Standard Deviants Accelerate: Edtech

Summer Learning Activities: Reading and Writing


It’s summer. For most of the kids out there that means a well-deserved break. But taking turns on the slip-n-slide isn’t nearly as problematic as the summer backwards slide most students experience. So, how do we keep those gears in kids’ brains turning during the long, hot months until the first day of school?

One of the easiest methods is a reading challenge. Of course, you’ll get some groans when you encourage kids to take one on. But, making it into a challenge gives a competitive edge to an otherwise typical assignment. Challenge your students to read a book a week. Or tackle a book slightly above their reading level. Or even see how many new words they can find while reading. And then, here comes the important bit, reward them somehow for their accomplishments.

Another great project would be keeping a blog over the summer. Have your kids write about events they experience, or even turn it into a little bit of a research project and have them write on a topic of their choosing. It’s a great way to make sure your students are practicing their grammar and spelling skills over the summer.

Stay tuned for more summer ideas!

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Keeping Up With Kids

Let me start out by saying that I have grown up around computers. Of course, when I was little we still had dial-up internet, used floppy disks, and played Oregon Trail in the classroom (Do people still play that? If not, that needs to be brought back.) I had computer classes from kindergarten on. The early years mostly consisted of learning to type and playing some pretty old-school computer games. My high school career included four years of programming classes in which I learned three different programming languages. During one school awards assembly, it was even announced (to my embarrassment) that I had scored 100% on my computer programming final. My point is, I’ve got quite a lot of experience with computers. When I look at my sister, a sixth grader, none of it seems the least bit impressive anymore.

She was a toddler when the first iPhone came out. And it shows. She may have less experience than I do, and no knowledge of programming, but she knows more about computers than I think I ever will. It’s incredible. Humbling, but incredible all the same. I think we tend to underestimate what constant exposure to new technology can do to a child’s mind. In the same way that small children learn languages more easily than their older counterparts, they pick up new technology without even breaking a sweat. The funny thing is, from now on it will always be this way. Teenage tech entrepreneurs like the creators of Summly and Twitter are going to become more and more common until it’s not even a surprising event any longer.

The problem is, how do those of us in the older generations, and teachers especially, keep up? Technology is gradually becoming a bigger and bigger part of classrooms. But it’s not only the students who have to learn to utilize edtech, but the teachers as well. What happens when the students know more than the teachers? Well, nothing drastically bad. Teachers simply have to work a little harder than their students.

My suggestions for doing so? First, listen to your students. If you see them doing something that you don’t know how to do, ask them to explain it to you. Chances are they’ll be happy to be teaching you something for a change. Second, read as much as you can. Whether it’s edtech or even just tech websites, read them. If you get an instruction manual with whatever device or software you are using – read it. If you don’t get one, find one online and (drum roll please) read it!

The more informed you strive to stay the better equipped you will be to adapt to new and improved technologies.

Got any other tips for keeping up with your students? Share them in the comments!

Tech It Out: History

Want to incorporate more technology in your history class, but don’t know where to start? History may seem like a hard subject to use edtech for, but there is actually an abundance of tools and possibilities out there. Here are a few of our favorites:

  1. Time Travel: Okay, we don’t actually mean time travel. But there is a simple way to simulate it. Show your students videos of historical debates, fireside chats, and interviews. This way they can experience the events and contemporary opinions on them without just reading it all from a textbook. It’s a great way to really make students connect with other periods of time and realize that historical figures were people just like us.
  2. Lights, Camera, Action!: Want to help students practice their public speaking skills through oral presentations? Have them take it one step further with multimedia projects. They’ll be able to enhance their speeches with pictures, diagrams, and even supplementary video clips. Logistically, this can present a bit of a challenge, so make sure your students will have access to the necessary equipment. (We recommend checking out public libraries for rentals.)
  3. Empathy: It can be hard for students to put themselves in the shoes of the people they are learning about in class. And thus a bit harder for them to completely comprehend different historical periods and events. A digital diary, like a blog, can provide the perfect outlet for students to craft letters or journal entries as if they were from a certain time or place and boost their historical empathy.
  4. Storytelling: Last, but certainly not least: digital storytelling. Have students create podcasts on different topics. This type of project can combine #2 and #3, expanding both learning and technological skills at the same time. Plus, we bet they’ll have a lot more fun researching to be radio hosts than researching to write papers.

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Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Tech It Out – Science

This week, I’ll be adding my perspective on adding technology into each subject in the classroom. More specifically, in the science classroom.

I was lucky enough to go to a high school where our two science labs were equipped with televisions connected to computers. Our teachers could show us videos, diagrams, and demonstrations before we even got started on experiments. In Physiology, we watched a video of an open-heart surgery on YouTube before trying our hand at a dissection of a sheep’s heart. In Physics, we tested out equations on a simulator to understand the different elements of force.

One to one device systems would be perfect for this type of thing as well. The goal is to supplement teaching, not to replace it. Students could do their own explorations of topics before or after a lesson. Follow along with instructions or an instructional video as they work through an experiment. Pictures of the rainforest, or microscopic images, or even a volcano erupting, could be easily seen and absorbed.

Your students could be looking at this while learning about the universe. Cool, right? (Source)

Really, you don’t necessarily need high tech stuff to equip your classroom. A good old projector would work just fine as well. You could project different images and have students work together to label their parts. Or, if you want to get really creative, you could make your own mini Jeopardy board and display it as a fun way to review vocabulary. (Honestly, that sounds like the most fun option to me.)

How do you use technology in your science classroom? Let us know in the comments!

Tech It Out: Math

Last week we covered ways to incorporate technology into an English classroom. This week we’ll be discussing adding a bit of tech into your math classes!

  1. Make it fun: There are hundreds of math apps and games out there that are easy for students to learn and make understanding more difficult concepts entertaining. Not to mention the huge amount of video content out there. From teacher rap battles to cartoons about the quadratic formula, if you look for it you can probably find it.
  2. Make it simple: Drawing apps aren’t just for art class anymore. They can also make it easier for students to work on practice problems. Easy erase functions and the ability to switch colors makes for much more organized and clear work. It can even make it easier to edit and add to student work, and find where they may have gotten off track.
  3. Make it stick: Remembering formulas and methods can be difficult. Edtech can make it easier. Project a particularly difficult problem onto a board or screen, have students do the problem on their own, and then have one of them demonstrate on the board. Have other students dictate each step or even help to correct a single student’s work. Collaboration and active learning will ensure concepts are understood.

How do you incorporate technology into your classroom? Let us know in the comments!

Tech it Out – English

One common discussion topic in the edtech world is how individual subjects can be made compatible with the different technologies being incorporated into classrooms. Over the next few weeks we’ll be breaking down different subjects and the options for using technology to its full extent. While the humanities aren’t generally considered to be harmonious with technology, English is one of the easiest subjects to bring technology into. Here are some examples:

  • Collaboration: Google docs is one of the easiest ways to enable your class to work together on brainstorming and peer editing. The ease of being able to have multiple people working on a document at once and being able to see exactly who is writing what is amazing. It’s a little lower tech, but even standard projection onto a whiteboard can make it easier for teachers to annotate documents.
  • Sharing: Blogs are a great way to get your students writing out there. It’s your decision whether to make them public or not, either way works. And this can be done as a class project or on an individual basis. Both ways will give your students a sense of accomplishment. The same goes for ebooks. There are many ways to go about producing an ebook and like blogs, these can be group or individual projects.
  • Research: Whether students are working on literary analysis or any number of writing projects, BYOD and one-to-one devices can make researching a breeze

Got any other ways you use technology to teach English in your classroom? Tell us about them in the comments!

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Out with the Old, In with the New?

We all know how much education has changed since its inception. The days of the great philosophers teaching nobles are long, long gone. And more recently the chalkboard tablet has been replaced by paper and electronic tablets. The questions remains though – how much of the old do we keep and how much to we get rid of in the quest for a perfect classroom?

I’ve discussed the almost complete removal of chalkboards in classrooms where possible. While I, for one, will not miss the shrill shriek of chalk on chalkboard, it is interesting to note that they were mostly replaced with another still relatively low-tech alternative: the whiteboard. Most classrooms remain whiteboard equipped today, but the rise of the Smart board is notable as well. The Smart board essentially adds potential and flexibility to the otherwise limited white board. But how necessary is it? That depends on who you are really. Personally, I always saw the Smart board as just a cool educational toy, but the possibilities, when it is fully utilized, are remarkable.

Now the bring-your-own-device movement is an entirely different animal. We have gone from individual chalkboard tablets, to individual notebooks, to individual computers. Quite the leap, in my humble opinion. BYOD seems to open up a world of possibilities that the Smart board doesn’t quite achieve. Students are given the capability to look up words they don’t understand, concepts that don’t quite click, or even topic they find particularly interesting. All during a class – in what is an incredible display of efficiency and self-motivated learning. So my verdict on chalkboard tablets and the like? Out with it. The alternatives are exponentially better for students.

Finally, the last staple of the classroom: the desk. From the cold metal ones, to the wood with very little usable space, and even the plastic ones with limited rocking ability (my personal favorite), desks seem an essential part of school.  But recently there has been discussion of doing away with desks altogether, in favor of more open space, couches, etc. Students everywhere would obviously rejoice at the possibility of finally getting out of those uncomfortable chairs, but why should teachers go for it? A lot of arguments have been made for the increased potential for collaboration and for comfort easing the learning process. Personally I’m left with a lot of logistical questions. Like how would tests work? What if I fell asleep on the comfy couch? How much collaboration is inhibited by desks themselves? And yet I get the feeling I would have immensely appreciated my schools doing away with desks.

What do you think about all of this? How much change is necessary? Can we change things too much?

Hoadley’s Laws of Edtech

Professor Chris Hoadley is a faculty member at NYU Steinhardt and director of the Laboratory for Design of Learning, Collaboration, and Experience. He’s made several predictions about the future of edtech (which you can watch here). But what may be more interesting for our purposes are his 3 Laws of Edtech.

  1. It’s not the technology. It’s what you do with it.
  2. It’s not what the technology makes possible. It’s what it makes easy.
  3. Pay attention to the trends in learning, not in technology.

These laws seem to coincide pretty well with what the majority of people in edtech are trying to emphasize. The first makes it clear that technology is a tool. A tool that can be misused, under-used, and even over-used. It’s important that when technology is being integrated into classrooms that the focus is on the educational benefits, not just incorporating it for the sake of incorporating it. It is very easy to get carried away when looking into the latest and greatest tech.

Law #2 expands on this idea a bit. Technology makes a lot of things possible in education. Everything from digital textbooks to the more advanced learning environments. But if these things are difficult or overly complicated to use, it’s unlikely that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. If using tech to its full potential takes away from learning at all, than it’s probably not suited to the classroom.

Finally law #3, which may be last but is certainly not least. It reminds of what we’re always saying  here: content is key. Trends in learning are exponentially more important than trends in technology, especially because we’re talking about edtech here. Of course, suiting the latest technology to education is an important process, is much more advantageous to focusing on curriculums and teaching methods.

What do you think of Hoadley’s Laws? Would you change any of them? Or add anything?

Simplifying Learning With Edtech

There is an existing and completely valid concern out there that incorporating technology into the classroom could make things overly complex. It is possible, yes, but we are going to discuss a few ways in which technology can actually help to simplify learning in the classroom.

First of all, technology can significantly ease interaction in the classroom. Students can collaborate on documents, projects, and practicing skills. Teachers can simultaneously track student progress and growth. There products and software which make it possible for the whole classroom to be working on one digital collaboration all at once. Pretty nifty.

Next, technology is also great for simplifying resources. A tablet or laptop can have access to hundreds of books at once as well as any number of documents. This could mean no more having to carry around heavy textbooks and no more losing handouts or assigned reading. The potential of these devices to access information is unbeatable.

Finally, technology can make differentiation in the classroom a bit simpler. Every student is different and thus has different learning methods and skill sets. Individual devices can allow for students to progress at a pace that suits them, as well as provide multiple avenues which lead to the same final result. Differentiation allows for students to really reach toward students using as much of their potential as possible, and technology can provide the perfect guidance system.

What do you think? Does technology just complicate things? Or can it help make a classroom run like a well-oiled machine?

On Impending Summer Work

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The countdown has begun – there are 43 days until the official beginning of summer. There is little students seem to look forward to more than summer break. But often it also means assigned work that either takes away from fun time, is finished early and promptly forgotten, or gets finished in a panicky final day before school starts again. Because it is so drawn out, it is understandably necessary to give students work over the break so that their learning does not stagnate, or, even worse, regress. So, how can we assign work that will both help students and not hinder them when it comes to summer activities? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Reading: The typical is assigning one or more specific books which students must report back on or be tested on when they return to school. So, to make it a little less stringent, why not provide a list from which students can choose one or more books? They’ll likely be a bit more happy to read something they have chosen, and an assignment which employs creativity can help assess their understanding of the text/s. This could be supplemented by Parent/Student discussions, trips to the local library, and student discussion groups.
  2. Math: Math skills are easily forgotten over the course of a few months and reteaching old concepts can take up valuable class time. This subject is one where a log of practice time might be employed. Options for practicing could be offered to students and they, with the help of an adult, could practice for a certain number of hours every week. This way, concepts are reinforced throughout the summer, rather than worked on in a short span of time.
  3. Digital: Now, this is not necessarily feasible for everyone. But the idea is that some sort of continuous discussion could be taking place over the summer. Students could work on a blog to practice writing skills (which could include commenting on each other’s work). Or discussions could be facilitated on other social media platforms. This could work as preparation for future classes, a segway between school years, or anything really. Digital platforms have a lot of potential and possibilities for summer learning.
What do you think about summer homework? What kinds of homework should be assigned over the summer? Are all options feasible or efficient?

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Going Beyond Textbooks

I just finished reading a rather fantastic article by a 10th grader on the power of social media in the classroom (check it out here), and I have to say that I’m not only impressed but inspired. Social media is a relatively untapped resource when it comes to its educational potential. More so than ever we have speedy and easy access to news from all over the world, so why not simultaneously learn history and branch into current events?

The author of the article brings up the example of the Arab Spring, and how teachers might have used social media to explore the events while also teaching the historical events which lead to them. A brilliant idea, as far as I can tell. Textbooks, while useful, are not always as relevant as we’d like them to be. I’ve discussed the impact of globalization on education before on this blog, but I think this connects perfectly. Students are digital citizens, and thereby more connected to the world than generations preceding them, so why not emphasize worldly education? Social media provides a significant avenue for pursuing this.

This, it should be noted, is not to say that learning history is irrelevant. As a bit of a history nerd myself, I am certainly not advocating we stop teaching history. I am simply saying that we ought to be teaching history alongside current events, exploring how the past has shaped our present, and how it might go on to shape our future. What better way to teach social responsibility and global citizenship than to demonstrate that actions have major consequences, some of which linger for centuries down the road?

It seems especially important in times like these to foster a true understanding of what is going on in the world and why. While textbooks can provide the history, social media can adequately illustrate current events, and then it is just up to students and teachers to make the connections between them. Its learning potential might be underestimated, but social media is without a doubt a teaching tool unlike any we’ve ever seen before.

What do you think? Should we be incorporating more social media into classrooms?

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: The Advantages of Digitization

In the last few years of my education, my teachers have increasingly moved toward digitizing large parts of classes, with many positive repercussions. Though a few of my teachers are still dependent on paper handouts, which are not only easy to lose, but also easy to mess up, most have turned to computers. This has entailed everything from online report cards to presentations edited by the entire class at once using many different computers. So I thought I would illustrate what I see as the major advantages of going digital.

  1. Grading: This has really been the biggest change in my education. Being able to access grades online is awesome and incredibly useful for many reasons. For me, it has been instant ability to see how well I am doing in a class and what I need to work on. For my teachers it has been easy input of grades as well as making sure students had the ability to track their progress. Also, to many students’ dismay, it provides an easy way for parents to keep track of how their kids are doing in school. Benefits all around really.
  2. Class Notes: From lecture slideshows, to handouts, and even my own personal notes, digital class notes is a biggie. My teachers have used digital notes to easily share lectures and slideshows with their students. Gone is the need for killing a tree to give out handouts. And, biggest of all in my opinion, is the ease of organizing digital notes.
  3. Work: There is nothing nicer than being in a class where a paper can be simply emailed or shared with a teacher rather than going through the hassle of printing it out. This doesn’t work so well for certain types of work, but it’s definitely worth pursuing in appropriate subjects. And then of course there are projects. With so many new and fantastic presentation-making websites, it’s easy to go beyond the bland PowerPoint nowadays. Plus, there are the fun options like blogging and video projects to think about!
  4. Tests: Now, I have personally taken very few digital tests in my learning career. Some were from textbook websites, others were applications created specifically by my school. So, there is a lot of room for growth in this area. Digital tests are customizable and easily and automatically graded, increasing the efficiency of test-taking.
I personally love infographics, so here’s one I made to sort of illustrate what I’ve been blabbering on about.

Blended Learning

Let’s start with a definition.

Blended learning (n): a combination of e-learning and face-to-face learning

So is it a compromise of the two types of learning? Or a transition from one to the other? Currently, it seems to not really fit into either of those, largely remaining a wide-scale experiment to see if this whole e-learning thing has advantages over face-to-face learning. It is the result of a changing infrastructure in the education world; change that has been brought about by the advent of e-learning.

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What’s the big deal? Well, on one hand, blended learning marks a major shift in learning. It’s taking computers (and technology in general) out of the computer labs and putting them in the classroom, in the hands of students. It’s an expansion of access to information, an increased potential for learning opportunities, and a combatant to rising demands on teachers. That’s quite a mouthful.

Blended learning also creates the possibility for more personalized learning. This means a shift to self-driven learning as well as better ways of keeping track of students strengths and weaknesses. It means more eager students, who are not only motivated to learn but learning on a deeper level because of their motivation. It means teachers can better prepare students for life after school.

There are many benefits of course, even beyond increased efficiency and reduced isolation in the classroom. What remains to be seen is how this whole experiment is going to work out. Will the scales tip in favor of e-learning? Or retain the balance it has now?

The reality is, we don’t know. If you’ve got a crystal ball, feel free to share anything you see coming. But one thing is for certain, blended learning is at the very least reflecting today’s technology-immersed society.

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: On Libraries

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It seems that of all of the things that education technology is changing, libraries are often the most looked over. Since the advent of ebooks and the internet, people have been predicting the end of books. An end which, surprisingly has not yet arrived. So do we strive to keep libraries the way they are? Or update them?

From my point of view, a library has always been an intrinsic part of my education. When I was young, it was a place to go beyond what I was learning in the classroom. A place for exploration and development that was largely self-driven. As I got older it became a necessary resource for research. I can’t imagine going through school without a library. However, the concept of a library has changed quite a bit since I was first taught how to use them. My current library employs eight large floors of books as well as a multitude of online sources. It is a perfect example of melding new technology with the old.

I think there is a big difference between books in a library and books in a classroom. I have advocated before on here switching to ebooks for textbooks, for a multitude of reasons. However, I tend to take the opposite stance when it comes to libraries. For me, browsing through the books in a library is an experience in and of itself that cannot be replaced by an internet search. And while I groan along with my fellow students when internet sources are banned for a project, I always come to realize by the end of it that I have discovered and absorbed much more new knowledge than I would have on Google.

So, in light of the unfortunate decline of books and the progression of technology, how do we make sure libraries are suited to current students’ needs? One method, as I mentioned is the duality of a tangible library and a digital one. Resources like JSTOR and others tend to be a fairly expensive alternative to an actual library, but also offer the advantage of a much wider availability of information. Many books are being scanned at librairies nowadays, which is relatively cheaper, and yet still limited. And a traditional library on its own is generally outdated and unable to provide the range of resources often needed in education. Which brings us back to combining the alternatives for a more well-rounded research and learning experience.

As a digital native, but also traditional bookworm, it saddens me to think that old libraries will cease to exist one day. I’m all for the progression of technology, but I don’t think that progress has to entail destroying the traditional. Still, the only way we can keep libraries relevant is to continue believing they are relevant.

What do you think? Are libraries a thing of the past, or something to preserve for the future?

Pencils, Backpacks, and Perspective: Information in the Age of Google

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Being a digital native, it is safe to say that I enjoy an over-abundance of and easy access to information. If I’m trying to remember the specific date of an event or need a definition, the simplest way for me to find the answer is to Google it. I basic Google everything. And I’ve come to realize that when information is so easy to get a hold of, I don’t appreciate it nearly as much. So how do students learn to appreciate the world of information at their fingertips?

Well, many of my teachers have circumvented this problem by restricting research to solely non-internet sources. While this was frustrating to me at the time, it forced me to learn much more about the subject, as the answer was not simply handed to me within five seconds. Now, this is a great method for projects in the classroom and research papers, but it doesn’t necessarily help outside of these things.

Another option is to create assignments that can’t be Googled. Force students to get more creative with the way in which they utilize the information they’ve found. This could include anything from concept maps to video projects. Anything which could help them go beyond knowing to information to truly understanding it. Critical thinking tends to help students remember more information than a Google search could.

One last idea, rather than focusing on a project or goal, let students discover the research process itself. I’ve spent a relatively significant amount of time not just researching, but learning to understand research. If we go beyond finding information to teaching how to not only find the best sources, but also what it means that we can find these sources. Google is a huge part of our current culture, and it seems to me we should endeavor to figure out its place in the world.

Do your students appreciate information so easily found? Would you consider projects going beyond basic information? What else can we do to help students grasp how important information is?