In the professional development we offered to Maine principals this fall regarding their role in the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, we described two ways technology can make a difference in student achievement. One is through visualizations and digital manipulatives, the best of which in K-12 mathematics is available on these Web sites: the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (Utah State University), Illuminations (the National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics), and Project Interactivate (the Shodor Education Foundation).
Principals and teachers tend to be comfortable with the use of these tools; as digital counterparts to items we have all seen in schools in one form or another, they have a somewhat familiar feel. Who doesn't see the value of tangrams and geoboards, especially digital versions of the latter that naturally inhibit the kids from taking rubber bands into English class and causing a ruckus?
But the other use of technology that can really make a difference is collaboration: using the technology to connect people in purposeful ways around ideas. As soon as this application is mentioned, however, teachers and administrators begin to think about social-networking Web sites such as Myspace and the problems they have to field when dealing with them. Whether the issues have been at home or at school, no group of educators seems able to approach the topic without an emotional response.
But the positive potential of digital networking has to be realized. For example, I have always enjoyed reading Ron Smith's Edutopia.org blog posts. I often find in them innovative stories of collaboration through a variety of media, be it instant messaging, cell phones, or simply talking. If you haven't read Smith's pieces, or haven't read them lately, go read or re-read them, such as the entry, "IM in the Mood for Chat: Let Students Talk and They'll (Eventually) Come Around," -- and note the comments that follow it.
The whole idea of collaboration can run counter to the common wisdom in a school. Aren't "individual" achievement, knowing "your stuff," "self-motivation", and "personal" accomplishment all far more likely to be encouraged in a classroom than is collaboration? Even when we know that collaboration can make a difference in preparing a child for success in a networked world, and that effective collaboration is recognized as a twenty-first-century skill, conventional thinking makes it difficult for us to value work done in such an environment at the same level as we regard individual achievement.
So what if you are ready to give it a try? What if you are ready to do some purposeful digital collaboration but you don't really know how to get going? You'll need some tools, so let's take a look at a few:
Tools such as Gaggle.net make emailing easier for teachers and students, allowing a level of security that encourages teachers to think about using it in a purposeful way rather than simply worry about what might go wrong. And with Edublogs.org, blogging becomes simpler. These tools are for schools, so you have greater control over the medium than you would in nonspecialized realms.
And what about simple collaborative writing spaces like Writeboard or Google's Docs & Spreadsheets? The latter program provides both collaborative word processing and spreadsheets. These tools can support all sorts of collaborations, ranging from a high school student working on a final paper along with a teacher to a group of middle school students uniting for a class project or an elementary class teaming up with a class in another state on a story being written chapter by chapter.
But perhaps you are far beyond this stage; maybe digital collaboration is going great guns in your classroom, or perhaps throughout your entire school. Regardless, I'd love to hear about how you and your students are using networked access to collaborate. Are you working across your own classroom, throughout your school, or around the state, the nation, or the world? Who do you collaborate with, and what are the results?
Come on -- let's collaborate in a discovery of ideas!