Brad Flickinger/Flickr
Brad Flickinger/Flickr

By Jennifer Carey

One of the most intimidating aspects of infusing technology into curriculum is that educators often believe that they will have to master and then teach their students to use new technology tools before assigning a project. These concerns are understandable as our time for professional development is finite and school curricula are already packed. However, consider the impact if, rather than focusing on new tools, we explored the skills students need to learn and then incorporated the most effective digital resources to accomplish those objectives.

LOOK PAST THE FLASH

Good teachers know that learning is all about the skills that students develop in the process of a lesson, activity or project. Most teachers are exposed to digitally infused curriculum with flashy projects like documentaries, blogs, Minecraft activities, etc. However, the most important thing is to look past the flash. Before you sit down to design a project, think about what skills you want students to learn in your class.

For example, do you want your students to learn how to deeply research and assess sources effectively? Do you want them to demonstrate their understanding of a theoretical physics concept? Start with your traditional lesson objectives and build off those.

PRESENT AN OBJECTIVE, NOT A RECIPE

When you give your students a digitally infused project, there are different ways to structure it that will maintain your rigorous expectations but not require a lot of time teaching new software or hardware tools. For example, history students could use digital tools to make documentaries. Give students clear parameters (such as time limits) and expectations for the project, but let them choose their own video tools and hardware. The project should be open-ended enough that students can get creative: by using appropriately licensed images, creating a live-action video or even incorporating their own artwork.

Shawn McCusker, social studies department chair at Libertyville High School in Illinois, teaches his students about world governments by asking them to create visual presentations that demonstrate their topic. Students are permitted to create something as simple as a Venn diagram, but he also maintains a “Best of All Time!” list and encourages his students to blow him away. One year, he got an amazing stop motion picture comparing Adam Smith with Karl Marx.

Ultimately, when students explore topics independently, solving problems as they arise, they become more invested in their own learning. Allowing them to creatively develop their own finished products gives them some control over learning artifacts they produce to demonstrate their understanding. Keep your parameters broad enough so that students can explore their passions. You will get different results, but don’t be surprised if they amaze you.

LET THEM FIGURE IT OUT

If you provide students a broad outline and allow them to choose their own tools, they can be more creative in the overall process. And, while it’s normal to want to understand the tools students will be using before assigning a project, don’t fret too much about teaching them new tools. Most software and hardware today is designed to be intuitive. There are numerous “how-to” videos readily available online, and a quick Google search will often return an easy solution. Requiring students to find answers to their own problems, even relying on peers for assistance, helps promote a culture of teamwork. Allowing students to navigate and learn their own tools is a great way to teach them the important skill of creative problem-solving. This is especially beneficial in schools that don’t have one-to-one device programs; students have to learn to use whatever tools are available to them (PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone, etc) more effectively.

ENCOURAGE COLLABORATION

We live in a world that is collaborative, but classrooms don’t always reflect that reality. Instead of creating singular, insulated assignments, encourage students to collaborate. You don’t need to be an expert in everything. Instead, allow them to find the classmates, peers or online resources that can assist them. After all, when was the last time you worked in complete isolation on a personal or professional project?

Tech projects are a great opportunity to encourage students to learn real-world skills of working with others. At the end of the day, incorporating a digital curriculum is not about teaching students to use a particular device or piece of software. It’s about developing the skills necessary for them to be successful.

  • Amaris

    I would have to agree that it seems like good practice to have students discover the technology along with you, the teacher. It provides them an opportunity to teach you what they have learned. Students do need parameters, but the open-ended projects that I have tried the in the past have always been the most successful in my class. One year my third graders were using Frames to create a video of them dressed up like the biographical character they were studying. As a third grade team the teachers gave them general guidelines about the project but let be as creative as they wanted. The end result was absolutely amazing! They were able to do just what you had stated in the above blog post…SOLVE PROBLEMS! This is such an important 21st century skill that many of our current students are lacking. This assignment was such a worthwhile experiment to this day that we even have an award ceremony to honor the years best, voted on by the students and their peers. Do you find that schools that you have worked at have more of a selection when it comes to providing choice for students to create these projects?
    I enjoyed reading your post,
    Amaris

    • Jennifer Carey

      I’m so glad that you found it useful and for sharing your own experiences.

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  • Robert Connolly

    “Present An Objective, Not A Recipe” – a great concept that is well articulated. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Michel

    Hi Jennifer,
    I enjoyed reading your paper. It is clear and well expressed. Pedagogy, teaching and learning are shifting to a new mindset and a new thinking.
    Education is redefining itself naturally, and that, at least to my own opinion, due to the earlier people are exposed to new ways to collect knowledge and information, their minds is more focussed on what matters to them. It is a kind of reversed learning process: discovery leading to interest and then asking for more insight from experts or teachers.
    This is one of the biggest challenges the “established education way” is facing.

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  • Terri

    I really love the idea you’ve shared that teachers don’t need to be technology experts, as I believe that is what holds many teachers back from even trying new things. I try to model this idea for my colleagues and students, by telling them that I am trying something new, and we may need to solve some problems together as we move through the project. I am also a firm believer in giving students choices in which tool they would like to use, and allowing them to learn from each other. Great post. Thank you!

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  • Great article, although I’d add a caveat… Dependent on the age of the students, this approach needs careful consideration. Like if we want all of the kids in a grade to become proficient with a tool, let’s say video editing in iMovie in Grade 2, if all of the kids don’t learn that tool, then we have no way to easily build on that expertise in future years, just like we structure their learning in Maths and Language. I’d like to be able to say to Grade 3 teachers, look your kids can edit video, they ALL learnt how to do it last year, year on year, their expertise will develop, deepen and the cognitive demand associated with learning a tool (as opposed to using a tool they know well) will lessen, and the focus on understanding and mastering curricular content will grow, and become the main focus, not wrestling with the specifics of using an unfamiliar tool, with unfamiliar conventions and work flow. I’m not arguing this for all units, but I am arguing that ensuring that there are units where all the kids learn the same tool at the same time is beneficial, and more easily facilitates exactly the kind of collaboration you extol in your article, if all the kids are wrestling with the same tool, eg iMovie (and by extension, all the teachers in that grade) then they are in an ideal situation to help, and inspire each other.

    I believe that if we get this right we can facilitate greater autonomy as they grow older, exactly the kind of autonomy you describe so well in this post. I’d like to think that if all Primary school kids have a thorough grounding in the 5 main domains of ICT (Text, Image, Video, Data & Audio) then they are likely to be in an ideal position to have the necessary capacity and understanding of the affordances of each domain to make intelligent and effective choices about appropriate tools when they reach the more demanding content of the curriculum in later years.

    In short, more strategic structure/scaffolding in the primary years is necessary, so there can be more effective use, and authentic freedom in secondary, and indeed the rest of their lives—this I believe is what digital literacy really looks like, confidence and competence in all the domains of digital technology (Text, Image, Video, Data & Audio) , regardless of platform or device.

    I have more to say on this if you’re interested:

    http://doverdlc.blogspot.sg/2013/04/to-skill-or-not-to-skill.html

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  • awori.achoka

    Interesting highlights. I discuss these and more in my recent publication, ZAP:http://bookstore.authorhouse.com/Products/SKU-000963154/ZAP.aspx

  • WafaHozien

    The students get so creative with the latest technology and not only that, they teach us new things. What a delight to be “playful” aka creative in this day and age.

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