Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How Teachers Will Change the Future of Tech

We often write about how technology can help teachers, but sometimes it’s useful to take a step back and consider how teachers influence technology. As with other subjects, the knowledge and enthusiasm that teachers show for technology in the classroom will have long-term effects on students, and the nation as a whole. A tech-savvy nation starts with tech-savvy teachers.
Teacher Tech Enthusiasm Can Change the Course of Tech Development
Imagine for moment if all teachers were technophobic. What would that mean for technology development in the long term? Sure, we’d have some self-taught geniuses, like Bill Gates, who would figure out computer programming all on their own. But they would be outliers, and the majority of students would grow up with the same fear of technology as their teachers. Studies have already shown how this happens with math: a recent survey of seven hundred elementary school teachers found that over a third of them had math anxiety, leading their students to also develop anxiety about the subject.

This means that teachers can have a profound effect on whether their students embrace technology, in the classroom and beyond. The way that teachers present technology skills will also affect what kinds of technological thinkers their students become. Teaching coding as a stand-alone skill is a great way to train future computer programmers. Integrating technology into other subject areas such as history, English and the arts will teach students to use creative, technology-based problem solving skills in many areas. Both are great skills to have.
Bottom line: if you are enthusiastic about creatively using technology and willing to give it a try, your students will be too.

No matter what subject and grade level you teach, there are many ways to inspire creative use of technology in the classroom, even if you’ve never done it before. I recently spoke with Liz Harnage, a technology enthusiast who works at Brooklyn Friends School. As the Academic Technology Department Chair and Middle School Technology Integrator, she teaches technology classes and also helps teachers integrate technology into their classrooms. She shared her advice for how to bring technology into your classroom and make it fun for both you and your students.

Getting Started: Tools for Technophobic Teachers
Do you have nightmares of standing in front of your classroom with a blank screen on the projector, unable to load the presentation you worked on for hours? It’s happened to everyone at some point. It’s completely understandable to fear technology in the classroom—most of us did not grow up in high-tech classrooms, and most teacher training programs offer very few opportunities and resources for using technology in lessons.

“The real advice I would give to any teacher using technology in the classroom is to try and have fun with it themselves,” suggests Liz. She explains that if you expect of yourself what you expect of your kids—patience and enthusiasm—and give yourself the opportunity to tackle difficult problems, fail, and try again, then you’ll be on your way. Liz also recommends breaking the technology part of your lesson into small chunks, such as 15 minutes. That way if something fails, your whole lesson isn’t ruined.

Exploring technology together can help create a new dynamic in the classroom, according to Liz. “I’ve had teachers say that this is the first time I felt a lot like my kids. What often ends up happening is that kids who are the lowest achievers in the class end up being the highest achievers with technology. They end up helping the teachers, which gives them agency and makes them feel special. I’ve seen that over and over again.”

Here are some tricks and tools Liz recommends that teachers use to get started to make sure lessons more tech-savvy:

       For the true beginners, start with something simple, like showing a video from TED or YouTube in class. You can even download it to your computer in advance, so you don’t have to worry about connectivity issues. Brainpop has great animated short videos on many different topics, with follow-up activities and games. You can start with a short video on the Fibonacci Sequence, for example. Be sure to check out our advice for incorporating TED talks into your classroom.

       Involve your students with setting up the technology. By assigning one person to set it up every morning, you not only give yourself a helper—you also give students ownership over this new project and an opportunity to feel special.

       Brush up on your own skills. has an entire curriculum for anyone who wants to learn and use programming skills.
Taking Technology Outside the Computer Lab

Ready for something a little more advanced? Here are some creative ways to integrate tech into other subject areas:

For math teachers, use one of the many tools out there for testing math skills. You can give your students ten minutes to show off what they’ve learned on a website like Tenmarks. Or check out one of our favorite educational apps for math fluency.

For history or urban studies, the website Thinglink allows you to upload a picture and tag different videos and websites to make it interactive. For example, if you’re doing a history of the Brooklyn Bridge, you can upload a photo of the bridge and turn it into an interactive timeline. Once you’ve got that down and are ready for something more advanced, you may want to try Aurasma, an augmented reality app.

Geography and history teachers can use Google maps to create customized maps. This is a great tool not only for planning your next vacation, but also for mapping ancient Egypt, for example.

Art teachers should check out Google Maps Arts Project. Google has already mapped out many of the world’s great art museums, so you can use street view to go inside of MOMA and walk right up to “The Starry Night.”

With English, “the sky’s the limit,” says Liz—technology is built for communication. Litgenius (a spin-off from the popular website Rapgenius) allows you and your students to annotate literature. “One teacher went from being tech-phobic to being on the forefront thanks to Litgenius—all the kids were annotating a Maya Angelou poem!” reports Liz. You could also have kids draw and create graphic novels based on literature using an online comic book creator like Pixten.

One English teacher at Liz’s school wanted to make Twelve Angry Men more interactive, so she assigned each student to be a juror and had them create their own blogs to write about their thoughts on the case as they read the book. Emodo is a free and safe social network for schools that works well for creative collaborative class projects like this. The students even created “angry juror” avatars for their project using Voki, and programmed them to say things and fight on the screen!

In Short
The most important thing to keep in mind? Stay focused on your goal, and make sure that technology is helping your students learn. “Trust your gut,” says Liz. “If there’s a particular tool that’s out there that can enliven the material that’s great, but don’t use something just because it’s flashy and showy.”

This point is key—it’s important to use technology to help you achieve your goals, but also know when to leave it behind. After all, we don’t want a nation full of students who are constantly distracted by the latest, flashiest things. We want them to creatively use—and build—tools that help us communicate better, learn faster, and accomplish more. That all starts with you!

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