We live in the “Information Age”, where the World Wide Web has allowed, even encouraged, everyone to access everything all the time. Working together, albeit not in the same place, has also been a powerful development. The students we teach have not known a life without all this readily available information. Does this affect how we teach them?
Students have changed over the past few years in some key ways. Young people today are used to sharing things immediately, they can access all of their digital objects whenever they want to, and can communicate with the important people in their lives instantly. This is now normal for them, and I have to wonder, is their experience in school taking advantage of these changes or not. Can schools make sure that they operate in a way that embraces all of these changes and enhance a student’s education?
In schools, resources and books have been moving towards digital alternatives for quite some time, with the internet now a legitimate source of information. Also, students now expect everything they need to be available, whenever they want, and in a format that will work with a myriad of devices. Schools should be working towards distributing industry standard documents like PDFs, PNGs, and MP3s when disseminating resources. This will give students the freedom to work how they are most comfortable, resulting in a higher quality of work. Technology shouldn’t get the in way of their learning!
It doesn’t have to be difficult, nor should it mean staff having to go out of their way to accommodate their students. Consider sharing a photo of the whiteboard, rather than the actual, possibly proprietary interactive whiteboard document. Consider uploading the video to YouTube (or alternative), rather than the having to worry that the actual video file might not work on a particular OS. Consider sharing text via PDF, so that students who do not own a particular word processor suite can still access the work.
One of the cornerstones of every school is homework, and it can be relatively simple to change how it is distributed and collected so that it fits in with a student’s expectations, and still reduce a teacher’s workload. Quizzes, tests and other assessments can be created online, assignments could be posted on a blog, and online shared storage used to collect work. These are all ways that a school can make small changes to how they work, and still make learning a familiar part of a student’s experiences.
For all this to work, however, two things have to happen. Staff need to embrace and accept that students may expect to learn in a different way to how the teacher teaches. The second thing that has to happen is that students must learn to use technology in a way that will benefit them. Both teachers and students need to adapt their ways. This way, teachers can do their job better, and students can learn effectively. Both parties must work together so that education does what it is supposed to do – prepare students for their future. This means that someone needs to teach the students how to use technology effectively – we cannot assume that all students will be able to work it out in their own.
For example, once a piece of coursework has been set, students will often be required to do some research. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect most students to know how to use the Internet, but that isn’t the same as saying that they can successfully identify facts and fiction. Schools would be wise to spend some time teaching their students how to surf and search the internet like an expert. Use the most appropriate search terms, use the right tools, and learn the difference between fact and opinion – all of these will help students make the most of the Internet. Teachers knowing all the tricks will help them identify if any student is tempted to misuse the internet, too!
Assessing and marking work could also be done digitally, accessed securely by the students and their guardians, making sure that everyone involved was kept updated on the progress being made. Schools already have documents that list all the unit’s objectives, and students are require to fill it with their progress as they move through the course. Take this a step further: The document could be continually updated, and could provide an indication of their current grade, as well as indicating the areas that need more work. Students, teachers, even parents could all leave comments, suggestions for improvements, and tailor the learning to become more meaningful than ever. This live reflection is very powerful for departments and faculties to adjust their teaching, and adapt to the needs of their students as required.
Digital Portfolios (in whatever format) are already being used to not only record achievements, but to highlight key skills. Blogs, in particular, seem well-suited to store the actual work, as well as to track the thoughts of the student too. Extend this, and record peer comments and teacher feedback, and you have quite a potent testimony to the advancement of a student’s skills. Again, this living document is always valid and shows true progression.
Of course, one of the great benefits of the Internet is that it allows distance to become irrelevant. City schools can work with rural ones, collecting and sharing data that is not available on one area, but required in another. Learning languages to converse with international students gives it all a real purpose. Being able to interview an expert, in their own environment via video-conferencing, brings life and relevancy to any topic. Students completing their group project from their own homes mean that students can work better, in comfort, with all their personal resources at hand. Searching for answers and opinions from the whole world via forums allows information and support to be found almost anywhere and at any time. Imagine how this already benefits students who are ill, or absent from school.
For all of this to happen, however, the schools themselves must be prepared. That means having a reliable and fast internet connection, the software to encourage and facilitate online dialogue and collaboration, and staff who understand these benefits. Build, maintain, and make use of personal learning networks (PLNs). Schools may start by adding this new way of working into their existing lessons, but for a real impact and benefit to students, teachers are going to have to re-plan and embed these things right in the heart of their teaching.
What if schools don’t? I imagine some schools do not agree that students have changed. And if a school doesn’t embrace these changes, it doesn’t mean that their students will suddenly fail all their exams. But, I do think it means that their students will have to put extra effort into working under conditions that they are not familiar or comfortable with, in a manner that might not be useful to them in the future. Is it ever a good idea for a school to place unnecessary hardship on their students? If we can make their lives easier, shouldn’t we? I would hope that schools continue to be relevant and useful to all students.
Young people are already using technology to download the guides and manuals for their personal belongings; they use the internet to find out when the latest movie is being shown or what their heart-throb wore yesterday; they probably already have their own blog or run their own forum on a topic important to them, keeping their audience updated and connected; some of your students may even be involved in international projects, working on the “Next Big Thing”. This may seem like an exaggeration, but there are already many 15 and 16 year olds learning their future trade outside of the classroom, on topics that are not part of any school’s curriculum. We can’t hope to cater for these students (perhaps we should?), but I do believe that we have a duty of care to make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that we are not getting in their way of learning.
What are your thoughts on teaching Generation-Tech?