Wednesday, 17 September 2014

How can ‘just another cool technology’ be made into a powerful learning tool?

New and exciting collaboration tools such as multi-touch technologies or programs allowing multi-mouse have big potential to significantly improve students’ group work and problem solving skills.

However, they can often be seen by students (and sometimes teachers) as alien to the standard classroom. This view, more often than not, prevents them from extending the benefits of the use of such tools beyond the lesson in which it was used.

The key thing to overcome this problem is to ensure that the technology itself isn’t at the forefront of the lesson. It needs to be treated no differently than any other tool which has the main purpose of helping achieve lesson goals.

I’ve done a lot of research in schools on the use of interactive tabletops, which most students see for the first time ever during the lesson. Without careful integration of such activities into the curriculum, we did not observe the positive effects expected. This was caused by the novelty of such technology; students completed the task and enjoyed it, but did not think of it as part of their learning, thus failed to truly benefit from it. Even when doing more than one session with digital tables students always thought of such sessions as fun lessons isolated from their normal learning.

With this experience behind me, in later sessions we ensured that what needs to be done on the tables is a sub-task of a bigger project. When we used the tables as tools to help with collaborative writing, the task was based on topics discussed in previous sessions. The tabletop session was to work together on an essay plan which they would each individually use to write their essays later on. When we used them with students who have additional needs, we used pictures of masks they’d made in previous sessions. This meant the tabletop task was being (among other goals) used as a catalyst for group discussions in preparation for a later class presentation. In both these scenarios, the technology, which was also new to the students, was seen simply as a tool to achieve a learning goal, and beyond.

This doesn’t apply only to novel technologies such as tabletops or multi-mouse software; it applies to the use of any new application or technology such as tablets.

Studies on technology enhanced learning use different terms to make the same point: integration of learning, workflow continuity, and distribution across time. They all carry the same message; to ensure effective use of technology, there must be a continuous workflow involving a preparation stage before the use of technology to ensure impact beyond the lesson it’s used in. One way of doing this is to have presentations or data structures that are used and adjusted throughout the process to link everything together. What the school above did with students making masks and then using their images within the platform is a great example of how this can be done.

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