Christopher Columbus was wrong when he reported to the King and Queen that the world is round. In fact, the world is flat and so are many of our classrooms in this great nation.
For years, students learned within the parameters of a building, which then separated them into rooms. Students would attend class daily and the teacher would present the daily lesson. This is how a school day has progressed for years. And in many US classrooms, it still does. However, this not the case in three high schools in Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
Students in Van Meter, Iowa, Burlington, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are experiencing education in a new room. Yes, they still go to class in a building, with walls, doors, and windows, but there is something different about these three classrooms. They are all connected. The classroom is flat.
A Flat Classroom
Led by the efforts and collaboration of Patrick Larkin, Principal of Burlington High School, Shannon Miller, Librarian at Van Meter High School, and William Brannick, Principal of Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School these three schools are collaborating weekly through various technology mediums.
Last year Mrs. Miller taught a personal learning network and social media class at Van Meter High School on a smaller scale. "I told Bill [Brannick] about it when he visited with his Superintendent and Technology Director last spring to Van Meter." Says Miller "Lets do this together. Let's connect our two schools!" So over the summer, Mr. Brannick and Mrs. Miller worked on designing this class together using a Google Doc. Closer to the school year in #edchat one night, Mr. Larkin decided to jump on board with his Burlington High School PLN class.
The Virtual Classroom
The class is designed to teach Web 2.0 skills, digital citizenship, personal network building, and social media responsibility and practice. The students in all three of these classes have never met in person; however, they have all connected via Skype and their class blogs. They have also had many professionals come and speak to them via Skype. This type of learning is limitless and allows students to broaden their scope of the world. "Since I have started using Skype and blogging," notes Jesse Hasenwinkel, junior at Van Meter High School, "I have been able to virtually meet the people that can help me get the answers I need for what I am searching for in school and one day, in my career."
Each week students write a blog post on topics such as defining a personal learning network, using Skype in the classroom, and how to promote blog traffic. Students subscribe to each other's blogs using Google Reader and leave comments for each other. Some students in these three high schools have made great connections and found common interests. They are expanding their learning opportunities and through the efforts of the teachers and principals, engaging with vast community of learners.
The critic in all of us may say this is simply using the tools and distracting from learning. This is a statement each student in each of these three classes would eagerly contest. Reanne Maskart, a junior at MBAPCHS states, "You have to adapt to the world around you or progress can never happen. That is the ultimate goal of education, right? Progress. Continuous progress." The ability to adapt to a world in constant motion is a key skill that all of the students involved in this project clearly realize.
There are plenty of new skill sets at work and one of them is necessary in every facet of life: Being an effective communicator. These students are speaking, writing, and collaborating with people they have never met. "Everything that I have learned in class," says David Loomis, junior at MBAPCHS, "will help me use technology in a responsible way that can promote my creative ideas." In higher education and the work force, this skill is necessary. Michelle Morgan, a senior at Burlington High School states, "For example, I would create my personal learning network or PLN on ideas for college, tips and such, on swimming and diving, and other miscellaneous subjects that interest me." This type of learning is allowing students to create learning communities in which they have the ability to share common interests. Students must learn not only to be an effective communicator, but an efficient, responsible one. This class is accomplishing both. Principal Patrick Larkin comments, "I am amazed at how little the students actually know about connecting with others for educational purposes. They use social networking solely for socializing. It has been great to see the lightbulb start to go on in regards to them seeing these tools as a resource."
The Role of the Teacher
Mr. Larkin, Mrs. Miller, and Mr. Brannick are not just letting their students venture out into this brave new world of social media alone. They are providing them with the essential skills of what it means to be a digital citizen. They are teaching responsible use of social media and removing the taboo from Facebook and Twitter. These tools can open many doors and provide opportunities for students if used in a responsible manner. Brianna Perry, a junior at Van Meter High School says, "This class is teaching me how to shift through information, how to find the information, experts, etc. that will be beneficial to me. [It's} teaching me how to be a responsible, digital learner." The fact that some schools simply block these tools and never teach responsible use is like placing locks on a fence surrounding a pool but neglecting to teach kids how to swim.
Critical thinking via technology
The students in these three classes are learning in an environment that is familiar to their generation and exciting. These students are learning how to be critical readers and thinkers, while opening up rich, academic conversations via blogs, Twitter, and Skype. Mrs. Miller says, "My students cannot stop talking about our connected classroom. They have made so many new connections and realize that their classroom is not simply limited to a room, but is an expansive canvas."
This is the where the excitement in education begins. All of these students are learning beyond the classroom walls. Many of them correspond via their blogs after school or update each other on common interests via Twitter. They realize that what they put on the Web will be effectively permanent and that responsible digital citizenship is necessary in all facets of social media.
What these students are learning is invaluable and should be integrated into more of our classrooms. The opportunity for teachers to bring in authors and speakers to their classroom is out there. We simply need to make this happen and give our students the best opportunities to learn. At the end of the day we, as educators, hope students can walk away from class saying what Amy Ly a junior at MBAPCHS says:
I have enjoyed learning with people from different environments and experiencing learning outside of a single classroom. Though we may all seem the same, each and every student has different opinions and ways of learning; therefore, with the sharing of ideas through classrooms via blogs and Skype, we, all, as students are given greater opportunities for success.