Over the past several months, I’ve been working with Kelsey Mullen — a preservice teacher who is taking a class in connected learning from my friend and mentor Dean Shareski.  Kelsey sent me an email this weekend with a few questions on the role that technology can play in learning.

Thought you might be interested in my answers too:

What are some of your favourite technology tools that you use in your classroom?

This question always rankles me a bit simply because I don’t have favorite technology tools.  Instead, I have favorite instructional practices.  Better yet, I have instructional practices that I think engage and empower students.

Specifically, I’m passionate about giving kids opportunities to experiment with collaborative dialogue and evaluating information.  The way I see it, if you can’t use conversations to build knowledge with one another and you can’t evaluate the content that you come across in our information soaked reality, you are going to struggle to be a meaningful participant in our world.

Do digital tools help me to support those practices?  Absolutely.  VoiceThread has always played a role in the collaborative dialogue work that I do with students and Scoop.it is a tool that gives kids opportunities to think critically about content.

But thinking about tools first is dangerous.  Instead, we need to think about the learning spaces that we are trying to create and the skills that we want students to master first.  Finding tools is easy.  Choosing the RIGHT tools for supporting the RIGHT practices is WAY more important.

See Technology is Just a Tool and There’s Nothing Magical About Technology.

What are the responses you get from your students about using technology in the classroom?  The parents’ responses?

My students honestly couldn’t give a rip about using technology in the classroom. What they care about the most is having opportunities to work together to change the world around them.  The most successful classroom projects that I’ve ever done — the ones that have resonated with students long after they’ve left my classroom — have tapped into that desire.

Specifically, we’ve embraced microlending — the process of giving small loans to people in developing countries who are trying to improve their lives — to learn more about the world.  We’ve also worked to raise awareness in teens and tweens about the amount of sugar in the foods that we eat on a regular basis. Finally, we’ve created an Anti-Bullying PSA to encourage others to stand up to meanness in our school.

Does that mean technology is pointless?  Heck no.  In each of the examples above, technology helped my students to raise their voice beyond the walls of our classroom.  That amplification of their ideas gave them a sense that they COULD do meaningful work and change the world around them.

But it was the cause that drove my kids — not the tools.  They cared about poverty, the health of teens and tweens, and bullying.  Kiva, WordPress and Animoto were just vehicles for taking action.

See Motivated by Shoes and Socks and The Motivational Herring.

When first introducing a new piece of technology into your classroom, what are some ways you help your students adjust?  Do you teach them how to use the tools or do you prefer just letting them explore and find out on their own?

Kids don’t need us to help them figure out how to make technology work.  They are fearless when it comes to tinkering their way through a new tool.  They will click on links in new digital products and services until they understand every feature.  Spending time teaching the tool is relatively pointless.

What kids need help with is figuring out how a tool can help them as learners or as change agents.  While they can figure out how to make posts in blogging platforms or how to import images into a video editing service without me, they rarely know what makes written content influential or how to choose visuals that tell an effective and emotional story.

So my primary goal when introducing a new tool to class is to pair what my kids know about digital tools with what I know about crafting messages or telling stories or changing minds or finding reliable information.  My goal when introducing a new tool is keeping kids focused on the ways that we can use that tool to be influential or to take action around the causes that we are currently studying.

See The Dumbest Generation and Technology Gives Kids Power.

What are some of the successes and challenges you have faced when using different forms of technology?

The successes come in the form of projects that my students completed that made a difference in the world around them.  Whether that’s our Sugar Kills blog, our Team Kids Care microlending team, our Anti-Bullying PSA, or our classroom conversation about the role that hate plays in our world, I’m proud every time that I create an opportunity for students to recognize that they can use technology to be influential.

The primary challenge I have is that I only have two working computers in my classroom and our cash-strapped district has struggled for the better part of the past decade to get more technology into our schools.  That means many of the technology projects that I do are optional activities — things that students tackle at home, during enrichment periods, or in after school clubs.  While I wish every kid in every class had the opportunity to work on something powerful every day, that’s just not possible given the access that I have to digital tools.

I also struggle with the fact that digital services come and go.

The simple truth is that the tools I embrace today — tools that I master and develop instructional materials around — may be gone tomorrow.  Worse yet, tools that are free today — a key criteria for choosing tools when you can’t afford paid subscriptions to services — might become paid products tomorrow.  Heck, that LITERALLY happened this  morning:  Newsela — a great service that I just discovered for integrating leveled nonfiction text into the classroom — is rolling out a Pro Plan and taking away access to features that I dug.

That means teachers using technology need to be digitally resilient.  We need to be ready for the services that we love to disappear or to be blocked by the district firewall; we need to be ready to look for replacements at a moment’s notice; and we can’t give up the minute that the school’s server goes down or the computers in the lab need an update in the middle of a well-planned lesson.

See Being Digitally Resilient.

Any of this make sense?  

Better yet, what advice would YOU give to preservice teachers interested in using technology in their classrooms?


Related Radical Reads:

Two Important Reminders for Digital Leaders

Digital Immigrants Unite!

Making Good Technology Choices

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