By Teachers, For Teachers
My school is currently piloting a program that allows students to bring their own electronic devices (iPads, Kindles, Nooks, laptops, etc.) to school. The idea has been embraced by most professionals in the district but not without hesitation. While most educators are excited by the potential opportunities these devices provide, many of us are deeply concerned that the complications and drawbacks will outweigh the benefits. While I am usually all for diving right in to new ways to motivate and engage my students, I’ll admit to having my hesitations about teaching a classroom of high school students who all have access to the Internet at all times. I know I’m not alone in my concerns, so with that in mind, here are five reasons why we should be working towards embracing technologically-connected classrooms.
21st Century Learning Environment
Part of providing our students with the best possible education is preparing them for the workforce and the world they will enter after they leave school. In our case, this means we have to give them the ability to learn both independently and collaboratively. It means turning our focus away from the traditional model we may be more comfortable with to more real-world contexts, like project-based learning – both face-to-face and online. And it means teaching them to utilize the technology that exists today so that they will be able to comfortably incorporate it in their careers. For most of us, this means we’re going to be learning right alongside our students (or in some cases, allowing out students to teach us!). It might not be in our comfort zone, but once we recognize that our students are going to need these skills in order to be successful it becomes obvious that we really can’t afford to not prepare them properly.
If you read the first reason and are still thinking, “Yeah, but the thought of trying to teach 28 students or more when they all have access to the Internet on handheld devices I don’t have control over sounds like the start of some of my worst nightmares!” then hang-tight. Another reason to embrace giving our students’ access to these devices is the way they open new possibilities for those magical “teachable moments,” that make teaching so wonderful. Imagine this, you’re talking about poetry in English class and you’re introducing haikus. How fun would it be to let everyone find their own haiku example from the Internet (using the school-provided WiFi that blocks inappropriate sites, of course) and share them? As you walk around and supervise you’ll hear students counting syllables, finding other poems and reading them, sharing fun examples with one another – reinforcing the lesson and practicing skills in a way that is interesting and fun to them. And then you could challenge your students to go further – telling them that there are at least two other forms of poetry that are close to haikus, but not exactly the same and challenging them to break into groups and try to find them using their electronic devices. Studying the water cycle? Challenge students to find illustrations of it online. Have a student ask a question but you just aren’t sure you know the answer? You’ll have the resources you need right at your fingertips … and with a classroom of students who are connected with their own devices, you’ll be able to share the information with them almost instantly.
Building Positive Digital Citizens
As I mentioned earlier, it’s obvious that whether we bring technology into our classrooms or not, our students will be digital citizens for the rest of their lives. Most of them already are – spending more time than we care to think about on Facebook, sending Snapchats, and looking at other peoples’ Instagrams. Part of our job has always been to guide our students towards responsible citizenship … by introducing electronic devices into our classroom we can better help our students become responsible digital citizens. We can address cyber-bullying and build a sense of online community so that our students understand that hurtful words online are just as nasty as words said aloud. We can increase our students’ ability to think critically by teaching them how to differentiate between reliable and unreliable websites. We can help our students stay safe by educating them about the dangers of trusting people they chat with online, or the information they send to one another over the Internet. By bringing this technology into our classrooms we can help our students learn the best and most responsible way to use it in their lives, something we can’t do if we keep it out!
Resources, Resources, Resources
While many teachers are familiar with some of what is available on the Internet, what educations apps exist, and how we can utilize everyday tools like email, Facebook, camera phones, and others to help us in class, the world of educational technology is currently exploding. There are apps that help students balance chemical equations using hands-on, animated examples that make what they are actually doing so much clearer than it ever was on paper. Apps that help students interpret Shakespeare without dumbing it down or ignoring the amazing, yet challenging aspects of his language are practically begging to be used in English classes where students groan at the mere mention of the Bard’s name. Tools that help students create presentations quickly and easily, tools that allow teachers to assess student understanding in an instant, and tools that give students additional guided practice in an engaging way are just some of the possible uses of electronic technology in the classroom. And each day, educators are coming up with more and more ways to help their students learn using a medium that they know their students will understand and be excited to use.
Differentiation and Student Choice
As a teacher who works with students with learning and emotional support needs, this benefit interested me quite a bit. We all know we are supposed to differentiate our instruction to best meet the needs of each of our students but, quite simply, it’s hard to do! With an entire world of programs, apps, worksheets, websites, and other resources at their fingertips, helping our students find materials that best meet their needs suddenly becomes much more achievable! And if we embrace the idea of each student or small group of students having their own device, we can have students locating material that is right for them without it causing any disruption of class time at all. Additionally, we can begin to offer our students more opportunities to exercise independence in the classroom by allowing more student choice. Rather than having all the students complete a Power Point presentation because that’s the software the school computer lab has, we can give students the learning goals they must display and allow them to choose how they want to demonstrate that they have met those goals. Students who enjoy Power Point can still utilize it, but other students might use Prezis, Google Presentation, Comic Life, create their own videos, or any other of thousands of options. Allowing students to have more self-agency in their learning will help us reach the unmotivated students and allow the excelling students to push themselves even further.
Hand-in-hand with differentiation and student choice is the issue student engagement. We all know that our students love technology. One of my biggest areas of concern regarding allowing students to use their own electronic devices in my classroom is that they will be too engaged in their own apps and I won’t be able to reach them with the material I’m trying to teach. But setting aside those concerns for now (I’m planning on writing an article that deals with concerns in the near future), I just want to address how we can harness the enthusiasm students already have for technology to our advantage. Teachers have known for generations that it only makes sense to try to harness students’ interests to hook them into our lessons. Activating strategies are often nothing more than getting students to “buy into” our lessons by utilizing something they are already interested in – like movies, music, or the opportunity to give their opinions about things without being right or wrong. Now, we have access to something students’ love and the ability to channel it into learning. Polling apps allow us to assess our students understanding in a way they will find exciting and enjoyable in a way that – “Raise your hand if you agree.” never will. Access to videos, animations, diagrams, and more make it easy for us to show students what we are talking about instead of just explaining it. If utilized properly, teachers today have an entire world of tools to engage and involve our students in learning that no other educators in the history of education have ever had. What a great time to be a teacher!
I would be lying if I said I didn’t continue to have serious concerns about how to make students having access to electronic devices in my classroom work on a daily basis. I have concerns about practicality, classroom management, and what it means for me – my role in the learning process, and what it means for my lesson planning being just a few. But when I look at the potential gains for my students; differentiation, engagement, the ability to grow as individuals and become productive, positive citizens in the “plugged-in” culture they are now a part of…it just doesn’t make sense not to begin working towards making technology integration a big part of my classroom routine.