It’s not about the next big thing

No matter how many amazing technologies that educational technologists may personally enjoy, our work in schools is fundamentally about supporting teachers and students. We provide the tools and means for teachers with limited time and risk tolerance to try activities that apply modern pedagogies and use social technologies. We ourselves operate in a different world, immersed in social technologies at our desks and at home, able to spend far more time than can most teachers.

I spent an hour today with arts teachers from grades PS-12, focused on a single topic: posting multimedia content to web sites. If we post more content, students can exhibit more work, and visitors can learn more about the school’s arts program. Our teachers already have the media—digital photos, audio, and video. They just need help crossing that last hurdle to post the content online.

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We have our share of early technology adopters. They build amazing lessons with technology tools: trip planning with Google Earth, language activities for homework with Voicethread, real-time group writing in Google Docs and class discussions in Moodle. Now we are grooming the second level of teachers who are eager to learn new technologies once they have seen others use it successfully, and the platform looks stable. This second wave of teachers is much larger than the first, so many opportunities exist to provide training, visit classes, and involve the innovators in providing leadership and guidance. The second wave will make student-centered classroom uses of technology commonplace, not just exceptional.

Many kids figure out how to post content on their own, especially in the higher grades. Younger students need more assistance, especially with audio, since the most successful commercial networks emphasize photos and video. Substantial online writing—especially collaboratively—is often a new experience for students. We have also found some success with students learning skills in one grade and carrying them on to the next.

Helpful in this endeavor is insideCatlin, our “walled garden” of social software open to the members of the school community. While I completely understand some educators’ insistence on teaching students to use publicly available tools, we find it easier to scale technologies to multiple classrooms when everyone uses a common platform that we can bind to our login system and customize to our liking. Intranet-based services also ensure that authorship of posted content is easily identifiable, helping teach responsible use within a community setting.

I have scarcely mentioned Twitter at our school. Does it have potential as a useful tool? Sure, but we’re better off using scarce teacher time to deepen one’s still-nascent understanding of the last few years’ inventions, to enrich their curricular applications and actually improve student learning. I’ll continue to tweet, but I won’t encourage our teachers to (at least not yet)! I may even get into Second Life (if someone drags me there), but I would not roll it out here in a big way. Teachers’ brains and schedules are currently full. Except for the rare few, they can’t give these new technologies the time they require to make them really useful in the classroom.

What successful experiences have you had scaling new, curricular applications of technology to the majority of your teachers?

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