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Student Choice in Technology: Check for Understanding, Then Give Freedom

For the past few weeks, we've been talking about benefits and strategies of giving your students the opportunity to choose which technology to use in their project.

For teachers new to integrating technology, Choice 2.0 with Microsoft Office is a safe bet. If your students want to create a poster or brochure, you have Publisher or Word. If they want to create a presentation, they have PowerPoint. These programs are straightforward and almost all schools have Office or some equivalent.

But, what if the students want to use other programs or hardware that you don't have at school?

Do you let them pursue their choice of technology even if you might not be familiar with the specific technology program?

Do you let them pursue their ideas even if you might not be able to supervise them using the technology during class?

Providing evidence that your students have learned the content helps you let them pursue their ideas and choices. So, it's important that you build checkpoints for understanding in your project.

Although many teachers may be in contexts where students can research and build their product at the same time, in a context of a socio-economically and culturally diverse middle school, I prefer having checkpoints where students must complete their research and get approval from the teacher before going forward with the creative technologies.

The challenge with multiple tasks in open environments is that some of the struggling learners may get overwhelmed with the amount of choices and not make sufficient progress with their research. Sometimes a student might spend a whole period in front of the computer and have little to show for the effort if left unsupervised or without adequate direction.

This is precious time lost, especially in the demanding assessment and data driven culture of our classrooms.

Enforcing regular checkpoints allows the teacher to document student progress, which is important in this current culture of data and accountability. It's also important for the teacher to continue giving mini-focused assessments during these projects to check for understanding. Short warm up assessments or quizzes are easy to do for the first ten minutes of each period before letting the students free on the computers. Requiring the students to submit their research notes at the end of each period is also a possibility to ensure that time is well spent.

There are many ways to have checkpoints for understanding. These structures must be built into the project creation process so that teachers can balance providing regular feedback with more open ended project based experiences.

Although this focus on evidence of understanding is part of the data-driven reality we work in, one advantage of ensuring that basic competencies are met is that we can then afford to take risks and give choices for students wanting to pursue their ideas for their products.

So, if the students have met your criteria for completing research and have completed other assessment activities that show proficiency with content, let them pursue their ideas and choices.

Set the deadline and see what happens.

Let them take the risk and learn the responsibilities that come with such freedoms.

I offer these real examples using the Chesapeake Bay Conservation project (for 7th grade science) mentioned in earlier posts. These students did not want the Microsoft Office option and wanted to pursue their own ideas. Since they met the criteria for our checkpoints, we set them free...

What happened?

Watershed Awareness Reality Documentary: Using the video camera on a cell phone, a student walked around "live" in the apartment complex filming footage of a person washing a car, a person doing laundry, and a person doing dishes.

Each segment had the student questioning the "interviewee" asking, "Do you know where that water is going?"

When the person would give a confused look, the student then gave that person an impromptu brief lesson on watersheds- all on the video.

The authenticity was refreshing. To be honest, I was very surprised with the results. For all my suggestions of storyboarding, script writing, and planning each scene when creating a video, this student just improvised in real time and pulled off an entertaining and humorously educational reality style video of real people doing everyday chores that impacted the environment.

Using the cell phone to make the video was a terrific idea in terms of maximizing available technology and resources since many families have cell phones with this capability, but may not own a "stand alone" video camera.

Chesapeake Bay Video Rap: Two students stayed after school and videotaped a rap about the Blue Crab. They wrote their lyrics and brought a CD of the "background track". Total recording time after school? Only 10 minutes. Years later, I still show their video as an example of a music product. Priceless!

Creating a song was not one of the choices listed in the original project, but the students knew what they wanted to do and found the necessary tools to help them complete the task. They met the expectations of integrating the content into their song. They were creative in a way that I could not have taught them since I don't rap very well.

Environmental Website Designer: The student told me that he could build a website at home. Two days later, the student returns with a website built with Dreamweaver, a professional level website builder.

When I asked the student how he was able to use Dreamweaver, he responded that his dad was a website designer and was teaching him how to use the program. Requiring this student to use Microsoft Office would not have challenged this student at his level. When he encounters Dreamweaver in a high school technology class, he will be years ahead of the other students.

These are just some of the successful stories of what happens when students are allowed to make their own choices.

Sometimes, things don't go as planned, but the experiences are just as meaningful.

The News Show: A group of highly motivated honors students plan an elaborate news show with director, newscasters, and different scenes.

They all insist that they could finish in one day over the weekend.

I remember asking them, "Are you sure? Tell me exactly what you are going to do."

They tell me about their script (that kept changing) and their ever growing elaborate plans. They are excited about the project. They insist it can be done. Since they have passed all the checkpoints and understand the content, we let them pursue their ideas.

On Monday, they showed up with nothing. Each student had a different story of why they couldn't film and the challenges they encountered.

When we talked to their parents about the project and how they could finish their work, the parents were very supportive of the freedom the students were given with the project.

One parent reaffirmed, "Project management and working with different personalities and work habits on a team...They need more real experiences like this!"

These highly motivated students get an important lesson on setting realistic expectations and working with people with different strengths and schedules- a lesson that will help them as adults in the corporate workforce.

So, if your students have completed the research and you can verify that content is learned, give them the chance to pursue their ideas.

Students may surprise you with what they create. Beyond the content and technology, you will teach them important lessons in organization, collaboration, and responsibility.

Thanks again to Ms. Goble, 7th grade English Teacher, for our continuing work with giving choice in her research projects.

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