elementary computer labs would be appreciated.

Thanks for your feedback.

Computer Lab

Computer Lab

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Broader Definition of Literacy

In my interactions with teachers from all over the district, I often come across people who wonder why technology seems to be taking over schools. When I talk with Language Arts teachers and tell them that we need to redefine language arts to include a broader definition of literacy that includes media and hyperlinked texts, I often get strange looks as if I am upsetting the very foundation on which we are standing. In some ways, I guess I am. Let me be clear. I am a firm believer in the importance of reading and writing. I love books in every sense of the word. I do not read ebooks just for the sake of saying that I can. But reading in today’s society is not the same as it was when we were in school, or even as it was 5 years ago. A huge shift has taken place. Reading takes place online as often as it does in books. Reading today include hyperlinks to other pages instead of linear books with tables of content. Reading today means access to everyone’s opinions, not just two or three expert authors. It means sifting through large amounts of information to find what is valid, up to date, and relevant. Reading today means multimedia embedded into the text. Interpreting media is a different skill than interpreting text. Our students need to be taught how to do this. They need practice and opportunity.

Now I can hear a few of you grumbling about how awful this is for our society. The amount of worthless information and the legitimate concerns of access to inappropriate information are valid issues. But ignoring them and pretending that our students will not access these sources of information is scarier to me. We need to include these skills and concepts as part of our language arts program, not some separate course that implies that technology does not impact all areas of learning.

What about writing? I often hear teachers talk about the fact that we need to focus on writing more in our curriculum. I agree. But what is writing? Has it changed too? When I was in school, I wrote on lined paper and spent countless hours rewriting in my best handwriting. Was that time well spent? Is it time well spent today? My audience was my teacher. My goal was a good grade. Today’s students have a global audience. They write on MySpace, Facebook, personal blogs, wikis, IM, chats, and many more online tools that allow their message to be seen by many others. I understand the inherent dangers in this. However, I think like all things new, we overemphasize the dangers and deemphasize the benefits. It is in our nature to be fearful and cautious. That’s not a bad thing, but we need to start recognizing the benefits of online collaborative tools that give students a global audience.

Unfortunately, this is where the discussion often ends. We tell teachers they should use these tools, but we often don’t continue the discussion to include examples of how these tools can transform their classroom. Let me give you a couple of scenarios that I think are excellent examples of language arts teaching.

1.    Students research a relevant topic to the curriculum. They learn how to search for, analyze, and organize information in both print and electronic formats. Discussions about the benefits of both help students learn when to choose each one. Note taking takes place online in a wiki. We use a wiki in Moodle so that only students who are in the class can view the wiki. However, students can view each others notes, sharing resources and adding to each others’ notes. A discussion tab in the wiki allows students and the teacher to offer feedback to the students. From the research, students can present information in a variety of ways, including written reports, multimedia presentations, podcasts, video, and others. In the case of the written report, students might use a tool like Google docs to write their report online. In this way, a group of students could collaborate on their report together from school or from home.
2.    Students respond to literature online. Through blogs, forums, and other formats, students can journal about what is happening in class. Not only can the teacher view students’ thoughts, so can the rest of the class and the greater community. As students respond to literature, other people can respond, adding their opinions and expertise on the subject. We often talk about the negative aspects of the greater community responding to what we write about, but what about the positive aspects? Imagine that an expert in the area being discussed comes across the blog and responds to the group. For example, let’s say your class is reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and as students blog about it, a Holocaust survivor responds with their thoughts. Or perhaps you are reading The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell and you get a response from someone who is a pearl diver, or expert on manta rays or Mexico. How does this enrich your discussion? How does it validate your students’ thoughts and encourage them to reflect on their reading?

These types of projects are happening in our district already. We have the capability to do it. Let’s give students what they need.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Technology Literacy - Whose building the roads?

Recently, I read Karl Fisch’s post on “Is it Okay to be a Technologically Illiterate Teacher?”. It got me thinking about this issue as well. Karl asks whether technology skills are the equivalent of reading and writing skills in the past. Does the success of our students depend on their ability to use technology? I think we could make an argument for this. Certainly our world is becoming increasingly technology-centric. Our businesses use technology for communication, research, data analysis, graphics, and so much more. That does not surprise people. I think what tends to surprise people is the way in which technology has wormed its way into other professions, as well as our personal lives. From farmers to auto mechanics, technology is becoming a larger and larger part of the jobs our students will do in the future.
In our personal lives, banking, shopping, communicating, and much more are becoming more dependent on technology. It seems to me that Karl may have a point. Look at how much technology has advanced and seeped into our daily lives in the last 15 years. 15 years ago, most of us weren’t using email, internet, digital cameras, ipods, and cell phones. Now these are the indispensable tools of daily interaction. There is a point on the horizon, and it is not far away, when not knowing how to use these tools leaves you completely on the sidelines of society. When you look at the changes in the last 15 years, it is easy to see that in another 15 years, the change will only be more pronounced. This is exactly when our students will be entering adulthood and needing to be productive members of society. How will they be able to do this without technological literacy?

My next question is how is making education technologically literate like going from horse and buggies to cars? (Thanks Sar for the analogy!) We can produce all the cars we want, but if we don’t invest in roads, gas stations, and driver instruction, we won’t get anywhere. Similarly, if we don’t invest in technology infrastructure and hardware, as well as quality, timely, ongoing staff development, we won’t get anywhere. Karl’s blog rails on the teacher who refuses to change. I don’t disagree, but what about the legislators, community members, and administrators who do not understand the need for this change or do not create a plan to undergo this change? I am not excusing teachers from the responsibility of learning the essential tools for learning and productivity for the immediate future. I am suggesting that we can accelerate this process by getting everyone on the same page about the importance of moving toward a curriculum that values technology tools as essential tools for participation in our society. Do our teacher preparation programs fully integrate technology so from the beginning new teachers associate technology to effective teaching? Do our state assessments test skills that are relevant to the jobs of the future so that districts craft their curricula to create success on these tests? Do the hiring practices and evaluation processes of our teachers consider technology literacy? All of these play a part in building technologically literate teachers.

Friday, September 7, 2007

If Technology is So Essential, Why Does It Always Break?

Recently, I have heard numerous teachers share this sentiment in one form or another. As our district works to get a great deal of new technology up and running this year, there is a lot of frustration when things don't work as planned. Specifically, we have installed a great deal of SmartBoards, projectors, and sound fields. Unexpected issues have put us behind schedule and some of our teachers have had to start the school year without their equipment working yet.

My first reaction to these comments is to share in their frustration. Many of these teachers went out of their way to take training during the summer so they would have time to practice with the new equipment, create resources, and get used to a new way of doing things. They should have had access to the equipment so they could accomplish this.

To their credit, most of the teachers I have spoken with have not let this stumbling block dampen their spirit. They are still committed to learning how to use the equipment in their classrooms. They are still excited about trying new things. But there are those who are saying that technology is too unreliable to become a part of their classroom.  How can they teach effectively when nothing seems to work?
While technology is full of its fair share of frustrations, from the above mentioned problem to glitches and computers freezing and slow networks and numerous other issues, we can not let this stop us. There is no question that technology is changing fast and our ability to learn it, assimilate it, and support it can not keep up. However, if you look at our kids, you will see that these things do not stop them. I've never seen a kid decide not to play a video game or use a cell phone or update their MySpace account because of a technical problem.

I often use the example in my trainings that when I taught third grade, I hated doing craft projects. I hated the mess, glitter spilling, glue on hands, paint on desks. But it never phased the kids. They loved doing crafts, and I needed to get over my anxiety of a messy classroom. The same is true of technology. We need to get over our anxiety of things going wrong. They will go wrong. Expect it. But don't let it stop you from moving forward and doing great things with essential tools.