By Jeffery Ayer,
Before I was introduced to wikis in April 2008, I never would have envisioned how much my teaching could use these new technologies. More importantly, my students could not be more ready to take their education to a new level that I sincerely hope will better connect them to the world and prepare them to participate in a digital world. The time is now, and while students have been hungry for this opportunity, the reinforcing research is thorough enough to justify using wikis,blogs, podcasts, Flickr, Moodle, and online writing technologies that I feel can significantly improve students’ writing, and perhaps more importantly, prepare them for digital citizenship.
This article is the 1st in a series, based on action research I collected while studying for my M.Ed, explores the impact digital technology can have on how our students learn, and how we, as educators, can leverage that impact for the good of our students.
The Pedagogy and Politics of Technology in the classroom
Talking with just about any administrator about the importance of technology in a school, one will find him/her pointing to the computer labs available, the existence of a school webpage, and maybe to the SmartBoards the school has installed thus far (if lucky enough to afford them). But J.D. Bransford points out that technology’s existence is not guaranteeing anything at all to a mother who is about to enroll her child in the district’s high school. In an ever-increasingly politicized educational system, taxpayers are crying foul over every expenditure, especially on new and constantly changing technology.
Bransford combats these issues by stating, “Because many new technologies are interactive, it is now easier to create environments in which students can learn by doing, receive feedback, and continually refine their understanding and build new knowledge” (Bransford, 2000, p. 208). What’s particularly wonderful about these new technologies is that they are all free to access and use, especially when you are talking about educational purposes (my own wiki pages, because they are clearly of an educational nature, are free and one level above a basic page, meaning that I have more gigabyte space for backing up pages, and no advertisements whatsoever). And while I have to address how much access students have to internet services outside of school by using an early technology survey, I always allow sufficient time in class and extended deadlines for certain types of online work that allow students enough flexibility to participate successfully, even if they don’t have access to the web after school is out.
A number of the sources in my research focus on how technology can help to drive motivation and keep students focused on real-world tasks using new real-world technologies, all the while giving them the opportunity to “perform and learn in far more complex ways than ever before” (Bransford, 2000, p. 215). And while Glasser doesn’t directly address new technologies in his somewhat archaic article from 1997 and 1998, he nicely massages any questioning administrator or parent into believing in the potential these technologies have on student motivation, mostly because they are intrinsically supportive of his belief in choice theory, where students take ownership and responsibility for their actions.
Web 2.0 collaboration and activity can easily meet the four psychological needs he cites in his article, “’Choice Theory’ and Student Success,” including “the need to belong, the need for power, the need for freedom, and the need for fun” (Glasser, 1997, p.17). And J. Willis’s article, “Preserve the Child in Every Learner,” shows just how important it is that students feel that they are an integral part of what is occurring in the classroom. Looking at the function of the amygdale and the brain chemical dopamine, Willis makes a clear brain-based assertion that dopamine in students’ brains is not as readily blocked when teaching strategies include “exploration and investigation activities, cooperative learning, allowing students to establish some of their own learning goals, student choice of subtopics to investigate, social collaboration, and physical activity connected to academic study” (Willis, 2007, p. 35).
Perhaps even more revealing in the literature is the fact that the barriers that have historically existed between student and teacher could be knocked down using such new technologies. Bransford argues that the use of these technologies in the classroom can actually redefine the roles of students and teachers alike, stating that “[o]ften both teachers and students are novices, and the creation of knowledge is a genuinely cooperative endeavor. Epistemological authority – teachers possessing knowledge and students receiving knowledge – is redefined, which in turn redefines social authority and personal responsibility” (Bransford, 2000, p. 227).
Glasser could not be more thrilled, stating that students have a “personal world” where only a select few are allowed to enter. If teachers move from bossing to leading, and these technologies can allow for exactly that, then “[w]e follow [teachers] because we believe they have our best interests at heart. In school, if [a student] senses that particular teachers are now caring, listening, encouraging, and laughing, he will begin to consider putting them into his quality world,” and the environment of that classroom can be truly special (Glasser, 1997, p. 18).
Willis’s brain-based research also reinforces the importance of a safe, stimulating, comfortable environment for quality learning to take place, stating that “when students are in a positive emotional state” and “when subjects express feelings of contentment and safety, a stimulating, but comfortable amount of challenge has a positive influence on the amygdala’s affective filter,” which in one study showed “students tested under these conditions show better working memory, improved verbal fluency, increased episodic memory for events, enhanced creative problem solving, focus, and higher order executive function and decision-making abilities” (Willis, 2007, p. 35).
When looking at my own instruction, there is no doubt that using Web 2.0 technologies allow for me to break down the barriers that exist between teachers and students, creating an online forum and digital environment that can quickly spread into the classroom, making a safe place to share ideas, writing, and other project-based learning I might involve in the curriculum. Two springs ago, I first experimented with employing a wiki page in my English 11 courses, and the feedback (in the form of surveys and in verbal communication) was phenomenal. Even in my summer school class, students with whom I had little or no connection were able to develop a relationship with me by using a website called shelfari.com, where we shared good books we have read in the past and were reading at that moment.
Exciting, to say the least. For me as an English instructor, considering the topics we cover in our reading of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye alone, if students do not feel that I genuinely care about the trials and tribulations of teenagers, how can teaching such an important piece of literature really be effective? These technologies really do take the impact of my teaching Catcher to another level altogether. And finally, when considering assessment, it’s clear that my students perform better as a result of what is a more inviting, involving, caring environment using these new technologies,