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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technology Tools to Get Teachers Started

A mini-manual to Web readiness shows that immersion, with guidance, is key.
Douglas Cruickshank
Credit: iStock Photo

The culture of learning is changing, and technology is playing a major role in the transformation. Educators and students are altering the very nature of the classroom experience by increasingly turning to technology as an integral component of learning.

The result is that school is beginning to more closely resemble the real world, thereby becoming more valuable, relevant, and useful for everyone involved.

Sounds good, doesn't it? That's certainly the ideal, but there is so much out there: wikis, blogs, Twitter, social networking, and the near-infinite resources of the Web. Teachers, like a lot of us, may be overwhelmed, especially if, like a lot of us, they don't have a natural affinity for technology and the online world.

So where do you start learning how to integrate technology into your classroom as well as how to use it for your ongoing professional development? And how do you stay current with the almost daily changes in the technology landscape?

To find answers both general and specific, I talked to three strong advocates for incorporating technology into the learning process: Darren Draper, director of technology services for the Canyons School District, in Cottonwood Heights, Utah; Louise Maine, a science teacher at Punxsutawney Area High School, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania; and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a digital-learning consultant and a cofounder of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional-development company that aids educators in adopting 21st-century teaching and learning practices.

One concept that all three say is essential is that your students' needs, and your own, motivate your use of new technology tools. "Whenever you address technology and its use in the classroom, it's important that you focus on why you're using the technology," notes Draper. "Don't just use it for technology's sake. Have a reason."

He also counsels against trying to become proficient in everything at once. "Pick one tool that resonates with what you're already doing in the class," he says. The key is to choose a tool that's appropriate for one of your assignments or projects. Draper adds, "Then run with it. Really focus on that one tool for a period of time. When you're ready to expand, that's great. But take baby steps. Use the tool with something that you're already doing."

In terms of ongoing professional development, the good news is that one of the best, most accessible ways to get up to speed on technology integration and training options is through technology itself. The Web provides abundant opportunities for both self-directed education and more structured training -- great ways to use immersion to become familiar with new technology tools and processes.

To get you started, here's a brief survey of the most popular and frequently used technology and Web 2.0 tools, what they are, what they'll do for you, and how to learn more about them:

Web 2.0

What exactly is Web 2.0? Good question. It's a broad, vague term you'll come across often. It's tossed around casually, sometimes hyperbolically, and at other times with actual meaning attached. "Web 2.0" refers to the so-called second generation of World Wide Web functionality that emphasizes greater collaboration and interactivity.

Some examples of Web 2.0 are social-networking Web sites (Facebook, MySpace, Classroom 2.0), video-sharing and photo-sharing sites featuring the ability to exchange comments built in as a social component (YouTube, Flickr), blogs (edutopia.org blogs, David Warlick's 2 Cents Worth), and wikis (Wikipedia).

The possibilities for employing Web 2.0 tools in the classroom and professional-development training are virtually limitless (and that's not hyperbole). Want to know more about Web 2.0? Read an article on the subject by Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of the computer-book publisher O'Reilly Media, "What Is Web 2.0?"

RSS

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach describes what she does when first introducing teachers to technology options: "I usually have them start building a personal-learning network with RSS by subscribing to several RSS feeds. A teacher adds 10-15 people and begins reading their blogs."

It sounds easy, and it is. Using RSS news feeds enables you to subscribe to relevant blogs, news sites, and other Web sites that interest you. After subscribing, you'll receive an email alert when new content is posted. All you need is a reader or aggregator application, which you can quickly download free.

To learn more, go to Edutopia's RSS page. Want to know even more? Read "How RSS Works." RSS, by the way, is generally agreed to stand for "Really Simple Syndication" or "RDF Site Summary" or "Rich Site Summary" or, well, something. Those who want to avoid long, dull debates should just say, "RSS."

Listservs

Louise Maine says email lists, called listservs, are another good place to start gathering information and acquainting oneself with the thoughts and advice of like-minded souls. No matter what special interests you have, there is likely an email list out there for you, and many are education specific.

Indeed, there are a jillion lists and, fortunately, several sites that list the lists. One of the more extensive ones is CataList, which bills itself as "the official catalog of listserv lists." TeacherUniverse is another good source for education-related listservs.

Listserv software is available from L-Soft, makers of the original Listserv, Majordomo, a freeware listserv application, and many other sources.

To learn more about listservs, read the Education World article "Add YOUR Name to a Listserv -- TODAY!."

Social-Networking Web Sites

A social-networking Web site is an online community that enables its members to interact in a variety of ways, including by email and instant messaging and by posting photos, videos, and audio -- and then commenting on them. You can be certain that the majority of students in the upper elementary grades, middle school, and high school are members of one, if not several, of the wildly popular major social-networking sites.

Some of the largest, most well-known ones, such as Facebook and MySpace, have taken on the proportions of online metropolises, with all the diversity, interests, and varied residents that term implies. Other, smaller social-networking sites are geared to specific interests, professions, and topics; education is good example. One of the most popular among teachers is Classroom 2.0. "It is really good," Maine says. "There's so much information."

Draper is also enthusiastic about the site. He thinks it's essential for teachers who are just starting to learn about technology integration to engage with one or more education-centric social-networking sites early on. The value is that, among other things, you'll quickly find lots of help and encouragement.

"I like to push teachers toward Classroom 2.0," Draper says. "There are enough members that if you ask a question in one of the forums, you're going to get a response. New teachers can come into contact with educators from all over the world that are already using the tools. And many of them are very willing to help."

To learn more, read the Edutopia.org articles "How to Use Social-Networking Technology for Learning" and "My School, Meet MySpace: Social Networking at School." And, on the great HowStuffWorks site, read "How Social Networks Work."

Web Site Reviews by Teachers

TeachersFirst.com offers a large, regularly updated assortment of very useful classroom-ready materials. "For teachers who don't know where to start, there are some sites out there, such as Edutopia.org, with a wealth of information," Louise Maine says.

"I'm a Web site reviewer for TeachersFirst.com," Maine adds. "All the reviews are written by teachers, and there's a classroom section in each site review in which we give ideas as to how you can use the site, such as using it as an introductory or in some other specific way."

To help teachers stay up to date with new tools, TeachersFirst.com focuses on Web 2.0 topics in its Edge reviews, says Maine. "We did one on wikis, teachers who use wikis, what you should think about beforehand, what you do before you ever get a student working on a wiki, who to ask if it's OK; it covered the hidden dangers, the pitfalls you ought to be careful of."

Maine also suggests Curriki as an excellent source for teachers seeking ideas, practical advice, and classroom materials. The site describes itself as "an online environment created to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them."

Twitter

The microblogging phenomenon called Twitter -- where each entry, known as a tweet, is limited to 140 characters -- came up in conversations with both Nussbaum-Beach and Draper. They praise it as a tool with powerful potential for teachers.

Draper offered a recent Twitter success story: "I can't deny its utility in harnessing the collective ability of the network. A few weeks ago, my old team and I created a list called Digital Teaching Tools. Inspired by Kevin Honeycutt's laminated key ring of tools, we hoped to create a digital version that we could easily modify and eventually disseminate to teachers in our school district.

"After 15 or 20 minutes of brainstorming, we came up with a nice list of 25 or so tools," Draper adds. "At that point, I decided to release the hounds. One tweet and roughly 30 minutes later, the 25 tools we had come up with had turned into 70. Is there power in the network? Absolutely."

Wikis

A wiki is a Web site anyone can modify (though people suffering from impaired manners can be blocked). The most well-known one is Wikipedia, the vast online encyclopedia. But a wiki can be a single Web page with just two or three people or a single classroom contributing. Wiki content may comprise text, audio, video, photography -- anything you'll find on a Web site. They are terrific for collaborative projects and group communication.

Not surprisingly, teachers are using wikis in the classroom with increasing frequency. Last year, Louise Maine was the subject of an Edutopia.org article, "Wiki Woman: How a Web Tool Saved My Career," about her experiences -- the upside as well as the challenges -- using a wiki with her high school science students.

The article explains, "Maine sets it so that only she and her students may edit it, though anyone in the world can view it. When students enter the classroom, they automatically know to look at the wiki for daily instructions, rubrics, and resources."

To learn more, read Wikibooks's "Starting and Running a Wiki Website," the "wiki" entry on -- where else? -- Wikipedia, and HowStuffWorks's "How Wikis Work."

Blogs

Blogs, blogging, and bloggers are ubiquitous -- to put it mildly. Be selective about the company you keep in the blogosphere and you'll soon compile a valuable collection of rich, frequently refreshed resources for ideas and practical help. Reading savvy bloggers is also a fast, easy way to stay abreast of new developments in education and technology before they hit mainstream print and online publications.

And check out the blogrolls, lists of recommended blogs your favorite bloggers will likely have on their pages. That's a great way to start compiling the network Nussbaum-Beach suggests.

"When teachers start to build their own personal network," she says, "and when they have a question -- a just-in-time kind of query -- they can put it out there and immediately get four, five, 10, or 15 responses." And note that most blogs are RSS enabled: Once you subscribe, they'll come to you when they've got something to say.

Here are a few essential blogs to help you start building your own education blogosphere:

Last, but certainly not least, you will want to spend some time at EduBloggerWorld, the global network for education bloggers.

Online Professional Development

One of the most valuable resources for professional development is the constantly growing selection of online courses, seminars (or webinars, if you must), and various other study programs, workshops, and tutorials.

Most of them let you proceed at your own pace and, better yet, at your own home, rather than in a cavernous auditorium on some Wednesday night or Saturday morning. Some are free; some are definitely not. (For a good overview of the financial aspects, see Michelle Davis's recent Education Week article "Online Professional Development Weighed as Cost-Saving Tactic.")

Among the cost free are the strong offerings from PBS TeacherLine and the many workshops and courses on Annenberg Media's Learner.org site.

The K12 Online Conference is an especially innovative use of the Web as a gathering place for professional development. First organized in 2006 by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and three of her colleagues -- Darren Kuropatwa, Wesley Fryer, and Dean Shareski -- it's now an annual event; the 2008 conference drew 150,000 participants.

However, what makes the K12 especially valuable and convenient, Nussbaum-Beach explains, is that "people can access its archived info anytime, anyplace." The conference's overarching focus is on innovative ways to use Web 2.0 tools and technologies to improve learning. The K12 Online Conference, which in 2008 was held over a period of two weeks, is entirely free, and participants qualify for professional-development credit.

Another Nussbaum-Beach project is Powerful Learning Practice (PLP), the company she cofounded with edublogg-ed blogger Will Richardson. The company's yearlong program, according to its Web site, "immerses educators into environments and practices that allow them to learn and own the literacies of 21st-century learning and teaching." The program combines face-to-face and online sessions with reading and interactions in virtual environments for about one hour a week for an entire school year.

"PLP is all about teachers helping teachers figure out the changing learning landscape and how we can use these tools to change our practice, but it's not tool specific," Nussbaum-Beach says. "In the past, that was one of the problems. Teachers would get excited about the tools and the magic of the tools, but it really didn't do that much to inform or change their classroom practice. They really need to look at the pedagogies and the ability to use these transformational tools to manage change. That's what we do."

"I've learned that if teachers do not want to use the technology, they're not going to," says Draper. "If they do, then chances are they're going to take the initiative to learn and to do a lot of things on their own. That's why social networking is so great, because they can learn at their own convenience and in their own time."

"It is a reculturization," says Nussbaum-Beach. "This generation, these kids, they are going to be living their lives online. We have a tendency to think, 'That's my virtual life, and this is my real life.' But for them, there is no line of demarcation. Those are real people on the other end, those are real machines, and that's real time. And often, they're making real money. In our students' future, being online is just going to be business as usual."

At the end of my conversation with Louise Maine, I ask her whether there's anything she'd like to add about using technology in the classroom.

"Just do it," she responds.

Go to "How to Use New-Media Tools in Your Classroom."

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