Making good technology choices

One of the questions that I’m asked all the time is, “Bill, how do you decide what technology you’re going to integrate into your classroom?”

My first reaction to this question is always to breathe a sigh of relief simply because far, far too many educators—teachers, principals, school leaders—make haphazard choices about technology integration, wasting our already limited time and money in the process.

To know that audiences are starting to think more systematically about the tools and the technologies that they embrace is a relief!

Then, I give the same answer that Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach—my digital mentor and TLN colleague—gave me nearly a decade ago:

Good technology choices start with a firm understanding of the skills that you want your students to master.

Once you understand just what those skills are—and why they’re important to the kids in your classroom—you can start to find digital tools that make the work around those skills more efficient.

The good news is that choosing skills is a heck of a lot easier than choosing tools. 

After all, some of the brightest minds in education reform—Bob Marzano, Rick and Becky DuFour, Rick Stiggins, Larry Ainsworth—have been writing about “essential outcomes,” “I Can Statements,” and “power standards” for years.

Their keys to identifying skills that matter involve asking questions about endurance, leverage and readiness:

Endurance:  Are students expected to retain the skills or knowledge you are considering long after the test is completed?

Leverage:  Is this skill or knowledge you are considering applicable to many academic disciplines?

Readiness for the next level of learning:  Is this skill or knowledge you are considering going to prepare the student for success in the next grade/course?

When I think about the kinds of knowledge and skills that meet the endurance-leverage-readiness test by crossing disciplines, preparing students for success in the next grade and remaining important long after the test, I think of information management, collaborative dialogue, and persuasion.

And now that I’ve narrowed my focus down to three important skills, making instructional technology choices is easy.

Here are some examples:

Information Management

It would be pretty darn near impossible to argue that learning to manage information—to identify sources worth trusting, to organize collections of shared resources on topics of interest, to create customized streams of content—is an essential skill for everyone in today’s digitally driven world.

Not only will managing information become more important in the future (endurance), it is essential regardless of academic discipline (leverage) and it can help students to learn efficiently throughout their school careers (readiness).

As a result, I try to introduce my students to search tools like the Google Wonder Wheel.  We also discuss the anatomy of hoax websites and we begin to explore the value in social bookmarking and shared annotation of content.

 

Collaborative Dialogue

Anyone who has spent any time reading the Radical knows that I’m completely frustrated by the kill-em-all nature of important conversations in our country.  Competitive dialogue—the kind of “I’m smarter than you” rhetoric we hear from politicians and pundits all the time—leaves us divided.

That’s why I’m a big believer in collaborative dialogue—“Let’s think together”—as an essential skill.  Collaborative thinking is a characteristic of the best innovators (endurance) regardless of discipline (leverage).  It is also a characteristic of the most efficient learners in our schools (readiness).

As a result, I work hard to give my students opportunities to practice collaborative dialogue.  Usually that work happens with an approachable tool called VoiceThread.

 

Persuasion

Persuasion is perhaps the most interesting skill on my essentials list simply because it often runs contrary to my passion for collaborative dialogue.  When you’re persuading, you’re not always working from a collaborative mindset.

But understanding persuasion is incredibly important to being a literate citizen in the 21st Century (endurance) simply because EVERYONE with an opinion is using the Web to shape public thinking around the issues that they care about.

If our students don’t understand the tricks of the persuasion trade, they’re going to spend their entire adult lives being bamboozled.

And perhaps more importantly, if they don’t understand the tricks of the persuasion trade, they’ll never be able to organize significant action around the ideas that THEY care about.

That makes persuasion an important skill in many domains (leverage and readiness), doesn’t it?

As social studies classes explore the global implications of poverty, science classes study the potential solutions to our world-wide energy crisis and health classes study the role that governments should play in regulating healthy living habits, students will form content-specific positions that they’ll want to advocate for.

As a result, I try to engage my kids in projects that require them to be persuasive.  Specifically, we use the Kiva microlending website as a starting point for persuasive conversations and experiences.

We also use Animoto to create persuasive videos and talk about the role that images play in today’s persuasion landscape.

 

What’s interesting is that just about every time that I finish explaining the thinking about  my technology choices, someone gets flustered. 

“You’re not using wikis?” they’ll argue.  “How can that be?  And for any teacher to ignore Skype as a tool in the classroom is simply ridiculous!  It’s fantastic.”

My reply—delivered as gently as possible—is always the same:
“Wikis and Skype aren’t skills.  Instead, they’re tools that can be used to make working with individual skills easier.”

And I have used wikis with students—as a part of a persuasive effort to shape thinking in North Carolina around alternative energy sources.  Skype becomes a tool for exploring positions and ideas that are outside of our own, supporting the collaborative dialogue and persuasive efforts that I believe in.

Does any of this make sense?

I guess what I’m trying to argue is that we need to start looking at the characteristics of good teaching before we ever start to think about good tools.

Technology cannot help children learn when it is divorced from the knowledge, skills and expert choices of their teachers.

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