Computers key to student collaboration

BRISTOL — A Bristol educator is among a team of teachers statewide making a push to reform the way technology is used in Vermont classrooms.
Gone are the days when students are being evaluated based on skills like PowerPoint presentations and simple typing goals, said Lauren Kelly Parren, the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union technology coordinator. According to Parren, the new effort moves beyond teaching technology for technology’s sake: The idea is to transform the way students learn, using some of the new and, in some cases, relatively inexpensive tools teachers have at their fingertips.
Parren was part of a team of technology and education experts from across the state who built a new guide for teachers based on that principle. In a report issued last month by this team, the educators build on the state’s original grade expectations for technology skills compiled in 1997, and present possible classroom scenarios to help schools and teachers envision how technology can transform their curriculum.
“This buzz word, ‘transformation,’ is really about trying to change schools in fundamental ways that are going to help students get ready for the 21st century,” Parren said. “We think that the old ways of learning, of memorizing something that the teacher tells you and spitting it back to the teacher, is not going to help the kids be competitive in the future.”
That’s where student-centered, project-based learning comes in. The new technology standards aren’t about the tools, Parren said, because the tools are often changing. The guide instead focuses on ways that students and teachers can use technology to achiever bigger goals.
“Technology now allows for so much creativity and so much innovation that we really need to be looking again at the ways we’re teaching kids,” Parren said.
At Bristol Elementary School, fifth-grade teacher Rebecca Tarling is putting some of Parren’s advice to work, after taking a workshop with Parren about wikis, a collaborative type of Web site that multiple students and teachers can edit and add to at different times.
This year, for instance, her students are using a wiki to share their knowledge about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Tarling’s class is studying right now. Each student has created a Web page about a different human right. In addition to posting basic information, they’ve also created videos, posted pictures, and uploaded text and voice files.
Tarling said that incorporating video and audio files provides a means for students who struggle with writing to express themselves in a new way. The online discussion also involves students who hang back during in-class conversations.
“I saw a lot of kids shine that would normally be inhibited by their writing abilities or their reading abilities and really are able to overcome that with video or voice work,” Tarling said.
What’s more, Tarling’s students are going to be sharing their findings virtually with the Amnesty International club at Mount Abraham Union High School.
“It wasn’t just a random assignment,” said Tarling. “They have an audience that they have to think about, and they have something they need to communicate. They’re the experts, and they’re the teachers.”
That authentic audience often encourages students to step up to the plate: Knowing that their assignment or essay isn’t just for one teacher’s eyes often motivates students to put more effort into their work.
Tarling’s excited about opportunities like this one that let students reach outside of the classroom walls. As part of a classroom conversation about health care, she is setting up a video conferencing chat with a doctor working at a medical center in Africa. Opportunities like that simply wouldn’t be possible without technology in the classroom.
Adding more technology into the curriculum can be daunting for a teacher, particularly in the beginning, but Tarling said it boils down to taking small steps. Now, she said, she looks ahead to future units and asks herself, “Is there a way that I could enhance that using technology?”
Parren admitted that this new approach to teaching technology comes with some challenges. It’s messy, she said, because the standards don’t come with the tidy checklists that they once did. It’s harder to measure student achievement, she went on, though she’s skeptical that old rubrics that called for students to master PowerPoint presentations with a set number of slides really measured “what matters.”
Increased technology in the classroom also means more work for teachers, who already have a very full day. She hopes schools make flexible staff development — like summer courses, or online workshops — a possibility for teachers moving forward.
“I think part of the answer is going to be the excitement that’s going to be in the air when the brave teachers, the trailblazers, actually do this stuff. If we’re right, the kids are going to be so excited about it that teachers are going to want to learn how to do it,” she said.
Parren thinks technology in the classroom can be daunting for more than just the teachers: Students can be scared, too.
“It’s scary,” she said. “We’ve brought them up to say, ‘Everybody in the room now turn to page 65. Everybody take out your pen and paper.’ That’s how we’ve brought them up, and now suddenly we’re asking them, ‘What do you want to learn, and how do you want to learn it?’”
There’s also the issue of expense, though Parren stressed that teachers and schools can make great strides with what they already have. Some changes can be as simple, she said, as moving away from a “computer lab” model to one that puts two or three computers in every classroom, where they can be used throughout the day.
“A bigger hurdle than money is time,” Parren said.
In the end, she hopes the new guide helps teachers think outside the box, and realize that there are new tools — like video conferencing, wikis and videos — that can enhance their lesson plans.
“That’s what so exciting. It’s not the technology, it’s the learning,” Parren said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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