Lately I’ve been thinking, posting and reading a lot about global collaborations. All of my students are currently involved in international projects and I’m starting to make more and more connections with possible future collaborators thanks to The Global Education Collaborative, Classroom 2.0 and NextGen Teachers on Ning. I’m so excited about being able to offer my students the opportunity to interact with students all around the world.
During all this reading and commenting, I’ve also come across some comments and statements, by educators I highly respect, questioning the value of global collaborations and web 2.0 tools. Their comments got me thinking:
Why are these global collaborations important? Why do I want my students to use new and emerging technology tools to communicate with students around the world? How is this relevant to the curriculum? How does this help with student achievement?
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far (please forgive me if you’ve already read some of these comments on the various Ning forums, I wanted to put them all in one place to help support my own learning):
I think the first problem is the definition of “student achievement.” What do we really want students to know and be able to do? Is it to conjugate verbs or make a poster or write an essay? Or is it to investigate, design, evaluate, collaborate, and communicate their learning to a wider audience? I’m thinking specifically of the 21st Century Skills that our students will need to be successful in their future:
First and foremost, well-designed online projects are incredibly powerful vehicles for authentic learning. Most of us are already striving to ensure authenticity of a learning task or project. When teaching a content unit, instead of simply having students memorize and recite from a textbook, we now prefer to have them create and share a poster, or act out a scene incorporating the new material, or something similarly “authentic”. Using web tools to present a project is no different than having students make a poster based on the material they’re learning, except that it’s actually a more authentic task for modern students, because few of them will grow up to be poster designers, but almost all of them will use the internet daily.
Designing online projects that authentically incorporate curricular material is at heart no different than designing a classroom project which involves presentations or group work, only the project format is more relevant to what students’ social and work experience will be like in the future. One thing to remember is that some types of online work which seem artificial and possibly pointless to you, such as a student instant-messaging another student for help on a particular project, might already be second nature to your students, or will be soon in the coming years, and are therefore authentic ways of learning.
I attended an Apple seminar this weekend, based on their fantastic website, Digital Tools for Digital Kids. The focus of the presentation was that tools that our students are using outside of the classroom should be the tools that we use to teach inside the classroom. When we restrict mobile phones, social networking, IM, iPods, etc in our classroom we are in effect cutting off their tools for communication. This is why school is no longer relevant to them, this is why they are bored and this is why they are not paying attention.
You might ask: Isn’t using all these online tools the “easy way out”, like using calculators instead of doing long division? For me, projects involving these 21st Century Literacy skills, just like older project formats such as creating a poster or skit, are not shortcuts but scaffolds that naturally help students learn their current curriculum material – or learn how to learn, which in the future may be the more important skill. For example, I don’t remember how conduct a scientific experiment, but I know how to find out how to do it, and I know I can learn. Is it more important that I immediately know how to do that specific task? Or is it more important that I can independently learn how to do it?
Our curriculum structure, school day structure and educational priorities are not preparing students for their future. We already know that our current educational system is so out-dated that students find school “boring” and don’t see the relevance to their future lives. If fitting our students into this outdated mold is how we define “student achievement,” then technology-rich, global collaborations are surely not the way to go. But, if we want our students to be ready for the world they will face after graduation, then our classrooms have to model that world as well.
Engagement, motivation, enthusiasm for learning – those are the things we need to promote in the classroom, because it is those thing that will motivate our students to achieve success. If we leave out technology, we’re leaving out the world they live in. We have to change our definition of student achievement to include the skills required to function in a 21st century workplace – then we’ll see the difference in student achievement.
Another phrases from that Apple seminar that really stood out for me was “doing old things a new way.” Some of the examples were PowerPoint (still teacher directed, still sage-on-the-stage) and Smart Boards (still that big-board at the front of the room). Although these tools are utilizing technology, the message is still the same – the one person shares information with the rest. What we need to learn is how to do new things the new way.
We need to figure out how to teach in new way, to incorporate 21st Century skills, to connect our students the way we are making connections ourselves. If we use social networks to meet other teachers, and we use Skype to communicate, and we create shared resources online, shouldn’t we be teaching our students how to use those tools too? If we find these tools invaluable for our own learning, wouldn’t our students feel the same way? We know they’re already using them, but they need to be taught how to use them as a tool for learning.
But then what happens to the curriculum? Those things that must be taught? What about those top-priority tests lurking at the end of the year? I think the key to making these large-scale collaborative projects work is to base them in your curricular needs. Find a partner that is teaching what you are teaching – have the students complete the same (or similar) project they were going to complete, but do it collaboratively with a group of students in South America. Have them communicate about what you are teaching, give them the opportunity to learn from the other classroom (both the teacher and the students). As long as both classes have similar curricular goals, it’s just a matter of taking it to the next level.
For me, the desired learning is 21st century literacy – ensuring that they learn what they need to know, each at their own pace, from a multitude of resources, and that they can share and communicate their new knowledge to a wider audience. I think it’s about showing them how to use the tools they use for fun, as tools for learning, which is exactly what they will have to do in the future.
Image 1: http://arcturus.org/arcturus2/files/images/Connected%20World.preview.jpg
Image 2: http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/aa1.gif
Image 3: http://www.fotosearch.com/comp/IMZ/IMZ170/gku0013.jpg
Image 4: http://www.ictlic.eq.edu.au/podcasts/wp-content/future.jpg