When I was teaching at the University of Northern Colorado, the department chair established a policy of collecting electronic devices if students were found using them in class. I don’t know about anyone else at the time, but I never collected a single device, even when I knew that students were texting friends or playing games instead of listening attentively to my well-crafted lectures. It seemed a little presumptuous to take someone’s property – worth quite a bit of money – rather arbitrarily. Today, such a policy would never be discussed in a staff meeting nor implemented in the classroom. The difference between then and now is the proliferation of good, easy-to-use programs that assist in the learning process. Today’s world is one of technology-rich environments that support lessons, lectures, assignments and research.
The power and capability of hand-held devices is gradually changing the 21st century classroom. Today’s phones are capable of connecting with the internet from just about anywhere. The Internet contains an abundance of websites designed to assist students in researching topics from dinosaurs to dinner menus and ancient civilizations to algebra. There are even websites that vett other discipline-specific websites and offer links to the “best of the discipline.” E-books provide access to great literature for students of all grades. On-line teaching sites, Zahn Academy for instance, offer students a chance to practice and learn math, science, history and a variety of other subjects. On top of all of this, programs exist that allow students to create digital stories, add music to their presentations and draw material from across the world. PowerPoints are still important, but the variety of presentation programs allows students with skills in music, poetry, math and science to customize their presentations in order to demonstrate their understanding of lessons and assignments. There are “1 on 1” schools in which every student has an iPad or notebook assigned to them. There are “BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) schools in which every student is required to bring a hand-held device they will use each day. We have gone from “Zero Tolerance” for hand-held devices to “How can I best use the Internet to help my students learn?”
In part, this question can only be answered by each teacher for each class. However, there are some items that everyone should consider before jumping into technology-centered learning. The first of those is that today’s students are “computer proficient” not “computer literate.” In other words, they can manipulate the technology very easily, are not afraid of blowing up the machine by making a mistake, and find the activity interesting. What they lack, and this is the most important part, is the ability to sort through all of the material that they encounter as they search. They know how to find “stuff,” they don’t know how to think critically about the material presented to them, or ask the appropriate questions, or determine the quality of the research that supports the information. They can find it. They don’t know how to deal with it. As teachers, we need to use technology to insure that our students are computer literate.
The second consideration for technology-centered teaching is that social media is not a teaching tool. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., are designed for connecting people not disseminating accurate information. Social media did not start the “Spring Revolutions” that brought down governments in the Middle East. Social media helped those in opposition organize groups and stay in touch when curfews were established and protest bans were in force. The seeds of those rebellions were sown over decades of inequality, corruption, and tyranny. Social media facilitated the spread of instructions, it did not cause anything. Mark Zucherberg’s technology facilitates connections, but it is not in and of itself content. Social media can be useful in your classroom when communicating with students about assignments, or in answering questions when school is not in session, but it teaches nothing.
Lastly, teachers should focus on the use of technology, not the technology itself. Use technology to expand your students’ world. Have them find information on both sides of issues regardless of your discipline. Utilize comparison and contrast as a standard pedagogy. Open the door to the entire world of thinkers, teachers, and other students and help them think critically about what they find. Create your assignments with open-ended questions such as, “Why do you think that scientists originally rejected the Theory of Evolution?”, or “In what ways does Dr. Zhivago symbolize the Russian Empire in Pasternak’s novel?”, and then provide your students vetted websites that offer opposing views. Allow them to expand their research on their own. Use the technology as it was intended, to expand the realm of ideas.
Artifacts open the door to critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, communications and decision-making. On-line artifacts that students can manipulate as if they were holding the item in their hands, are an excellent example of the proper use of technology in the classroom. Technology overcomes the historic difficulties of using artifacts: their fragile nature, the difficulty in locating them, the expense of purchasing them, the cumbersome nature of carrying them from class to class, and then finally storing them. Artifacts Teach (www.artifactsteach.com), a new web tool for K-16 teachers, is the perfect example of making your classroom a technology rich environment. They provide the artifacts, the lesson planning tools, suggestions for use across four disciplines, and the initial questions to get students started. At Artifacts Teach, technology combines with pedagogy to create a truly 21st century learning environment.