Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Misconceptions Even "Techie" Teachers Make

When I started teaching in a blended online & face-to-face environment this year, I anticipated several obstacles. However, I also made some common and critical assumptions about how students understand and use technology, and how schools approach the integration of technology. The reshaping of these misconceptions has contributed greatly to my year of learning and has informed my approach to leading new tech integrations.

Misconception #5: Students are on the cutting edge of technology.
Truth: No, they aren’t, not in the way we assume they are at least. I recently interviewed a candidate for a technology integration position and asked him how he stays current in such a dynamic field. He replied, “The kids always know what’s new.” I politely ended the conversation. Student knowledge of technology is limited to their immediate needs, driven largely during childhood by curiosity and social acceptance, not by the need to excel academically or organize, as neither of these skills is inherently age-appropriate. As a result, students develop sharp skills in select technologies but remain largely ignorant of others unless taught. For example, our students were on the forefront of using Tumblr, Photoshop, Facebook (MySpace previously), Formspring (awful site!), and HS Memes, but they knew little about Google Apps before our integration.

Misconception #4: Educational technology means using computers, Smartboards, or iPads.
Truth: At the heart of using technology should be creativity and innovation. This means making things and using them too! At the recent #TEDxNYED conference, I was so energized by a couple great presentations on the importance of making things. One presenter, Jaymes Dec challenged parents and teachers to avoid asking “What did you learn at school today?” and instead ask “What did you make in school today?” So many well-intentioned efforts to integrate technology are failing to capitalize on the innovative potential of technology because they are centered around purchasing presentation technologies. Communication of information is important, but it should not form the core purpose of technology in schools.

Misconception #3: There is an obvious link between existing tech skills and classroom applications.
Truth: There is a natural link, but students don’t often see it. When asked what technology skills they think they need to be “college and career ready”, many students point to the same set of skills often seen on a dusty resume tagline: typing, email, Word, Excel. They very often have established competencies in the use of social media, design technologies, blogging sites, Youtube, and wikis, but they do not see how these technologies can be applied in academic or work environments. This disconnect became apparent to me when I started using Facebook as a classroom communication and learning platform, and students were surprised and a bit uncomfortable at first. They later admitted that it was nice having everything in one place and receiving notifications on posts, but there was definitely a bridge which needed to be built.

Misconception #2: Technology is a perfect way to differentiate instruction.
Truth: It is in a way, but it is not necessarily differentiated in method. In other words, when we talk about differentiated instruction, we have three targets: content/skill differentiation, method/process differentiation, and product/assessment differentiation. Some online learning platforms such as Khan Academy are great for differentiating content/skill. Further, if we introduce varied student outcome options, we can also use technology to differentiate the type of assessment. However, the fact that students must be watching, listening, or reading information online rather than learning in person or “by doing” is something we need to pay attention to. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but I can see trends in locking kids into online classes because skills tracking is easier. We had this experience with our language program, and we had to reexamine our process to allow for variation in the method of learning as some students did not take to the environment. You can see this in adult learning as well. I’m going to go ahead and say it even though I learn so much from my Twitter PLN...Twitter and social media in general is not for everyone...and that is okay.

Misconception #1: Kids love learning with technology.
Truth: Students are surprisingly traditional when it comes to their definition of “good class, good teacher, good school”; at least many are. They like using technology, but they stand their ground in protecting traditional instruction. When we introduced a language tool which was interactive and allowed for students to create their own avatars, pace through content at their own rates, and work to mastery in a forgiving environment. We faced a huge backlash from our middle and high school students who really struggled to a) like it and b) learn from it. At times, they spent much of their energy not learning from it simply to prove to us that is was not an effective tool. A similar situation has emerged with Study Island where the I-Hate-Study-Island Facebook page currently has over 5,500 likes. My first two blended learning classes taught this year had starkly contrasting attitudes towards the blended experience. In one, the students were very positive and excited about learning in this highly supported virtual environment while in the other, I faced very angry students, mostly overachieving students, who adamantly opposed the arrangement at first out of fear they would not succeed. Because I failed to anticipate their response, I had to spend a good part of the first few weeks reassuring them that they would be successful and that I would actually be “teaching them”. Even though my other class liked the blended environment, they don’t all love it being paperless and organized in Google Docs. In fact, when my dad did a spotlight lesson on Of Mice and Men earlier this year, one posted to Facebook, “I love your dad, Mrs. D! He gave us a handout! I learn so much better with a handout.” Very humbling but important lesson indeed.

My three online classes I’ve taught this year have been very successful, and the one starting in January the most successful because by that time, I had corrected some of my misconceptions and preemptively assuaged a lot of anxieties regarding the new learning experience. My point in writing this isn’t to say that we should not venture down the road of integrating new technologies or using them to create progressive learning experiences, but instead that we should approach new integrations without some of the assumptions we often make.


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  2. I enjoyed reading this blog. I was entertained and informed at the same time.

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  3. Thank you, Denise! Will be posting more on blended and online learning soon.