Enhancing classroom instruction with collaborative technologies

Incorporating collaboration and digital tools may boost student engagement.

“Technology presents a huge opportunity that can be leveraged in the rural communities and inner-city urban settings, particularly in subjects where there is a shortage of highly qualified teachers. Good teachers can utilize new technology to accelerate learning and provide extended learning opportunities for students.”
— Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

The times have changed: A look at today’s students

Today’s students are raised in a completely different technology-rich world than previous generations.  Typewriters are non-existent and cursive writing is becoming an art of the past.  For our students, video games, laptops, MP3 players, cell phones, online gaming, and social networking are, and always have been, a part of everyday life.

These are the digital natives. Technology–especially related to communications and interaction–is omnipresent.  Their screens are not just those of the television, but also those of the laptop, digital tablet, and smart phone.  Some of our peers may be skeptical about these technologies being used as educational tools, and that is understandable. Although they might be hesitant to embrace technology, the MacArthur Foundation found that time online is essential for youth to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age—skills such as critical thinking, decision making, collaboration, leadership and more.

Look around and you’ll find students from all demographics sending text messages, checking their Facebook, posting to their blog, playing video games, and tweeting. Often, they are doing them all at once.  Students are highly engaged with the technology around them. Imagine the possibilities if teachers could capture students’ attention by using technologies students are already using, inside the classroom.

Struggling to engage? The solution may lie in collaboration

Many teachers struggle with keeping their students engaged in classroom activities. Many blame distractions from technology, but let’s face it: whether it’s passing notes in class, talking over the teacher or texting under the desk, keeping students’ attention has always been a challenge. I have found that if you allow students to direct their learning through an active voice in the materials and curriculum they are being taught, they respond with more involvement and excitement about their learning experience.

Whether teachers embrace technology or not, the classroom dynamic is changing. Students are connecting and collaborating with one another on school assignments, usually through social media. Students are creating and publishing content on wikis and blogs. They want immediate feedback, such as when they are using a discussion board or when they receive comments to their online posts. They want to work collaboratively, sometimes outside the hours of 8 am to 4 pm. Finally, they want some power and control over their education experience. In order for schools to meet these needs, we must incorporate the technological tools students love and interact with everyday into their daily curriculum at school.

The entire educational system is responsible for seeing today’s youth through to their ultimate goal: graduation. Currently, only about 70 percent of students graduate.  This statistic indicates that teachers are still struggling to make education relevant to today’s digital learners. According to the Center for Exceptional Children, about half of students who drop out of school point to the fact that they find classes “uninteresting” as a primary reason. This is where Web 2.0 technologies can come into play. Many educators are realizing the importance of Web 2.0 in the classroom and the role it can play in encouraging students.

Of pre-service teachers, 82 percent said collaborative tools such as blogs and wikis are important instructional tools in the classroom (Speak Up, 2009).  Similarly, 67 percent of administrators said their ideal school of the future should include online collaborative tools.  As more research is conducted and district administrators are presented with positive results, they are beginning to see that implementing collaborative Web 2.0 technologies could be the cornerstone of future learning strategies that engage our students.

Something great for both teacher and student

I knew changes needed to be made in my classroom.  I saw my students losing interest in their studies.  They were bored with assignments and with tackling the curriculum the routine way. They needed something more interactive and exciting to grab their attention. Thankfully, I was not the only one who noticed this change, and our district decided we needed to find a way to make learning more interactive and engaging, while improving the effectiveness of our teaching.

Many different learning tools were discussed, but our district decided on a student-centered learning network called journ(i)e.  This solution allows students to blog, collaborate, and interact with other students on a safe and secure educational network.  Most importantly, this tool has empowered my students to direct their learning experience while I, as the teacher, play a facilitative role.

The positive response to this new technology has been immediate. Students commented on the familiarity of the interface and were immediately more engaged in our classroom activities. They readily use journ(i)e, a student-centered mobile learning network from TH(i)NQ Ed, at home to collaborate on projects I assign, instead of putting them off and trying to finish in the minutes just prior to class.

Where they used to write essays with a pen and paper, students are now collaborating on topics and writing papers on their wikis. Students also blog about their activities, much like they do on social media platforms they are using at home. Additionally, they are collaborating on shared documents, such as group lab reports in the science classroom.  They are learning in school but carry this learning behavior outside the boundaries of our classroom.

The students are more engaged, and the new tools make learning more concrete for them.  Our teachers like the simplicity of the technology. The ability to present the curriculum in a new way is exciting for both teachers and students.  Parents have some peace of mind, knowing their students are in a controlled environment. Students can showcase their work for parents in a way parents find valuable and insightful. Students are even able to keep up with their assignments through integration with various grade book programs.

Blended learning: Matching education with the times

With students, teachers, and district administrators all in agreement that there is a growing need for technology in classrooms, more districts are using blended learning to improve student engagement and achievement.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “Effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes.” Technology should not be a special event; it should be an integral part of each classroom. Every day should be technology day! The days of rolling out the television to show a video lecture are, hopefully, a thing of the past.

As a teacher, I do not think the problem with technology is that we teachers are not capable of integrating its uses into our classrooms.  I think the problem lies with the disconnect between our students’ technology use outside of school and the technology they are, or are not, being asked to use inside the classroom.

Students are changing, and our teaching methods need to match the times in which students live.  Technology is relevant to them; to hold their interest, we need to make technology relevant to our curriculum.

We need to provide our students with the best education possible. That may mean looking for new ways to engage our students and, in this case, technology is one of the keys to our success. By no means do I think it is the solution to all the woes of the education system. It is simply one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Education needs to keep up with the other areas of our lives, and technology is already a part of every student’s life. Personally, I wouldn’t go back.  Seeing my students excel because of the addition of blended learning is the only evidence I need to convince me students are as willing to learn as ever.  We just need to give them, and ourselves, the right tools.

Jody Bowie is a high school teacher at Putnam City Schools in War Acres, Okla. He is a Physics and Education instructor with a focus in technology integration.

Laura Ascione

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