I recently worked with a few teachers on a service-learning project they had designed for their students. As we talked about the purpose and design of the project, I was brought back to my sophomore year of high school- and one of the school assignments that had a huge impact on who I am today.
I was fifteen, and I had just read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In response to the reading, we were told to try to fix an injustice in our community. I ended up starting an informal community service organization (“T.H.E. Group- Teens Helping Elderly”)- and set up a few volunteer commitments. After the school assignment ended, however, the phone calls kept coming in- so I kept the project going for the next few years. By the time I graduated, over one hundred of my peers had helped out in some way: we raked leaves, cleaned out refrigerators, and vacuumed rooms. Mostly, however, we just spent time sitting and talking with the residents we volunteered to help. At the time, I thought I was helping them- and it wasn’t until years later that I realized how much they had helped me. In a lot of ways, those conversations grounded me.
At every education technology conference I’ve been to in the last year, I’ve seen images similar to the one to the right- suggesting that all learning before the digital age was lecture-based and routine. This was not what I experienced.
One of my favorite TEDx Talks addresses this directly- Esther Wojcicki, long-time educator, talks about a project-based journalism class she managed. She explains how she engaged students through audience, relevance, and choice- and at no point does she suggest that this engagement was a direct result of technology advancements (in fact, her story starts in 1984- with a typewriter). What becomes clear by the end of her story is that her ability to engage students was a direct result of her teaching- her efforts building authentic learning experiences, irregardless of the tools (typewriter, computer, whatever) that were supporting that.
What I remember from my high school experience was no different. Two of the best teachers I had were my English teachers (no doubt the reason I chose to teach English), and they were fantastic at building assessments that didn’t feel like assessments.
They could have asked us to do a multiple choice test in response to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. Instead, they gave us the opportunity to make an actual impact- to do something real.
They also gave us complete ownership in how we showed our learning.
When we read George Orwell’s 1984, we studied the theme of government repression and developed our own responses. My group took over the classroom for a week and created our own version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. We closely examined our peers throughout the week and reported our conclusions in a final analysis. Another group printed out every page of the Patriot Act, completely covered all four walls with paper (the policy was that extensive) and drew our attention to a few key features.
Our two groups ended up with completely different responses- neither of which could have been reported on the same standardized test. We still met the same benchmarks. We were just given a choice in how we met them.
I don’t remember staring blankly at a wall because I didn’t have a laptop to engage me. I remember thoughtful and passionate discussions… I remember connecting with the people around me… I remember building products out of ideas… and I remember relationships.
Let’s take a look at the “Justice Project” I did in high school, and the “Community Project” that the middle school students in my current district worked on. These projects were virtually the same, and their effectiveness had almost everything to do with their design. In each project, the audience was authentic, the topic was relevant, and the student had ownership in how they demonstrated their learning.
What changed was the tools that these students had available to them, and the efficiencies they provided.
1. Today, we can organize content more effectively.
Then- I shuffled between papers, journal entries, books, and bookmarked links.
Now- Students can use a website template that the teacher has created to store all of their content.
2. Today, we can provide more access to our work.
Then- My teacher had to physically collect our journals and papers to follow our progress.
Now- Students can share their digital portfolios with their teachers, so teachers can check their progress at any time.
3. Today, we can collaborate more efficiently.
Then- If we needed to meet as a group, we had to coordinate our sports/work/club schedules so that we could work on the same computer.
Now- Students can connect through email, social networks, and video chat; they don’t need to pass around multiple copies of the same document/presentation/video– they can all access and edit the same copy.
4. Today, we can automate rote tasks and provide faster feedback.
Then- I would take short quizzes on paper and wait 1-2 days to receive feedback.
Now- Students take quizzes online and receive immediate feedback; teachers can spend time focusing on higher-order tasks.
5. Today, we can find information more quickly.
Then- I had to search through a book or find someone who knew the answer.
6. Today, we can provide a wider audience for students.
Then- My audience was usually just my teacher or my classmates.
Now- Students can publish their projects to a website that the entire community can access; stakes are higher.
When we compare both of these projects, the real reason for integrating technology becomes apparent: it is simply about being more efficient and productive. Student engagement isn’t reliant on an iPad app- it is reliant on a teachers’ ability to create authentic, personalized learning experiences, like the service learning project I was part of years ago and our students are part of today.
Building these experiences for students requires creativity, organization, project management skills, and a deep understanding of backwards design.
Being efficient requires knowing how to use the technology that is currently available to us.
We need to do be able to do both.