Mar 31 2016

2 Steps for Using Technology as a Catalyst for Learning

An expert offers her advice for moving forward with technology-infused learning.

In 1997, a group of seventh-grade students created the first website for the small town of Safety Harbor, Fla. The students were organized into a web-design firm complete with a CEO, lead web designer, writers, historians, geographers, map--makers, programmers and journalists. Their project won the 1997 International CyberFair competition.

It’s difficult to believe that was nearly 20 years ago. Technology has advanced exponentially since then; unfortunately, in many ways, the typical classroom has not. But despite the slow pace of change, there are many schools dedicated to new models of teaching and learning, and scores of amazing teachers who put their heart and soul — not to mention hundreds of hours — into creating powerful learning experiences for their students.

Outdated infrastructure, limited budgets, lack of vision among leadership and teacher dispositions are barriers to change. Thoughtful consideration must be given to how advances in technology are disrupting the institution of school. So, where and how might a school begin?

Control remains the single greatest barrier to technology adoption in learning spaces. Policymakers drive policy to influence education at the state and national level. School districts control curricula, teacher evaluations, budgets, classroom time and school day structure. Principals manage teachers, student behavior and daily building routines. Teachers pride themselves on classroom control — that includes student behavior, classroom structure and curriculum-related activities down to the minute. The school day is a well-oiled machine that has been grinding away for a very long time. The paradigms of school and learning are deeply entrenched within all of us.

Two critical steps can be taken to greatly increase the speed at which new technologies are adopted for learning. First, put technology in the hands of the students with a priority on meaningful learning. Second, rethink time, place and space. In other words, rethink when learning occurs, where it occurs and what constitutes a classroom space. Consider these things before making investments in technology.

Shift the Focus from Teachers to Students

Transformative use of technology requires a shift from the teacher- centered classroom to student-centered learning. Students must be prepared to take on greater responsibility for learning. We know from research that there are processes students must practice to effectively build their own personal learning paths. Those processes include digital responsibility, digital literacy, organizing content from numerous sources, collaborating and communicating online and in person and synthesizing content to create knowledge artifacts. Those are complex processes that should be addressed over time, in age-appropriate ways.

Shift some of the control for learning to students in small, manageable steps. Start by giving students more choices in how they complete assignments and at what pace. Provide alternative means of assessing learning. Empower students to have a voice in how they meet curriculum standards. Such steps can be taken with or without the use of technology.

Make Way for Modern Learning

Mobile technology offers access to learning any time and anywhere. This has implications for the structure of the school day, where students learn, how they learn and what formats work best in different situations. Block scheduling is a relatively simple place to start, and many schools already are changing the hours in a school day to allow for more consecutive time in class. Think about the school space and how it might change to support small group work, quiet spaces where students can work independently and projects that take students beyond the school walls out into the community or around the world. Blended learning is possible through online learning environments that extend the school day beyond the six or seven hours spent in a physical building.

Ultimately, policymakers also will need to relinquish control. The current focus on high-stakes testing renders it nearly impossible to change any aspect of the school day. Passing legislation to reduce the amount of time that students can spend taking tests does not decrease the amount of time needed to prepare for tests. Policy decisions flow down to the individual student in the classroom. When policy puts greater trust in the districts and schools, principals will focus on the teacher dispositions needed to facilitate student-centered learning. And, when teachers prepare students and offer them greater control over their learning process, students will rise to our highest expectations and take ownership of their education and path in life.