The Inside Agenda Blog

Guest Post: Award-Winning Teacher on Technology and Learning

Wednesday November 14, 2012

As part of The Agenda's ongoing Learning 2030 series, we've been reaching out to educators to tell us how they're helping the current generation of students to learn, and how they see education evolving in the years to come. 

Some educators have been kind enough to share their insights by writing blog posts for us. Today, Heidi Siwak, who teaches in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, shares her insights about how to best use technology in today's classroom. Siwak and her students have won awards for the way they've combined technology with learning. She also blogs at heidisiwak.com.

How do I use technology in my classroom? An interesting question.

I find that people tend to equate "technology" with "computers" and one must be careful not to forget that there is a vast array of tools and venues for learning that may or may not require an outlet and power bar. I suppose my caution stems from the understanding of someone with 20-plus years of classroom experience, that while new technologies are front and centre in this current educational revolution, it's not just about the technology.

More Than Just Gadgets

Education is first and foremost about learners – people with life experiences, stories, challenges, interests, talents, goals, and attitudes towards learning and more particularly towards school. The question we should be asking as we head towards 2030 is not how does any one teacher use technology, but how do we create rich learning environments that meet the needs of diverse learners, and what tools are most appropriate for supporting that learning? It is here that the tools of today (mobile devices, social media, game-based learning, Web 2.0, assistive technology, document cameras, interactive boards, tablets, etc.) are finding their place as they have done in my own practice.

I am fortunate to have access to many modern tools for learning. Our board supports wireless and bring your own devices; we also have a flexible unblocking policy. In addition to five temperamental PCs in my classroom, a computer lab in our school, my own laptop, and a document camera, my students and I did win two major prizes last year that resulted in technological wealth. Through the MindShare Learning Video Challenge we received $15,000 in technology including an interactive SMART Board and class clicker set, Front Row sound system, Dell notebook, flip camera, books, and a trip for me to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in San Diego last June. We were also awarded the $7,000 Ken Spencer Award award from the Canadian Education Association for our app project, which allowed us to purchase 11 iPads, a remote control slide changer and laser pointer, and a green screen. The iPads have been an enormous marker of change for my practice because they put access and control over learning into the hands of my students. 

Heidi Siwak and her students' winning submission to the MindShare Learning Video Challenge.

We used some of our award money to build a gaming server that allows up to 1,000 players to participate in Minecraft. This was built for us by Humber College students and I suppose that that is really the starting point for what I see as the true power of 21st century learning and the place of technology in it  its capacity to foster connection and collaboration beyond the four walls of our classrooms.

An Evolution in Learning and Technology

My own technological transformation began in 2009 and it wasn't long after my entry into blogging and the subsequent discovery of Twitter that I recognized social media was about to change forever my role as  "teacher" who follows curriculum, plans lessons, teaches, and then assesses. With social media it became possible to connect my students directly to those with expertise anywhere in the world. They could now independently learn whatever they wanted to learn, from whomever they wanted to learn, whenever they wanted to learn, and my job was to facilitate those connections. And connect we did! My students worked with programmers in Australia and Finland to develop an app, my Grade 6 students hosted the world's first student-led global Twitter chat on Hana’s Suitcase and the Holocaust (posts about this can be found in the November 2011 archive of my blog), and were directly responsible for @hanassuitcase‘s launch into social media. We discovered that with social media we could engage in meaningful projects rather than those invented purely for the purposes of school  with no audience beyond school  and that those projects could effect change in our world. Heady stuff for 10, 11, and 12-year-olds!

This year my practice continues to evolve. New toys in the classroom mean one thing: I will once again be spending hundreds of hours of my free time learning how to use them. How sustainable is this? I don't know. Should I be paid for this time? Good question. Does it lead to better learning? Worthwhile asking. 

It certainly changes how we manage our learning. 

Learning Technology in Practice

Edmodo, a learning management system, has allowed my Grade 6 and 7 students to leap forward. It is our central communication platform. I can work with my class on a particular lesson using our SMART Board, which I then capture and turn into a Windows Media file and mp4. I upload the lesson to our YouTube channel, as well as Edmodo, giving students multiple ways to access the information should they need to review the concepts. Parents can also view the lesson  inordinately useful when working with a child at home. Assignments are created in Google Docs so that students can access them from everywhere, and placed in Edmodo. Edmodo is also a holding place for links to our most frequently used tools: the HWDSB Commons which hosts our blogs, Collaborize, Twitter, and YouTube. Students have electronic backpacks and access to the e-calendar. Parents can also view the calendar and their child's marks. Conversations between my students and myself are not limited to the hours of 8:35 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Even as I write this post on a Saturday afternoon, I have answered a quick question in Edmodo from one of my students. 

I suppose what I find most useful in all of this is how new technologies render learning immediate. If a student is working on a piece of writing that I want the whole class to see, I can place it under our document camera, which projects it to our SMART Board. The class can work together to analyze, provide feedback, and annotate the text, and all of this can be captured for future reference within a few minutes. In the past, I would have had to photocopy the text, or copy it onto a transparency for the overhead projector to be used the next day  learning would be delayed. Now, feedback and analysis can happen as the learning happens.

Technology and Students with Learning Challenges

It is what new technologies offers students with learning challenges, though, that has me most excited. In our board, Grade 5 students might be sent to The Centre for Success:

There they spend six weeks learning how to use assistive technologies to become independent learners. They return to their classes with a laptop, headset, scanner, and confidence. This has made a world of difference to many learners. It is fascinating to watch a student who in the past has been paralyzed, take control and move forward with their learning goals.

Given this emphasis on new technologies in my classroom, it should be noted that the foundation lies upon sound pedagogy: critical thinking, problem solving, project-based learning, creativity, communication, student voice, and strong relationships are, as they should be, at the heart of our work. I still teach sentence and paragraph structure in a very methodical way. Striking a balance between skill building, higher level thinking, and demonstrations of learning is an ongoing juggling act. 

Challenges and Opportunities

What I haven’t addressed in this post are the challenges we face when embracing technology and 21st Century Fluencies, and there are many. Inadequate technical support, bandwidth, equity of access  particularly when talking of BYOD ("bring your own device"), training, costs, funding, energy consumption, speed, downtime, outdated computers, decision-makers who don’t really get this new world of learning ... these are ongoing issues that need to be part of the conversation. 

What do I see for the future? Education will continue to be radically transformed but will also continue to radically transform our world. Learners will no longer be limited by time and space but will have access to global learning partners, leading, ultimately, to the end of mandatory curriculum and possibly schools  although I continue to waver on that one. Diplomas, degrees, and accreditations will have to be (and in fact are being) reinvented as the idea of what constitutes “learning and knowledge” is challenged. Models for delivery of education will evolve and learners will have greater choice and flexibility in how they pursue learning, which, if I am frank and honest about what I see coming, will challenge the institutions that protect and reinforce the current structures. Unless we adapt rapidly, at some point, students are going to walk, en masse, out of our schools because the opportunities outside of school are better.

The global collaborative project that is currently underway is going to accelerate access to knowledge as well as the growth of knowledge. One need look no further than Foldit to grasp the potential for knowledge construction, disbursement and improvement of our world. Foldit is a real-world science game that requires participants to fold proteins into unique patterns. Scientists then take these patterns and test them in research labs seeking solutions to problems. These scientists are crowdsourcing knowledge-building. It doesn’t matter whether the participant has a university degree or is a 10-year-old child; what matters is the protein pattern. 

Which should prompt everyone to ask: why? Why, when these kinds of real-world, highly-engaging opportunities are available today because of Web 2.0 technologies, are we continuing to pursue methods, programs, curriculum, and interactions that cause students to disengage from learning? 

Image credit: Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board

Other educators on technology and learning: