I happened to catch my 3 year old teaching my 2 year old about bugs on my iPad the other day. And while I get this is just an exchange between two siblings, it got me thinking about the bigger picture with regards to what technology has done for education. I think most of us would agree that education is better off with technology than without it. Having said that, the evolution of technology in education hasn’t come without its own set of unique problems. A general lack of congruency towards policies, concern over safety and privacy, and misaligned collections of social and collaborative tools have all in some way contributed to a technological “Wild West” of sorts within our classrooms.

Is there a really a right way to do it?

It starts with the core issues like: will there be a synchronous, asynchronous, or possibly a blended learning approach? Will the focus be more individualized or student-centric? Or, perhaps a more traditional classroom with a top-down approach? As technology becomes more readily available to educators, the task of choosing one model over another will shift to a secondary consideration. These technologies will afford teachers greater freedom and flexibility to infuse different teaching models on a more granular level, whether that’s on a given assignment or with individual students. You might be thinking, “Listen, I’ve heard all about the classroom of tomorrow. Sounds wonderful, but I’m teaching today – you know, in the real world? I gotta run, Buck Rogers and I are doing lunch.”

And while I’d appreciate your sense of humor, I’d also share with you that the truth is, there are teachers that are creating these “classrooms of tomorrow” today. Right now. A big key to the success of these teachers is this: they’ve figured out how to bridge the technology gap in education.

If you’ve ever put the words technology and education together, then you probably know that August was officially Connected Educator Month. Because of our experience and expertise in the field of personal/professional learning communities, we were invited to host a few webinars with our friends at Evans Newton, in which we discussed building and maintaining professional learning communities and how that can be accomplished using Saywire. Given that we had a live audience of teachers, we thought it’d be a good opportunity to inquire about what technologies they are currently using for their own professional/personal learning as well as to engage their students. What we found was both interesting and very telling of how technology is (and isn’t) being used in education.

T2T (Teacher-toTeacher)

For the Teacher-to-Teacher model, we put up a graphic that had an assortment of popular social and collaborative applications and asked the attendees to circle the tools that they were using to engage other educators and/or colleagues in their personal learning endeavors. Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of the participating educators were generally interested in technology – certainly there are those educators that are still not too keen on the 21st century part of 21st century learning. So, taking all of this into consideration, it was great to see that these teachers were adopting not just one or two, but several different technologies.

Technologies used in the Teacher-to-Teacher (T2T) model

What can we do with this type of information? Well for starters, if you’re building or managing a learning community, identifying and promoting these early adopters can be a great way to help get other teachers involved. Seeing how a technology is being used by a colleague can help inspire newbies to take a shot at incorporating technology in their own classrooms. Additionally, giving teachers a sandbox to play with new tools before they engage their students is another great way to set the stage for a positive experience for both the teacher and the students. Remember, the students are almost always ready to dive in – even if it’s a new technology they’ve not used before. Making sure the teacher is prepared for that initial splash goes a long way towards achieving a successful experience.

Speaking of students, let’s look at what happened when we asked the same educators about what tools they were using with their students.

T2S (Teacher-to-Student)

While it’s great to see teachers connecting out there, giving teachers the power to connect with their students is equally as important. I often say to people, even though we label them as teachers and students, at the end of the day, we’re still often times talking about adults and minors. There’s plenty of reasons for precaution when it comes to connecting teachers and students online (and it’s not just concern for the students). Not surprisingly, when we put up the graphic below and asked teachers to identify what technologies they were using with their students, there were far less circles.

Technologies used between teacher and students (T2S)

What kind of a picture does this data paint about the state of technology in education? We know it’s not that the technology doesn’t engage the students, because it absolutely does. In fact, students are often adopting these same tools on their own to help with their learning efforts outside of school. If teachers are familiar with (and in many cases using) these tools, and the students are using these same tools, why is there a disconnect when it comes to bridging the gap between the two? If we could have asked them, I’m sure the response would be anything from school policies to time constraints, or simply not wanting to expose themselves outside of the boundaries of school-related activities. And really, who could blame them?

Of course, if you’re reading this then you are probably already aware that these are very real concerns (and often difficult ones to overcome) for not bringing these tools into the classroom. 

Bridging the Gap

Towards the end of the webinar, we put up a graphic showing the tools that are available in the Saywire learning community, many of which we covered during the presentation. After having seen several different examples of teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, and student-to-student interactions in Saywire, we asked the teachers to circle the tools that they could see themselves using along with their students.

Saywire’s available features

This supports my earlier point about using technology that is designed for education. Utilizing tools that safely connect students, teachers, administrators, even parents in some cases, will help alleviate some of the apprehension people may have towards online learning. By touring active Saywire communities where teachers are achieving these types of success, both in their classrooms as well as their professional development, we were able to demonstrate that making the transition to incorporate technology in just about any learning situation is that much easier when you’ve got the right tools.

Of course, there’s more to it than just choosing the right tools. A good place to start is to talk with administrators and develop a technology policy when it comes to adopting technology in the classroom. Social and collaborative tools are constantly evolving, so there will always be the “next great thing” right around the corner. Ask yourself, is this really appropriate for the classroom? Do I have to make this tool work or will it actually work for me (save time, consolidate activities, etc)? Will it promote accountability amongst my students? Can it scale if necessary?

Next Steps

As a company, if we’ve learned anything in the 7 years we’ve been developing social and collaborative tools for education, it’s that in order to build successful learning communities, you can’t be distracted by flashy, gee-whiz tools that you think will engage your learners. Not everything needs to light up and catch on fire to get their attention. In fact, often times they’ll appreciate a simple and reliable user interface just as much as you do. More importantly, it is critical that you establish a solid set of core tools for engaging students (and teachers for that matter). This will create a consistent user experience that transcends the different pockets of learning, allowing people to focus on discussions rather than tutorials or retrieving lost passwords. Everything else, the videos, the mashups, the mapping tools, many of those can be embedded into your core tools, allowing you to build solid and engaging conversation around whatever the lesson plan calls for. This makes discussions and collaborations easy to find/follow and helps to avoid fragmentation in your teaching/their learning.

Regardless of the tools you decide to use, there’s no doubt that using technology to connect with other teachers or the students in your classroom can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Doing your homework before you begin can make all the difference in the world.

If you need help with measuring the success of your students when using some of these tools, feel free to download our 21st Century Learning Rubric to help you out along the way. It’s worth noting that while the rubric was developed to accompany the Saywire community, it will work as a stand alone rubric to support whatever tools you are currently using.

 

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