Technology can motivate teachers to inspire students.

Technology can motivate teachers to inspire students.

I recently worked with a sixth grade teacher in Arlington, Texas, who was piloting a virtual science club program with her in-class students.  Ms. Mueller was delighted that her students eagerly engaged with other students about their online science experiments through chat boards and discussion threads.

The explosion of technology and social media has made it second nature for students of all ages to stay connected at all times.  Grammar and high school students now live in a world of instant gratification and customization in their personal lives, and they’re also demanding that new technologies be integrated into their classroom experiences.  With this shift in mentality, many education institutions are being challenged to expand their online learning portfolio by integrating social media or leveraging digital resources.  But what impact do these high-tech tools have on learning?  More importantly, as the ubiquity of technology grows, will it eventually replace teachers as we know them?

As school administrators, teachers, and parents start to turn to computers and mobile devices as tools for educating young minds, the potential to help re-focus children’s basic educational needs is endless.  We can now start teaching the way kids are already learning–and the way they want to learn.  We know it is inevitable that we must update our approach to teaching, and that maybe, just maybe, this “technology thing” has a constructive application in learning.

As the notion of eLearning becomes more popular and more widely accepted, we need to ask ourselves: “What is the next generation of eLearning?”  In fact, a recent study on online education, conducted by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education, reported that “students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”  The web is in a place today, right now, where the popular academic goals of collaboration and immediacy have become relatively simple to achieve.  I believe that there’s a challenge here for those of us in education to keep our eyes on this fast moving target and keep up with the times.

What, therefore, does this further say about the current state of education?  And how do we quickly catch up on the inevitable evolution of teaching and blended learning?  I would argue that the type of immediacy now available in live classroom settings can also be created by a combination of high-tech communication tools that are used today by major corporations, financial institutions, and businesses tools like Yammer, Google Apps, Facebook plug-ins, and Twitter.  Moreover, these tools create an immediacy that doesn’t necessarily need to be found through the traditional “synchronous” (or real-time) channels that current online educators recognize (i.e. chats, whiteboards and instant messaging).

Immediacy can be achieved with simple webmail applications that can show teachers which students are online or offline.  Or, if you need a quick synchronous fix, Twitter’s popular 140-character snippets allow groups of students, instructors, friends, or peers to build, respond, and add to a conversation. In addition, image and link sharing sites and creative video presentations allow learners to make fun “on-the-fly” discoveries in the classroom.

I recently shared a cutting-edge presentation software called Prezi with a group of students in a college writing course.  I watched them transform their prewriting experiences with an interactive zoom-focus bubbling technique that allowed them to see the relationship between major topics and supporting ideas.  The thoughtful level of outlines created out of that experience indicated to me that the addition of new technologies to the classroom (virtual or brick-based) with a clear purpose can make a huge difference.

To shift directions a bit, and with that all in mind, I’d like to also look at the content of eLearning.  With a high-speed connection, a keyboard, and a mouse, it’s incredibly easy to find information about, gather instruction on, watch videos pertaining to, and join discussions dissecting practically anything anyone is interested in.

With all these distractions, how does one really learn?  Well, that actually might be the point.  Although formal learning certainly needs to have goals, objectives, and assessments to make sure everyone is absorbing new information, perhaps the informal learning opportunities that present themselves in life are as real and as important to us.  Conceivably, “getting lost” in a topic we love on the internet, and drinking in content, and sharing thoughtful feedback about that content truly is learning.  And what if that learning could be done with subject matter experts at our sides?  Activities like sending students out on a scavenger hunt of great web sites or allowing a group to maintain a classroom blog or vlog are arguably more memorable, engaging, relevant, and academically nourishing to our student body today.