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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Use Technology to Enhance Project Learning

A tech coach tells how to bypass the hassle and get to the gold of digital lessons.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Tom Hickey

Credit: Klaus Schoenwiese

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Laying New Track: An Old High School Makes Teaching Modern."

At high schools across Pennsylvania, technophobic teachers are beginning to battle their fears and assign more projects that use digital tools. It's part of a statewide campaign called Classrooms for the Future that aims to infuse high schools with technology and inquiry-based learning.

Fortunately, these two targets -- technology and project learning -- go hand in hand, says Tom Hickey, the Classrooms for the Future coach at Freedom Area High School, outside Pittsburgh. In fact, digital tools afford great opportunities for teachers to make student projects more engaging, challenging, and authentic.

Hickey says that modern schools can't keep dishing out the same old education to today's students. "Kids are home on the Xbox playing games against kids in other countries who don't even speak their language, while they're texting on their cell phones," he points out. "If we ignore that and say we're going to bring them into our environment, we're fighting a battle that we're not going to win."

How educators can win the battle, he says, is by meeting kids in their world. Here are Hickey's tips on using digital technology to create better projects:

Connect to Standards

Technology should not be the focus of your project, but rather the tool by which students meet the targeted standards. Don't get so caught up in the flash of these tools and resources that you stray from your core obligation. Throughout the project, keep a keen eye on the learning you want to achieve.

Plan, Plan, Plan

In projects with so many moving parts, thorough planning is essential. In fact, Freedom teachers find that the majority of their time now is devoted to planning. Start with a guiding question that kids will want to answer -- one that's relevant to the real world. Find online resources for the project and develop a detailed rubric to share with students.

Expand Your Audience

To feed students' motivation, make the project audience as broad as possible. The greater the reach of the project, the greater kids' investment. Instead of writing an essay for one teacher to read, for instance, students might create a three-minute documentary that they present to all the social studies teachers, submit for peer review, and promote on the school Web site. Students might design a multimedia presentation on a local issue and deliver it to the school board, the city council, or the local water authority. And remember that the Web enables kids to collaborate with peers, whether in nearby schools or across the world.

Walk a Mile in Their Sneakers

Technology-integrated projects can take students much longer to complete than you might think. To make sure you know how much time and effort will go into your assignment, try it first yourself. A ten-minute video, for example, might sound straightforward but could actually take weeks to script, film, and edit. Doing a trial run can also help you anticipate technical glitches.

Keep It Simple

Just because it looked cool at a workshop doesn't mean you need to implement it next week. There are multiple ways to achieve the same result with technology -- some simple, some more flexible but also more difficult to learn. Start with the simple way. For example, it's easy to create a photo essay with Microsoft Photo Story, although the program has limited editing features. Once you and your students master that tool, you can graduate to a more versatile one, such as Sony Vegas.

Be on the Lookout

Stay connected to a community of professionals who, like you, are always looking for the next cool Web site or resource or idea that can enhance teaching and learning. Some good places to start are the Classrooms for the Future math wiki, the blog of Classrooms for the Future coach Kristin Hokanson, and the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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