No Limits

from Technology & Learning

Digital technologies have opened up unimagined environments for teachers and students. We take a look at best practices representing systemic change.

Studies show that students using new media are more engaged in the classroom.

The speedy evolution of technology over the past 30 years has often outpaced our ability to use it to transform teaching and learning in real and meaningful ways. Much of that time we just tried to keep up, with new technologies often simply bolted onto traditional curriculum practices. However, today, with three decades of digital experience under our belt, the time is ripe to begin instituting true change.

George Hall Elementary

Inner-city George Hall Elementary, in Mobile, Alabama, is one of the state's 40 schools participating in the Alabama Best Practices Center's 21st Century Learning Project. The project helps teachers gain the skills needed to prepare students for a world dominated by digital technologies.

At George Hall, where almost 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch, Principal Terri Tomlinson estimates that less than 15 percent have high-speed Internet access at home. "If our kids are going to learn these 21st-century skills, they are going to need to get it here in our building," says Tomlinson.

While many educators still see technology and the Internet as just ways to obtain or manage information, Tomlinson sees it as a lot more. "It's about whole new ways to work and think and learn, to conduct your business and your life," says Tomlinson. She knows that the first responsibility of teachers at George Hall is to ensure children have the basic math and literacy skills they need to become self-learners. But like many educators involved in remaking struggling high-needs schools into high-performing learning communities, she and her faculty also want their kids to have the same chance to compete in an innovation-based economy as children from the most privileged public schools in Alabama have.

With the right support and leadership, Tomlinson says, teachers can have the best of both worlds: they can build strong literacy skills while using technology to push students into higher levels of learning. For example, George Hall's many field trips not only expose children (many of whom have never ventured beyond their neighborhood) to the larger world, but also are carefully integrated into the reading and writing curriculum. After each field trip, students create Webcasts documenting what they have seen and learned during their travels. "That's where these 21st-century tools can help us with our basic teaching and learning mission here at George Hall," Tomlinson says. "The children are actually talking about where they've been and what they've learned, using new vocabulary in authentic contexts." She continues, "Our kids are doing podcasting, blogging, reporting, and narrating. I think what we're finding out is that if you expose them to it, they are much more ready to do these things than we think."

The New Digital Divide

While traditional access and availability issues remain at the heart of creating equity, some experts say an emergent type of social divide is surfacing. Howard Rheingold, in his recent book Smart Mobs, asserts that "a new kind of digital divide exists, one that 10 years from now will separate those who know how to use new media to band together online from those who don't."

Creating ongoing Internet collaboration projects between classrooms is one way to address this new equity issue. Clarence Fisher, a middle school teacher at Joseph H. Kerr School in rural Snow Lake, Manitoba, Canada, has teamed with Barbara Barreda, an administrator at the independent St. Elisabeth School, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, to create the ThinWalls Classroom project, which is based on connectedness, networking, and learning beyond the classroom walls.

Through his blog "Remote Access," Fisher launched the call for "a classroom interested in beginning a year-long collaboration toward becoming truly globalized." His criteria for partnership included access at school to wikis, blogs, ThinkFree, YackPack, and Moodle, as well as to VOIP tools such as Skype to exchange videos, photos, and more.

The next steps for the ThinWalls Classroom project will include validating the communication channels for safety and privacy, but Fisher and Barreda are predicting an explosion of communication between the two classes. According to Fisher, "It will not be on 'official' channels and much of it will be 'under our radar' and on their own time. But this will change the relationships and deepen them between our classes. And more important, it changes our role as teachers and leaders of student learning."

Fisher and Barreda are being open-minded in terms of the expected outcomes from this project, "Most of the goals of the ThinWalls Classroom do not revolve around learning specific content. Instead, they circle around ideas of international collaboration and communication. While this collaboration is certainly grounded in the content we are required by our jurisdictions to work with, we are using these ideas as basics only, wanting to move far beyond them. We want our students to learn to manage their own networks, and begin to understand the power of connectivity."

A New Kind of Student

Studies show that by their senior year, barely one-fourth of today's students agree that school is meaningful or their courses are interesting—and less than half believe what they learn in school will have any bearing on their success in life. However, evidence also shows that by engaging students through participatory media, we can turn these statistics around.

Inspired by the recent K12Online Conference, Marsha Ratzel, a 6th-grade math and science teacher at suburban Leawood Middle School in Kansas's Blue Valley School District, began to consider how she might give the new student-centered strategies a try. In one project, she helped her students brainstorm all sorts of questions around weathering and erosion, and then allowed them to research the answers independently, using new tools. Ratzel recalls, "We used Flickr to find evidence of erosion, Google Maps to plot out tours of places you'd find mass movement, erosion, glacial action, or water erosion, and Photo Story to publish an online magazine about their questions and findings." After days of discussion, sharing, and peer feedback, Ratzel began to notice a new voice emerging from her students: instead of just being on task, they were enthralled.

Ratzel describes it in this way:
"They didn't just read about alluvial fans, they actually 'visited' them using Google Maps. They knew what plucking looked like because of some unbelievable licensed pictures from Flickr. One student in particular created time-intensive animations to demonstrate his personal learning process.

"Days later, when we started our Comparing Soils labs, students demanded that I give them back the digital cameras. They wanted to do Photo Story lab reports instead of what they described as 'your boring ones.' They wanted their audience to see all the amazing differences and similarities between our soil samples garnered from the network connections students had across the country."

A New Kind of Teacher

What then is the teacher's role in a world where students have instant access to information and no longer have to rely solely upon a teacher to read and judge their scholarship, ideas, or opinions?

Darren Kuropatwa, a high school mathematics teacher who blogs at "A Difference," argues that while 21st-century teachers may no longer serve as dispensers of information and ideas, they will continue to provide the most essential service of professional educators: creating learning opportunities that help students develop the skills and motivation that result in success throughout life.

Kuropatwa's AP Math classes are taught in a hybrid format, with both face-to-face and online components. A class blog supports learning by giving students a voice and an audience, and compiled posts become a student-authored textbook for the course. Additional motivation comes from the opportunity for outstanding posters to be inducted into The Scribe Post Hall of Fame wiki.

Connecting Learning to Social Change

Another important shift in teaching and learning in the 21st century is finding ways of using the new participatory media to teach students about citizenship. Brian Crosby, a blogger at "Learning is Messy," and elementary teacher at Agnes Risley Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada, is using many Web 2.0 tools such as Skype, Flickr, blogs, and wikis to infuse character education into his classroom. "Many of my students do not have consistent access to 20th-century tools much less 21st-century tools," he says.

In a recent presentation, Crosby tells of how the new communication tools have enabled his elementary students to use their creativity and voice to send a message of hope to the rest of the world. "Digital video is a powerful, transformational tool. When students participate in video projects, they practice all their academic skills in a productive, real-world context." Recently, after viewing a student-created clip on bullying and conflict resolution, the local PBS station contacted Crosby to commission his students to do another piece on race and diversity issues. In addition to being featured on the Apple Web site, his students' digital media creations have won many awards.

The Digital Classroom

If we want to remain relevant in the lives of students, then we must use strategies and materials—such as global networking—that fit the learning styles of the digital native. Classrooms in the 21st century need to be collaborative spaces where student-centered knowledge development and risk taking are accepted as the norm and where an ecology of learning develops and thrives.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach speaks on leadership and virtual community building.













Learn More

George Hall Elementary
Alabama Best Practices Center
21st Century Learning project

Joseph H. Kerr School
Clarence Fisher's blog

ThinWalls Classroom Project,

Darren Kuropatwa
Darren Kuropatwa's blog

Agnes Risley Elementary School Class blog

Class videos link

Class wiki

Brian Crosby's blog

The Scribe Post Hall of Fame wiki