1. Approach Technology with a Backwards Design
When creating an instructional unit, start with the technology. There will be points in time during your teaching career when you will think that you have found the next great program, website, or app that you just have to use with your students. You can encounter these resources by collaborating with other teachers, by browsing the Internet, or when checking your RSS or Twitter feed. Instead of starting backwards from what you want the students to know, start with the technology and make everything else “fit.” However, if you cannot find a valuable use for the technology in your classroom, do not try to cram a square peg into a round hole.
Last summer, I spent a great deal of time experimenting with Google Earth (Google’s interactive mapping program). I could not specify what I would use it for, but I was determined make it a part of one of my instructional units. After mastering the narrated tour feature (the map travels from designated location to location and a voiceover can also be added in order to narrate what is taking place), I took a look at what I had to teach for the upcoming year. It was at this point in time that I decided my students would be using narrated tours as the basis for a project that combined geography with the writing of personal narratives.
The described unit is one that “works” even though the planning started with technology and then went “forward” from there. However, if you are unable to fit a certain piece of technology into your curriculum, put it on the backburner and find another way to teach your content. Yes, it is fun to have students play with new “toys,” but these toys should not be prioritized over students developing a deeper understanding of content. If a certain technology will not get the job done, find another one. If technology is not the best option, there is no law that binds valuable learning with technology.
2. Focus on Learning, not Technology
This past spring I had the privilege of working with one of the principals from a local high school. When the subject of educational technology came up, he was quick to point out that (1) Student engagement should be the primary reason why technology is used in the classroom, and (2) Educational technology should mimic the same tools that are used in the workplace (and therefore, the electronic whiteboard does not make much sense). Without question, both of these statements need some revising.
When talking about student engagement as a result of technology, it can be compared to one of the main reasons why punishment should not be used as a classroom management tool. In both of these instances, the intended effects will eventually wear off once the students grow accustomed to what is going on around them (Vargas, 2009). Just two weeks ago I experienced this for myself when I first introduced iMovie (Apple’s video editing software) to my new crop of fourth graders. I was not met with the high level of enthusiasm to which I have grown accustomed, and the students were quick to tell me that the majority of them had already experienced iMovie in third grade. What this means is that I will have to make sure that my students are using iMovie in unprecedented ways (at least from their standpoint). This is all about how the technology is used, and not the program itself. Yes, instruction will hopefully lead to student engagement, but best practice must come first and foremost.
The principal’s next statement deals with technology and the real world, and the idea that we should only be providing students with the technology that they will most likely be using outside of the classroom. Contrary to his statement, teachers must utilize all available tools in order to help students to become problem solvers, collaborators, and critical thinkers. There are advantages to learning tools that are normally used across multiple settings (such as iMovie), but if an interactive whiteboard helps to facilitate 21st century learning, then it should not be ignored.
3. Consider Webb’s Depth of Knowledge
The Common Core State Standards are one of the main reasons why we must increase the rigor with which we teach. However, “Rigor is more than what you teach and what standards you cover; it's how you teach and how students show you they understand.” In many districts, this focus on rigor begins with staff professional development on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or the DOK (2005), which is commonly referred to as the new Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Consider the way in which a simple technological tool – Glogster, a website that allows for the creation of digital posters – can be used in order to arrive at different levels of the DOK. One project involves the teacher conducting a genre study in which each student creates a Glogster that includes the definitions for ten major literary genres. Photographs and decorations for their respective genre accompany each definition. For example, next to the definition of fantasy could be multiple photographs related to Harry Potter. In the end, the products can be posted to the teacher’s website. This is an engaging project and it serves as an effective starting point for teachers who are growing comfortable with the use of technology. Through their posters, the students are identifying various literary genres. Identify falls under the lowest level of the DOK.
Another project involves a teacher who has her students use Glogster in order to create genre advertisements. Pairs of students are assigned a literary genre, and each group creates a digital advertisement that “sells” their genre to the reader by persuading the reader to read books of that type. These advertisements include persuasive paragraphs, slogans, pictures, videos, and links to external websites. After each group is done with their advertisement, they post it to a discussion forum. Then, all of the students are given a few weeks to respond to each other’s advertisements with Amazon-like, research-based products reviews that either praise or bash the genre. In instances in which a group’s genre is criticized, they are supposed to defend their genre with factual evidence (e.g. “How dare you bash the fantasy genre. Fantasy is responsible for Harry Potter, as well as The Lord of the Rings, which is the third best selling novel of all time.”).
Although the latter project involves the same overall content and technology as the former, there is a clear contrast in the level of rigor. The second project takes what is often portrayed as a simple concept (literary genres), and transforms it into a project that is dripping with inquiry and higher-order thinking. During this time, the students design, create, analyze, and critique, which are all features of Level 4 activities under the DOK, the highest level.
4. Differentiate Instruction with Technology
If you regularly integrate technology with project-based learning experiences (or even if your classroom is more activity-oriented), student choice is the easiest way to effectively differentiate instruction.
This year, we are starting Language Arts with a project in which students create their own personal brands. This involves mind mapping, the writing of mini-autobiographies, photography, logo creation, and video production or podcasting. When planning a project, you can embed elements of differentiation even before you meet your students. You can differentiate by creating a menu of websites and iOS Apps (apps that run on the iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone) that students can choose from when carrying out the different elements of the project. For each task (e.g. mind mapping, image editing, logo creation), try to include two websites and two iOS Apps. Also, do not be afraid to allow your students to make major project-related decisions. For one portion of the personal branding project, I could not decided if I wanted the students to create videos or podcasts, so I decided to leave this choice in their hands.
With minimal research (i.e. Internet browsing), you can find what are considered some of the best programs for any purpose. Also, by being exposed to so many tools, the students will have a valuable toolbox of skills and experiences that they can call upon throughout the rest of the year (and in years to come). When participating in future projects, they will be able to meet the objectives in a wider variety of ways. This will help to keep the students at the center of the learning process, as they will feel empowered by having a strong choice in how they approach their work.
5. Assess in a Meaningful Manner
Once a unit is complete, you can utilize student feedback in order to help you to improve upon your use of technology, as well as your overall instruction. This feedback can be obtained through such means as student interviews or a survey, which can be distributed through a Google form or SurveyMonkey.com.
Student feedback will help to tell you how successful you are with the integration of technology. One of the most important questions to ask is, “What did you learn from this experience?” When students answer this question, the hope is that they first and foremost respond by mentioning all of the non-technology content and skills that they learned. Meanwhile, the technology should linger in the background as an afterthought, and maybe be mentioned eventually.
For the past four years, I have conducted the interdisciplinary Artist Research Project with my students. This is a project in which the students work in small groups, and each group researches an artist, writes a biography for their artist, spends time in art class painting and drawing in the style of their artist, and then compiles all of their work in a podcast that is created in Apple GarageBand (Apple’s music creation software). These podcasts are then uploaded to an iWeb (Apple’s website creation software) website for the world to see. After a project such as this one, it would be a shame if any of the students thought, first and foremost, that this project primarily taught them about technology. While it would not be wrong for a student to cite podcasting and website creation as some of the learned skills, all students should be fully aware of the fact that technology was integrated in order to support the skills relating to Language Arts and art. If the majority of the students think that a project such as this one is “all about technology,” then some significant instructional changes must be made.
When integrating technology in the classroom, keep five steps in mind: 1. Do not hesitate to start with technology and work backwards. 2. Use technology to do more than just engage your students. 3. Think about how technology can enhance your instructional rigor. 4. Take advantage of multiple tools in order to differentiate instruction. 5. Always ask for student feedback.
In reality, these practices, sans technology, are already a part of any effective teacher’s classroom. Now, it is only a matter of layering this solid pedagogy with some technology in order to redefine the learning experiences for both the students and the teacher.
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