How to create a student-centered digital classroom

Creating this student-centered workshop setting, in which students often choose what to do and how to demonstrate mastery skills, takes patience and perseverance. The key to success is teaching students many web tools, which they can place in their “technology toolkit,” an online world of applications and programs that can be used in many ways to discover concepts and to curate information.

From the beginning of the year, we learn new websites and applications. No more than a month in, students have six to 10 resources in their tech toolkit. Now, when they work on a project, they decide which tools are most effective and will best demonstrate inquiry of knowledge and mastery of skills.

In our Reading All Year project (RAY), for example, students learn book structure, genre, and figurative language. There are many branches on the RAY project tree, so during a project workshop, students may be involved in different activities, using different web tools, applying them to various parts of Reading All Year.

While one student writes a novel reflection letter on KidBlog, another may be saving and annotating articles with Diigo on our class social bookmarking site, connecting a nonfiction topic to the fiction title she is reading at that time. Meanwhile, several small groups might be composing a book presentation or creating web-based slide shows, posters with Glogster, or related content with ThingLink. Still others podcast with Voki, post links and graphics with Padlet, or create remarkable, brief videos with Animoto or Magisto.

As the school year races by (it always moves quickly in a ROLE), students build amazing project portfolios, housed on their blogs, class Edmodo or Schoology pages, or wiki-hosted private websites, organized in the teacher’s content management system. This online classroom hub ( is an example) is the focal point of the student-centered digital classroom. Not only is it a carnival of presentations and interactive projects, but the class website or blog provides a marvelous platform for meaningful narrative feedback.

Most of the previously mentioned web tools have comment sections for feedback from both the teacher and the student. Many have a private feature, so the teacher can restrict who sees some feedback, if necessary. The ability to link to prior lessons, videos, or models in a comment section is the most effective part of online narrative feedback. When a student clicks a link to a video presentation, then returns to improve an activity or project, this is education at its finest.

So, what made that one particular day great? A group of middle school students were eager to create amazing, interactive online projects they could proudly share with anyone, using their own web tools, collaborative skills, and ingenuity in a low-pressure, student-centered, and fun Results Only Learning Environment. And I was there to watch it unfold.

Mark Barnes is a 20-year classroom teacher and the creator of the Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE). In his book Role Reversal (ASCD, 2013), Barnes walks middle and high school teachers through the fundamentals of results-only learning, which eliminates traditional practices—homework, worksheets, tests, and even grades—and replaces them with student-driven, yearlong projects. Learn more at  

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