The Inside Agenda Blog

Guest Post: How Technology Can Customize Learning

Monday January 21, 2013

You may remember elementary school teacher Rick McCleary from the first program in our Learning 2030 special series, about the classroom of the future, recorded at Communitech Hub in Kitchener, Ontario. You can watch that program above. McCleary has also written a couple of guest blogs for us over the past few months; his latest focused on the question of marks, and whether grades are the best way to evaluate students.

Below, as we continue our Learning 2030 series, McCleary writes about customized learning, and how he's putting it to use in his classroom. 

“I wonder, will any of the rock samples collected make it to earth or is it just the information about the rocks that is sent to earth?”

This question opened a large discussion in my class that wouldn’t have occurred without technology. The question came during a scientist’s presentation to our Grade 6 class on the Mars Curiosity Rover. Our class was very fortunate to have Scott Van Bommel from the Mars Science Laboratory at of the University of Guelph come and present an overview of the Canadian component for Mars Curiosity. However, as students reacted to and responded to the presentation through a back-channeling program called Today’s Meet -- which allows students to comment and ask questions during a presentation without the interruption of raising their hand -- the question above appeared from a student that normally would never raise her hand and share her thoughts in class. This question led to a clarification and a deep discussion of what data was sent back to Earth and its usefulness.

This an example of how digital technology enhances the ability to personalize education, considering each student’s needs and desires. Technology also changes the delivery. When I think back to when and how I studied astronomy in elementary school, it involved gathering a number of books on an assigned planet, doing a booklet project, and possibly using coat hangers and styrofoam balls to make a mobile. 

Compare that to my class' current astronomy unit:

My students thought it would be fun to do some work with a class from another location, so they asked me to find a class and set it up. Through Twitter, I found a Grade 6 class in Calgary, Alberta, led by a very creative and energetic teacher, Quinn Barreth.

We began the unit with a Mystery Skype, where the two classes connect through Skype, but do not know each other's location, take turns asking questions (informed by Google research), and try to guess where each class is located. Then, they decided on project topics and groups. An overview of the curriculum expectations occurred, and then each group created their own marking rubric (via rubistar, an Internet rubric-making tool), so both teacher and student can evaluate the learning experience when the project is completed. 

A screengrab of one of McCleary's grade 6 students' Linoit canvases.

Students then began working with their partners in Alberta, discussing who they were and how and what they wanted to learn about their subject. Students communicated using online tools like Google Docs, Linoit, Wallwisher, Gmail, and Skype. Each student fills out a KWHLQA (What do I KNOW, What do I WANT to know, HOW will I find out, What did I LEARN, What QUESTIONS do I still have, and What ACTION will I take) chart to plan and then evaluate their unit. Group partners share ideas, videos, websites, interviews, pictures, documents, and notes with each other in order to reach whatever goals they’ve set.

When general questions arise, we have been able to tweet with astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is answering questions and sharing information from the International Space Station. 

Some students are using more traditional programs, such as PowerPoint and SMART Board slide shows, while others are choosing cutting-edge tools like Prezi and Glogster to show what they are learning. More literary students have been writing an astronaut’s blog about their travels to one of the moons of Jupiter. Arts-oriented students have created scale models of the International Space Station or a detailed section of Mars. Other learners chose to do a model of what they think the first colony on the surface of the moon would look using computer programs, such as Google SketchUp or even Minecraft. Students whose passion is in health and fitness created activity centres where visitors learn about astronaut food, practice the astronaut jump and the moonwalk, compare their weights, and consider how Olympic records would be different if they were achieved on different planets. More drama-oriented students presented information in front of a green screen so it looks like they’re actually visiting another planet during the presentation.

At the end of this unit, students will not only have covered the required curriculum expectations, but done so in a variety of ways reflecting their favourite subject. These are the types of customized projects the use of technology makes possible for students. Not to mention, they won’t forget the experience of communicating and working with partners over 3,500 kilometres away!  

Image credits: Rick McCleary