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Monday, March 17, 2008

Teaching internet use instead of forbidding it

I recently conducted a training on creating and usings blogs and wikis for instructional purposes. It was somewhat sparsely attended, but those teachers that did attend were very excited about the prospect of using them in the classroom. One foreign language teacher who teaches Advanced Placement German - I'll call her Michelle - wanted to create a blog in German for her students to engage in regular free-writing and topic-based writing exercises.

Rather than create a blog on our network course management system (ANGEL Learning), Michelle wanted to create an internet-based blog. This would allow her to invite other students, teachers of German, and even native Germans and German-language speakers to visit the class blog and comment on the students' work. What we had talked about in the blog training was that this "instant global exposure" can cause students to take much more seriously what previously might have been just a classroom exercise - because only the teacher (and perhaps the students in class) would read it, it wasn't a very "real-world" exercise.

We started to set up the blog on Blogger, only to find that just beyond the sign-in page, the website was blocked by our district's internet filtering software. We tried a different service - Edublogs - to find the same problem arising. It's not the entire blog service that's blocked; I know some specific blogs have been passed through the filter (this one, for instance). Instead, it's the blog management page that's blocked.

What that means is for some of these third-party internet tools, if teachers in my district want to use them, they need to use them primarily from home. This means setting up and posting to blogs, managing comments (probably from students), etc. While I have many tech-savvy teachers at my school that would be fine with this, that's not really the point of my job - I'm trying to help the ones that aren't quite that tech-savvy get there, and that's tough to do if they have to do it themselves all from home.

This issue is actually secondary to my point in this post. My district is very forward-thinking towards classroom technology. Every permanent classroom in the entire district has a Promethean interactive whiteboard; every portable has ActivSlate technology. We have computer labs, a bevy of professional and educational software for teachers and students, and the district has been recognized for its efforts in implementing classroom technology. (A couple of articles about it are on my district's website.)

And while the hardware and software is great, there's more to it. I've always understood the term "instructional technology" to mean the application of currently available tools in new and innovative ways. When websites become accessible to the "common man" through programs like Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver, teachers can start using them with students. When the development of JavaScript and then AJAX allows internet sites to update themselves in real time, spawning the birth of "Web 2.0," a plethora of new communication, writing, and information tools is at teachers' disposal.

With so many tools emerging every year for teachers and students to use, I think the crucial missing piece is showing teachers how to manage the technology in their classrooms. Students are using these tools much more than teachers are - shouldn't teachers be able to at least relate to the software and show how students can use it effectively, even if they aren't using it as much as their students?

I've been reviewing training topics for next year, and I want to include some professional development that's not just "how-to's." I'd like to share with teachers how to teach students to use these tools properly. This new generation of interconnected, interpersonal information is going to take entirely different mental tools to use properly - tools that today's teachers probably and for the most part aren't yet teaching. It's one of the most exciting and frustrating things about education - always getting to be, and at the same time having to be on the cutting edge.

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