Saturday, July 19, 2008

Classroom Technology <> Student Learning

Technology in the urban, public school classroom centers around the teacher's ability to piece together lesson plans that engage kids long enough for them to learn and retain some knowledge. If the teacher does not know enough about computers then the lessons probably do not exist. If the teacher is eager to employ computers then there are attempts to incorporate something into the lesson plan. However, the lessons probably fail the first time and students end up wasting valuable instructional time. In this scenario, classroom technology <> student learning. So what type of technology incorporation improves student learning?

During my first year at the present school I was promised computers for every student in the classroom. This was a lie but I managed to find a "cart" of mobile PCs that could be shared. Some of the notebooks actually worked long enough for students to use them 1/2 of a class period. During select times, students used the notebooks to find information on different chemicals and create presentations on different topics. The process was slow and not well thought out. I was never comfortable with the notebooks. But it didn't matter because the cart was never available future years.

The root cause of poor technology incorporation lies in the basic troubles of public schools. First and foremost, teachers are not always sure which courses they are going to teach from year to year, and sometimes they are not aware of the course until a few days before the start of the school year.

For the past three years, I've been fortunate enough to be responsible for several class periods of chemistry. As I worked putting together resources, I slapped them into a 3 ring binder. Some of these resources were placed on TheChemBook last year and I've spent a little time organizing the course into units. But just putting the lesson together has taken 3 years.

Sadly, my lecture notes were scattered after the first year (PPTs, Journal, OneNote, MS-Word) and so last year my goal was to assemble them into one place (one electronic form). I chose MS-Word as the central file format for no particular reason and now have all of the lecture notes in one area (a directory called school/chemistry/school year/lecture notes/ ). Since putting them in the same area, I have now sequenced, numbered and titled them.

The goal this year is to clean up the lecture notes so they may be downloaded by the students, flow from one idea to the next, and tie to the labs and assessments. Finding real life examples to include in the lectures is another goal. The lectures, though, do not incorporate technology. Since, the challenge is presenting the lecture notes so I am using full use of the technology the kids use during their daily lives - I am beginning to explore options. The iPod, cell phone, and social sites are three target areas.

Last year, I attempted to record some of the lectures and make them available for the MP3 players. This failed because the visuals were just as important as the words. On a few lectures, I used MS Journal to draw cartoons with key concepts about nuclear chemistry. This worked well - and many kids still drew the cartoons at the end of the year.

This summer I am learning Camtasia Studio to try to present lectures. I'm not very good with this product yet and school is about ready to start. There must be an easy way to use Camtasia Studio and I am not able to figure that part out. I'll probably take a short cut this year and highlight certain concepts in 5-10 minute videos. I am eager to add animation and music to the lectures.

Luckily I am not failing at all of my attempts. Recently, the principal agreed I can use the cell phones during the first 10 minutes of class. The daily questions will be rearranged so students work in a team to figure out the answer to the daily question and will text message the answer. Teams will earn 5 points for text messaging, 5 more points for text messaging the correct answer, and as a bonus, the first team to answer correctly earns an extra 5 points. My "pitch" to the principal was that cell phones are so ubiquitous on campus that we should embrace them in the classroom - and not fight them. She agreed on the condition that the students understand the cell phones are only to be out the first 10 minutes and must immediately be put away. I am also to explain the chemistry class is the only place for the cell phones and they will be taken outside the 10 minute window. I'm sure the principal will visit the classroom and monitor the experiment.

As an extension of the cell phone use, I plan to use my phone to snap pictures of kids doing labs and put those pictures into the next day's lecture (when I'm trying to tie the lab concepts with the previous lectures). Hopefully these photos in the PowerPoints will earn a little focus from the students. My concern is the photos may get their attention but distract them from remembering what they were doing when the photo was taken.

So - here I sit - worrying about lecture notes, concerned about using cell phones, and uncertain about the best use of making my own videos for classroom learning. What do you do (or will you do) in the classroom to make sure technology supports student learning? What do you with technology as a student to help you learn? As a student, what would you want from the teacher? As a parent, what are your concerns about teachers trying to incorporate technology into the class?