Monday, May 16, 2011

The Tech Revolution in the Classroom

With technology creating rapid changes in people’s daily lives, schools try to prove they can keep up.
By Chris Copeland--April 18, 2011
On November 9, 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the annual forum of the State Educational Technology Directors Association to announce the Department of Education’s National Technology Plan. Duncan opened his remarks saying, “Our nation's schools have yet to unleash technology's full potential to transform learning. We're at an important transition point. We're getting ready to move from a predominantly print-based classroom to a digital learning environment. We need to leverage technology's promise to improve learning.” Indeed, technological advances over the last two decades have seemed exponential relative to the rest of educational history in the United States. When Duncan speaks of transformation, he hits at the heart of the matter—educators
What Duncan was referring to in his speech is not technology that simply streamlines existing process but technology that creates entirely new learning processes. For example, blogging technology can transform the feedback process related to writing assignments; blog comment features open avenues for feedback from teacher and other students, multiplying the learning process across many channels and altering the traditional single feedback loop between a teacher and one student.
While some new technologies, like Smart Boards, are wonderful and extremely helpful to teachers, the switch to digital technology over the last decade creates possibilities for entirely new processes of learning in the classroom, and increased mobility expands possibilities for learning to places outside the walls of the traditional classroom. Wireless networking and cloud computing are the main technologies driving the latter, while the former is being affected by three main innovations that come, not surprisingly, from three of the largest tech companies in the world.
Michael Brindley of The Nashua Telegraph (New Hampshire) recently reported on a high school teacher using innovative techniques in his class—Nick Audley integrated cell phones into his curriculum using a service called Poll Everywhere. Students text responses to questions with the results calculated and displayed in real time on a screen. The article also describes a classroom in a different district where the teacher receives immediate data on students’ quiz responses on an iPad.
Traditional models of teaching and learning include a much longer feedback process that often leaves struggling students behind. A teacher would not have assessment results until long after a lesson, at which time re-teaching becomes a major disruption. With the immediate feedback made possible by wireless devices in the classroom, a teacher can determine which concepts need more attention and which have been mastered by students. This more immediate feedback would have been impossible without wireless technology, and as Brindley’s article noted, “It’s foolish to ignore the fact that most students are walking around with small computers in their pockets.”
Cloud computing has become another major player in the switch to the 21st century classroom. For students, the cloud provides a central location for the storage of digital work that can be accessed from any web-enabled device. Not only can a student’s work follow her from device to device (eliminating the age old excuse of “I left my assignment at school”), the centralized organization of the cloud facilitates the storage of students’ work across grade levels. With existing, free technology, a high school senior can graduate with access to every digital assignment since kindergarten.
An additional benefit to cloud computing is the leveling of the playing field for students who previously did not have access to technology. Google’s suite of applications, particularly Docs, is free and mobile. For students who do not own Microsoft Word, or maybe even a computer, Google Docs gives teachers multiple options for providing a way for them to write. Cloud applications like Google Docs also aid in collaborative learning. Students can access the same files from different places and work together to complete assignments.
Google recently made a big move into the educational marketplace by opening an app store specifically for education-related apps, such as learning management systems and web-based grade books. The Orange school district near Cleveland, OH is waiting for board approval to adopt Google’s Apps for Education, a move that could save more than $150,000 for the district while moving staff members’ calendars, email, documents, and class web sites to the cloud. Google’s education apps shift responsibility for the infrastructure to Google, saving money on local tech support. Many of the apps are free, and increased mobility for teachers is as appealing an idea as it is for students.
One device that complements cloud computing and that has become a hot item among educators is Apple’s iPad. The iPad’s appeal to educators has more to do with the apps it can run, but the device itself is intuitive and fun to use. The Boston Globe reports that Burlington High School in Massachusetts will be supplying students with iPads. The article cites an English teacher who supports the program: “The world has changed and schools have not kept up with the rate of change. I think this is a fairly significant step in trying to reclaim some of that ground.”The iPad gives students more communication tools and offers educators a way to present content in more dynamic formats.
IPads also are having an impact on special needs students. While Apple did not explicitly intend the iPad as an assistive device, its capabilities allow children, particularly those with autism, to communicate in ways that are more comfortable. Some autistic children have sensitivity to touch—the iPad’s touch screen technology feels more comfortable because it incorporates the hands rather than a pencil or pen. Many developers have released apps specific to autistic children, apps that help them learn how to navigate social situations.
Finally, the biggest shift on the horizon for education comes in the form of e-readers, of which Amazon’s Kindle has a clear lead in the marketplace. Schools have not been quick to adopt the Kindle, but the implications are enormous. If students could carry all of their books on one device, teachers could more easily structure cross-curricular learning. The Kindle provides for marking passages and taking notes, and the digital nature of the device indexes this information more efficiently than a regular notebook. The Kindle also allows users to share notes and highlights, so students could begin to learn from one another as their observations on texts are noted and shared via wireless networks.
Ultimately, the importance of technology lies not in how it can transform the learning process, though the possibilities are vast and exciting. The reality is that new technologies— wireless networks, the cloud, social networking, and innovative devices—are already mainstays in everyday life, particularly for students. Schools can serve these students best by creating a world inside the classroom that looks like their world outside the classroom, an attribute Arne Duncan noted in his speech: “The ultimate goal for our investment in technology – and all of our programs – is for students to be prepared to succeed in college and careers.”

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