‘Technology-enabled active learning’ spurs achievement

Using a technology-rich environment to promote collaboration and independent learning, we’ve seen student engagement—and achievement—rise

Using ‘technology-enabled active learning,’ Bishop Moore Catholic High School has seen student engagement—and achievement—rise.

If Norman Rockwell were to a paint a 21st-century classroom, would his painting look anything like his 1956 piece “Teacher’s Birthday,” with the students sitting in tidy rows patiently waiting for their teacher to impart wisdom from the front of the room?

At Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, Fla., students are no longer looking to their teachers for all the answers. Instead, teachers are training their students to acquire knowledge on their own.

Understanding the young adults of the 21st century means understanding their frame of reference. Teenagers today have never been without technology. Indeed, our students have never lived without cell phones, personal computers, or the internet. Children today are as connected as we are as adults—in some cases, even more so!

Rather than asking students to power down, our teachers at Bishop Moore Catholic are teaching them how to use their technology for more than just social media and games. Along with the skills they already know, students are learning how to use the technology tools that are so near and dear to them more effectively.

In the summer of 2010, we invited a handful of alumni to our campus for a dinner meeting. We wanted to know how they were learning in college, what they were learning, how well we had prepared them for higher education, and what we could have done differently to prepare them better for college. The common thread among their answers was that we needed to allow students to have more opportunities to collaborate.

Once we had this information, we looked at how we were delivering content and what we were asking students to do. We found most of our teachers were still following a teacher-centered instructional model, and we began our quest to switch the pedagogy from front-of-the-room, teacher-centered instruction to student-centered, student-driven learning, empowered by technology.

(Next page: How ‘technology-enabled active learning’ works)

We researched and tested many of the technology programs, apps, and devices available, and we have found that a few key components have had a huge impact on our approach to a digital model. One program that has become a staple across our campus is StudySync, a cross-curricular reading and writing program that delivers content to any mobile or computing device, 24-7. With its built-in rubrics, fiction and nonfiction texts, writing prompts, and movie-quality SyncTV video lessons that model literary discussions, this literacy platform motivates students while addressing state and Common Core standards.

StudySync supports literacy skills across disciplines, and while it is, at this time, most widely used by our language arts and social studies teachers, it is so flexible that our math and science teachers can customize fields, questions, or items and generally use the program as they like. For example, they have found ways to use StudySync’s eMail template for its Blast writing prompts to engage students in review-related activities. Our physics teacher uses these self-created Blasts to encourage students to brainstorm together and respond to challenging questions that mirror the types of items that they will find on their assessments.

Another technology solution we are currently implementing is the Schoology Learning Management System. We chose Schoology because of the countless ways it can integrate with the programs already in use at the school, as well as its robust, familiar platform on which our students, parents, and faculty comfortably communicate. It is a program that we hope will grow with us as we move forward.

Aside from these technology programs, our research led to three major changes. First, we removed 16,000 largely untouched books from the library and replaced them with more than 10 database systems providing more than 140,000 primary sources for research.

Second, after removing the books, we installed a Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) lab based on the models we found at the University of North Carolina and MIT during our research. These labs—we have since added four additional spaces—feature wheeled furniture, 52-inch touch-screen monitors, audio enhancement, a document camera, Apple TV, and an iPad cart.

Additionally, all of the walls are writable surfaces made of glass or whiteboards to encourage students to brainstorm and write out their thoughts while working together. The TEAL labs are fluid, collaborative environments, generic in technology and setup to encourage use by all disciplines.

(Next page: An example of a TEAL-based lesson)

We were able to integrate these different technologies rather smoothly. For example, a senior English class used StudySync’s Macbeth lesson as a final assessment for their unit. The students read the excerpt and viewed the related SyncTV episode homework. The following day, the class was divided into pairs and given the program’s essay prompts to complete as an assessment. The students worked in the TEAL lab, each pair teaming with another duo, and hashed out the content, order, and details of their essays on the writable glass walls. They used the touch-screen monitors to add text and digital ink to annotate their work in a peer-to-peer review session. Those annotations helped each pair add the final edits to their submissions. Then, their teacher used the StudySync-provided rubrics to grade the essays.

Although the technologies work well together, trying to understand them initially can be overwhelming and intimidating. As such, our third and final major change was the addition of a full-time technology integration specialist to train the faculty on new technology and support the teachers as they embark on a new and different way of teaching.

We offer support and professional development in five unique ways. We have full faculty meetings where we roll out new technology. Additionally, we offer department-based training and individual training through Lynda.com. Our technology integration specialist runs a lunchtime technology café with a catalog of classes from which teachers can choose the professional development that will best help them, and we offer an online collection of tutorials and videos for the teachers as quick reference if needed.

We are now two full years into our initiative, and we have noticed positive patterns evolving. One is that when students are in the TEAL environment, no one is off task. Another is that the students’ ownership of the material creates an almost competitive vibe, which ultimately builds collaboration skills and self-confidence. Finally, the student-engaged learning style has led to an improvement in grades. We monitored the students in their English and History classes across 2.5 grade levels, and we saw a gain of an entire letter grade in 80 percent of the students in this environment.

In addition to the TEAL labs, Bishop Moore has made the commitment to move to a one-to-one “bring your own device” model, starting this month. In preparation, our teachers were given school-owned iPads in May 2012. The expectation was that the teachers would become familiar with the iPad, research apps, meet with peers to discuss best practices, and utilize our lunchtime technology training café courses focusing on various apps and their ability to help teachers and students in the classroom.

As we make the transition to a one-to-one BYOD school, Bishop Moore Catholic High School will continue to measure and collect data to help us determine our needs in curriculum and professional development. We are moving from imparting knowledge to facilitating knowledge and encouraging our students to use their technology for far more than leisure activities. Through the use of iPads and the TEAL labs, we are providing the opportunity for every student to connect, collaborate, and learn, effectively purging the classroom of the “bad seat.” We are truly preparing our students for their futures, and it is an exciting time to be an educator!

Pat La Morte is the assistant principal at Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, Fla.

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