Students participating in virtual student panel  Few things can compare with the sheer joy of watching our students use what we’ve taught them to take control of their own learning. I had that pleasure yesterday, watching two of my students—Linda Jimson and Tito Gardner—participate in a virtual, student-led panel as part of Connected Educator Month.

The panel, sponsored by Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN) and the Oregon Academic Technology Society (OAtS), linked students from six different schools around the U.S. (Alaska, Mississippi, Arizona, South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Kentucky) discussing how they have used various technologies in their literacy learning. These students, ranging from third graders to community college sophomores, described their various projects and collaborations, often using online video clips they had produced.  [Special thanks to Scott Christian, Assistant Director of Oregon Health and Science University, Teaching and Learning Center, who conceived and coordinated the panel].

My students spoke last, and I noticed they were paying extremely close attention to their fellow presenters and taking detailed notes. When their turn came, they deviated from their prepared remarks several times to comment on what struck them about the work in the other classrooms. At one point, they turned to each other and exclaimed, “It’s not the technology; it’s the teachers!”

They went on to share with the audience how our school has a relative abundance of hardware and Internet access for students which is significant here in the Mississippi Delta since many of our students do not have access to such technology outside of school buildings. However, some instructors choose not to use the technology, or use it to a limited extent. As Linda noted, “Every class at our college has the option to use online components, but all students don’t have access to those. We need teachers that are trained in technology tools, in order to be able to teach the students what to do with technology.”  Tito added, “The opportunities we have are tremendous, but I’m really dependent on teachers to implement some of these tools. It is vital that teachers use technology and prepare themselves properly.”

In his last semester here at the community college, Tito is taking all of his classes online via the Mississippi Virtual Community College consortium. Before the panel session, he talked passionately about the differences he sees among his online teachers—those who use the online tools to encourage discussion and research versus those who just post information and give online tests.  He believes the former helped him to develop critical learning and social communication skills that he will need to be successful in his career, citing some recent job interview questions as evidence.

I’ve written before about why I believe it is unjust to make poor students attend poor, under-resourced schools. But it is even sadder to have access to resources that can make such a tremendous difference in the learning and the lives of students, and not put those resources into their hands. Often, the disconnect is that teachers are not comfortable enough with the technology to make it an integral part the teaching/learning experience.

I know of a rural school that used a grant to install a state-of-the-art iMac lab, which then sat totally unused for months because no one in the building knew how to work the equipment (funds for training were not part of the grant). Serendipitously, a substitute teacher hired mid-year owned a Mac, and the principal promptly put her in charge of the lab. She and the students began to teach themselves how to use the tools.  [ #problembasedlearning]

My students’ observation has prompted me to approach my colleagues and administrators about stepping up our professional development, so we can make more effective use of our Internet access, our learning management system, and other social media tools across all courses.

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