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Response: The Best Ways To Use Tech In The Classroom

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Carla Arena asked:

How do teachers make informed decisions in relation to a balanced use of technology in the classroom? Where can new teachers become better informed about best practices for technology use in the classroom without becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by the overload of information?

It's a great question, Carla, and particularly timely in light of last Sunday's major New York Times article on this topic. In order for me to use any kind of technology in my classroom -- beyond a document camera or showing a YouTube clip on my computer projector, I need to be able to answer yes to most of the following questions:

1) Does it take me less than one minute to learn the basics on how to use it?

2) Will it take less than one minute -- with guidance -- for my students to learn to also learn the basics on how to use it?

3) Does it provide a value-added benefit to student learning over a similar activity using basic classroom tools? (Note: I'm not thrilled with using the term "value-added" because its main use has been in the context of a questionable teacher evaluation system, but I can't think of a more accurate word to use here) You'll find that this particular piece of advice is also emphasized by the guests I've invited to respond later in this post.

For example, research and most teacher's experience indicates that it's important for students to see and experience that they are progressing -- that they're learning and getting better. One simple way I use technology in my class to make that progress visible to both my mainstream and English Language Learner students is by having them record a short reading of their choosing periodically during the year so that they can see their improvement in prosody and fluency. I prefer to use the Fotobabble site, but there are plenty of other options.

In addition, studies have found that having students write for an "authentic" audience beyond just the teacher helps them feel motivated to do a better job, and plenty of online opportunities, including communicating with "sister classes" from around the world, can provide those venues, as well as offering exposure to different cultures.

I will admit, though, that sometimes even if using tech offers no clear advantage to "old-fashioned" means, there can be value to using it just to provide students with a change of pace.

4) Is it a tool that I believe can be used regularly in class? I'm not interested in spending time learning about, or having my students spend time learning about, a tech tool that will be a "one-shot wonder." Of course, I might start out believing it can be used regularly but, as I tell students when they start reading a book -- if you find you don't like it, go back and find another one.

5) And, lastly, though being able to answer yes to the previous four questions usually outweighs a negative response to this one -- Can it make my life a little easier? This can particularly relate to tools that may not be ones that I ask students to use. For example, there are multiple sites that let me develop "playlists" for videos and songs that I might incorporate in lessons. That ability definitely makes it easier to "curate" and use them.

The Internet provides an extraordinary opportunity for educators to learn from the mistakes and successes of their colleagues from around the world in using technology in the classroom. Tens of thousands, if not more, of teachers and administrators regularly ask and answer questions and share their best practices with each other, not to mention working together online with "sister" classes.

I'd like to recommend three resources that people might find particularly helpful as they explore using tech in their classrooms:

The Best Places To Learn Web 2.0 Basics

The Best Guides For Helping Teachers Develop Personal Learning Networks

The Best Places To Find Research On Technology & Language Teaching/Learning

Advice From Guests

I posed Carla's question to Richard Byrne. His blog, Free Technology For Teachers, is probably the most popular Web resource on using ed tech. Richard is a high school teacher in Maine:

My advice for new teachers and veteran teachers dipping their toes into the technology pool is to not lose sight of your instructional goals when selecting a technology tool for your classroom. When looking at technology tools I ask myself, "how can this make my lesson better?" If a technology tool doesn't make my lesson better then it just becomes "one more thing" that I have to do. For example, Google Docs is a word processing tool, but because it has collaborative features it enables my students to engage in peer editing in real-time in my classroom and outside of it. Likewise, I can use Google Docs to provide feedback to my students faster than if we were trading emails with file attachments.

For sources of information about using technology in schools (other than Larry's blog and mine) I often refer people to Kelly Tenkely's iLearn Technology; Silvia Tolisano's Langwitches; Wes Fryer's Speed of Creativity; and Tech & Learning Magazine.

I also invited Marsha Ratzel, a National Board Certified Teacher in Science from Prairie Village, Kansas, to share her response (Marsha is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network):

The best way to think about this is to consider what you can accomplish with it and without it. If you're just subsituting a tech tool for a traditional tool, you have to be sure there's some additional learning that will be accomplish by using the technology. Otherwise it's not worth the extra time that it will take to incorporate tech into the lesson. But if there's more learning that can be done...say you can access sources or do things that you couldn't before and those things help you accomplish your goal, then you should definitely use technology. The balance is making sure the tech is not an add-on...that it's used to improve and amplify the learning.

I'd suggest new teachers look for a virtual learning community that has a focus on technology. Something like Classroom 2.0 where there are free webinars, subject and interest groups, a general forum and a wide vareity of places where they can meet and talk with teachers who are in their same situation. You can sample those communities as you are able...

Advice From Readers

Readers shared other helpful advice and comments:

awright55:

I think it is critical that we incorporate technology into our coursework and classrooms. It's how our students are communicating with each other, with their parents, with the world. So, choose one or two tools that you like. Become familiar with them. Try them. Don't be afraid to fail. If it doesn't work after a while, move on to something else. Guard your time. Good teaching can be enhanced by technology but it can't be replaced.

And Bob Mac seconded the caution about "time":

I believe that many teachers are overwhelmed just by the thought of searching and implementing new "best practices". Even dedicated teachers may simply not be able to find the time. I do not have children at home and I love new practices; therefore, it is a pleasure for me to search for new sites and "set up" data for whole classes. If I had a family to come home to, I simply don't know what additional time I would have left over after the class day.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to these ideas, or write about other strategies you've tried that have been effective.

Thanks again to Carla for posing this week's question, and to Richard, Marsha, awright55, and Bob Mac for sharing their answers!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I'll be posting next week's question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday's post responding to that "question of the week."

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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