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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Doing More with Less (and Other Practical Educational Technology Tidbits)

Another year of school is upon us. My son, who just turned three, just started his first school. He excitedly talks about it, plays pretend school with his Superman and Thomas the Train toys, and loves to carry his new backpack around our house. Watching his eagerness, I hope that, in some way, we all feel that way about this new school year.

And why not be excited? We teach in amazing times. Just think about the technology that you carry around in your pocket or the things you are able to do on the Internet. Technology makes meaningful collaborative and engaging interactive classroom experiences possible with minimal effort.

However, sometimes we need some help getting started. This list of ideas is far from complete and will hopefully serve as a starting place for some conversations in your school or district. Please feel free to share any of your ideas in the comments section below.

1. Start Small

Oftentimes new initiatives, whether they be related to educational technology, incorporating a new program for math, or even something as simple as a new district policy regarding attendance, these can all throw us for a loop. It's great when new ideas and initiatives work right away, but if they don't there are two choices -- adapt or ignore. And ignoring is no longer an option.

We need to embrace and try these new initiatives, while realizing that it's okay to fail. (I know this is Edutopia and all -- but Yoda was wrong in this case. There is such a thing as "try.") Failure is how we learn. In fact, it is sometimes refreshing to fail at something and face the challenge of getting it to work out.

But in school, where there are often a multitude of constraints and demands on the teacher, their students, and the time that they have -- it is difficult to try, not succeed, and then take the chance to try again in the hopes of an alternate result.

My Advice

  • Try one new thing a week. That way you don't get overwhelmed, and yet your year will be filled with around 40 new attempts at something new and fresh. This can be as simple as trying to use a new web tool with your students or even just committing to using technology to help you do something better in your life as a professional.
  • Try one new thing at a time. Often we pack too much into a lesson. If you find ten websites you want to share with the students, consider putting nine of them on a "Explore More" sheet that they can look at when they have time or as an extension of learning (my definition of "homework"). This way you can really take time to delve into a resource appropriately and not be watching the clock as you try to toss too much into the mix. The technology is not a list of ingredients thrown onto a lesson, but rather something that you should have kneaded and baked into the pedagogy.

2. Collaboration Is the 21st Century Skill

I personally think that learning to work with other people and sharing information appropriately is the most important skill we can be building with students (and educators) today. I'm not talking about "Group Work," at least not the artificial group work that I remember from my days in school. I am talking about a more organic collaboration between students. They don't need to be in the same class, grade, or even the same school. By connecting online, there are literally millions of other people who can help you and/or benefit from your work. Oftentimes I get ideas from social media about great class projects; it is a wonderful place to learn and to share your ideas, successes, and failures.

My Advice

  • Use free tools. There are a host of free web tools that come in handy for collaboration including Skype and Google Docs, Popplet and Today's Meet.
  • Find new ways to collaborate. I like to ask students to collaborate with someone they don't know. There are lots of sites set up out there where teachers can connect with other teachers and partner their students up on these types of interactive platforms. I think that while it is truly great for the students to collaborate we should be doing it too!
    Social media platforms like Twitter and Google+ have made it incredibly easy to build a powerful network of like-minded passionate individuals that you can both share ideas with. It is vitally important that we stay life-long learners and remain open to new ideas and technologies as they can help us be better at our jobs.

3. Training Is Key

Technology in the classroom brings out interesting things in teachers. Some, like myself (and likely you as well), are eager to learn and do more because the technology and what it can do interests us. Others aren't quite sure what to do, but would be willing to learn if given some help. And of course, some people sadly write off technology as being a chore or a passing fad.

One way to ensure that technology is used properly in the classroom is to make it clear how to do so. Training needs to be quality and continuous. Schools need to make it a priority to help educators use the "stuff" that they buy for the schools.

But these ideas involve time dedicated from the school and teachers -- sometimes this is not so easy to come by. I recommend a grass-roots approach. Tech Tips are short emails that I have been sending around at my job for the past four years. Short emails explaining what a tool, resource, or website does and why it might be useful to the reader. These emails don't take terribly long to write, but are oftentimes seen as very helpful. If you start the chain and get a few people on board you will probably have a fun sharing circle in no time.

My Advice

  • Look outside your school as some great PD that is free and easy to come by. There are some wonderful un-conferences that focus on educational technology throughout the country, including EduCon or EdCamp. But the Internet is one of the best places to seek advice and ideas. Using YouTube videos and tutorials as well as Twitter, you can connect with other educators and learn just about anything. These are also two great platforms to share on.
  • Suggest that each faculty meeting include a tech-share. Allow teachers to explain their hits and misses using technology in the classroom.
  • Make sure that training is more constant. When new hardware is put into a classroom or school, the training needs to occur more than just a one-off when the "stuff" gets set-up. The teacher needs support to learn how to best use the new tools with their curriculum.

4. Go Mobile

Technology -- the "stuff" part of it -- has come a long way. Where we used to be able to only access the Internet through a giant tower machine with a clunky monitor, we can now get online from almost any modern device -- anything from a smartphone to an iPad.

As a result, the days of computer labs are over. Indeed, they are a waste of space in a modern-day school. Why make it so that to use technology as a part of a lesson teachers would have to leave their classrooms just to use it? Any investment a school makes in technology should be something that can be used in multiple settings for multiple purposes by multiple sets of students.

My Advice

  • Make the case for mobile technology The incredible truth in some cases people making decisions about what to acquire for the school that you are working with may not be familiar or comfortable with some of the newest technology.
    While schools always should exercise a modicum of caution when evaluating new tech, it seems that all too often they go with what is easiest, cheapest, or what they themselves are most comfortable with. Show the decision-makers what you want and explain why it is the best solution out there. If it is an iPad cart that you want to use with your class, don't just ask for one; make a case as to why your classroom would be a better place if you had it in there.
  • Fundraise creatively. Sometimes the money really is an issue and the school won't underwrite a tech initiative, even if it is a valid one. Grants and donation sites are a great place to post any projects you are working on or towards. DonorsChoose.org and DigitialWish.com are two excellent websites for teachers to propose a project that they are working on and ask for some money to help them do acquire the necessary school products.

5. High Tech on a Low Budget

Educational technology should no longer be synonymous with large expenditures of money for software and hardware. Schools can do a great deal with very little. With Web access, students and teachers have access to thousands of free web resources that can provide countless enhanced learning experiences as well as ways for students to create a swath of creative content. Take for example the site SumoPaint.com, it is a robust image editor which looks almost identical to PhotoShop. The difference is that SumoPaint is free to use and can be accessed from anyone -- one of the key benefits of using web-based tools as they work is not machine or platform dependent.

My Advice

  • Use Twitter This piggy-backs a little of some past advice, but Twitter is one of the best places to learn about these new free web tools quickly and efficiently. In addition there are lots of great sites out there that are dedicated to finding and sharing free web tools with the user. eduClipper.net, the site that I run (many describe it as the social bookmarking service that teachers want Pinterest to be), is one of these places where you can go and quickly search for, or stumble upon, a great new tool to use in your classroom.

6. Rethink Who Should Be at the Table

Oftentimes when school policy and visions are planned there seems to be a major disconnect between the administration (usually the ones making or voting on the policy) and the rest of the school (the teachers and students whom the decisions affect).

We really do teach in a remarkable time. Each day you walk into your school setting, whether it be a classroom, office, or somewhere else, remember that you help to shape the future and what you do during the day can change the world!

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