Don’t expect your students to text “ZOMG math rules! This is the best class EVAR!” to their classmates just because you’re using iPhone touches or Facebook in the classroom. But do expect to find them more engaged. And maybe even focused on the lesson?
As technology has continued to evolve, educators have discussed ways to use it to enhance learning and engage students, especially those who are at risk or who struggle with traditional classroom techniques. Though there has been no consensus on the best learning tools, there is agreement that these tools offer new opportunities to connect with the students at a personal level and will help prepare them for the equally evolving job market in which technological skills will be necessary.
But with all the tools available — from YouTube to Blogger to Facebook — it can be overwhelming for teachers to choose the most effective, and to understand the best ways to use them in the classroom. To help, we’ve compiled a useful list of some of the most popular tools available, and how they may be used in the classroom:
Technology has progressed far beyond the basic personal computer. Newspapers, magazines, and books have long been available online, but now they can be read in the palm of your hand on your own personal e-reader, just like the real things. The upside is that students don’t have to buy (or lug around) stacks of books and textbooks, but can simply load them all on to the same device.
Teachers can take advantage of e-readers to make more texts available to their students, as they are less expensive and less cumbersome in their electronic formats. Time permitting, teachers can cover much more material in the same class, greatly enhancing the learning experience. Why read one Hemingway novel when you can read all of them? Critical anthologies are but a click away. Ok, maybe not quite, but you get the idea.
The technology does have some drawbacks. Availability is limited, and not all texts are available in the same formats, so students may not be able to read all electronic texts on the same reader. Some studies have also shown that students aren’t embracing the technology, and instead prefer the paper texts for reading.
It’s fast becoming an iWorld, and teachers have an array of options in the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
The devices are already being widely used from elementary schools up to college. Numerous colleges have already started giving away the new iPad to students, and colleges from Duke University to the University of Maryland have given away free iPhones or iPod Touches to their incoming freshmen. One elementary school in North Carolina has even begun an initiative to give every student in the school an iPod Touch for use in the classroom and for homework — the first such program of its kind.
But what can you do with them? Obviously, texting friends and listening to Lady Gaga’s latest album isn’t going to be the focal point of an algebra lesson. The devices have a number of uses for classroom learning, including the ability to be used as an e-reader, a note taker and a scheduler. In addition, there are literally hundreds of apps that can be downloaded to the devices. There are apps that display the real-world impact of earthquakes according to magnitude — to understand scientific concepts and current events when disasters strike. There are apps that allow students to compose music — illustrating key theory concepts and helping students better understand masters studied in the classroom. There are apps that illustrate complex mathematical equations and theories — and the list goes on.
Of course, the downside is that teachers must monitor student use — the more so the younger the students are — or else the lesson will quickly become one in high-tech note passing. And, as with all technology, there is an issue of access. If the school isn’t providing them (as many of them do when they are used as central educational tools), some students may not be able to afford to buy them on their own.
YouTube isn’t just for funny dancing babies or talking dogs anymore. There are thousands of videos that teachers can use to supplement classroom lessons — from recorded lectures on any topic to guided lessons on subjects ranging from space travel to World War I to the Pythagorean Theorem. Many of these videos are gathered on educational channels that teachers can turn to again and again for material.
But YouTube doesn’t have to be simply a passive learning experience. Students can also use it to upload their own created videos for presentations that transcend rote reading from a tri-fold cardboard poster. Instead of simply presenting a report about the Holocaust, students can create a video re-enactment of war movements or life in concentration camps. Or they can create their own PBS-style series on famous writers such as Oscar Wilde or James Joyce. The possibilities are endless, and they encompass every discipline. And students are guaranteed to be engaged when putting together creative multi-media presentations that bring a subject to life rather than simply writing a paper or making a bland presentation of facts.
Of course, written papers and oral presentations teach other skills that video presentations cannot, so video can only be another component in the class, not the star feature. And, as with any technology, access can become an obstacle, either for the school or for the students.
Facebook and MySpace
The educational applications of these popular social-networking sites may not be readily apparent, but they can be useful tools. Primarily, they are useful tools for communication — between the teachers and students, or among students. They can be used for discussion threads, group work, and even social research. They are vast resources for tapping popular opinion on current events and trends — or for finding out about them. Courses in sociology, psychology, and media could most readily benefit from the use of MySpace or Facebook for assignments, research, or even just to get an interesting discussion or debate started. Fan and group pages are good ways to solicit information (for example, to take surveys for research). Music courses can also take advantage of the first-listen features on MySpace for new bands.
And it seems like more than just the students are catching on: A survey shows that more and more professors are taking advantage of social media.
Who needs the Encyclopedia Brittanica when you’ve got Wikipedia? There is literally an entry on any topic you can think of — or you can make one yourself. The entries are all peer submitted and edited (meaning that anyone can post and edit the information), and they often include links to external and supplementary resources. Wikipedia can be used in virtually any classroom or for nearly any assignment either as a starting point for background information or for serious research. Teachers can use it as a tool to teach students about how to research, as well.
Since Wikipedia is an open Internet resource, it is an important example for students of the need to evaluate research sources. How reliable is the information? Can it be used as a primary resource?
Here’s another tool that doesn’t have obvious applications in the classroom, but that can be a useful resource. Besides being a handy tool for professors to communicate with their students (about assignments, discussion posts, calendars, etc.), Twitter can also be useful for starting discussions or debates by providing an endless source of information and opinions about current events and popular culture — great for a sociology or psychology course. It also offers a rich resource for research for media studies, communications and advertising. History professors have perhaps the biggest advantage with the new project announced by the Library of Congress, which will archive every public tweet since the site’s inception. If Twitter had been around in 1963, people wouldn’t have to remember where they were the day Kennedy was shot, they could simply look back at their tweets and get all the details. Imagine what scholars and students will be able to do with this rich resource when studying equally significant events in the years to come.
The king of the search engines has been expanding its reach into education continually over the years, from online book collections to data systems and targeted apps. But its basic features — its reader, calender, document system — offer many useful resources for teachers. iGoogle can bring together many of these features, creating an electronic (and free!) bulletin board for the class, which can include a calendar of reading and homework assignments, a reader for assignments, and various other apps. Google docs offers classes the chance to share spreadsheets or other documents for brainstorming, working on group projects, or taking surveys. It is a rich classroom tool that can be used for nearly any assignment or project. It is also widely accessible and free — eliminating some of the access issues often posed by technology.
Podcasts are becoming more popular with students — both for personal enjoyment and for education purposes. And more universities are using them as educational tools. Students can listen to recorded lectures — either for classes that they missed or simply to review the material — or they can be given supplemental lectures for extra support to understand the material, or to be used as a prompt for writing assignments, or to further clarify an especially complex issue. The advantage for podcasts is that they are also portable and downloadable, creating ease of use.
It seems like everyone’s blogging these days: From their opinions on the latest pop stars (and what they’re wearing) to a detailed accounting of their diets to a meandering account of the minutiae of their days. So why not channel that energy with purpose? Teachers can use blogs to communicate with students about assignments or readings, and can also use them to facilitate discussion threads about the content or assigned readings. Or they can turn the students into the bloggers. Student blogs can be kept for brainstorming ideas, responding to discussions or other prompts, and even for turning in assignments and papers. The handy time stamp makes it easy to keep track of who turned in what when… The blogs are also great for creative writing exercises.