Educational Leadership announces a new column—Digitally Speaking—and a new columnist, Bill Ferriter. Bill is a 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher, writer of the blog The Tempered Radical, and an enthusiastic proponent of using digital technology in teaching. In this column, Bill will share how-tos about using digital tools in the classroom. He'll highlight resources, suggest ways to get around problems, and showcase teachers who are using technology in innovative ways.
For those who don't know me, I'm a teacher and digital junkie. I'm the Twitter groupie in the back of the teachers workroom who's constantly complaining about the district firewall and who's booked the computer lab for 16 straight weeks.
But I make no apologies for my computer obsession. With little more than a high-speed Internet connection and a bit of moxie, I've built a network of innovative colearners with whom I collaborate regularly, although I've never met any of them in person. I consider experimenting fearlessly with digital connections to be part of my job as a teacher.
One powerful aspect of 21st century learning is the fact that anyone with an Internet connection can find like-minded peers to learn from using such free tools as blogs and RSS feeds. What I like the best about my digital learning network is that it's spread across continents. Clay Burell is Korea's best kept secret, asking provocative questions about the changing nature of schooling. Jenny Luca is an Aussie dynamo, encouraging teachers to create meaningful service learning projects. Kevin Jarrett runs one of the most inventive elementary-level computer labs in New Jersey.
Connecting with colleagues online has helped me explore skills and dispositions necessary for networked cooperation—skills like finding partners beyond borders, making my own thinking transparent, revising positions on the basis of feedback, accessing valuable information from colearners, and creating shared content. It has profoundly changed the way I learn.
Aren't these the kinds of skills our students must develop? Don't today's 12-year-olds need to recognize that future coworkers are just as likely to live on the other side of the world as on the other side of town? Wouldn't young adults truly prepared for the 21st century have experience using computers to learn with—rather than simply about—the world?
Sure they would—and ironically, even our youngest students often have more knowledge about the logistics of electronic networking than we do. Consider these statistics about students ages 12–17 from a 2007 report by the Pew Internet and American Life project1
- 59 percent share artistic creations online by creating videos, making Web pages, maintaining blogs, or remixing online content.
- 55 percent have created profiles on social networking sites like Facebook, and 47 percent have posted images on interactive photo-sharing sites.
Despite what they'll tell you, however, there's not a lot of thoughtful discourse going on among teenagers blasting their way through Halo on their PlayStations. And skimming through a sample of typical Facebook pages would leave most teachers convinced that electronic conversations are nothing more than mindless nonsense.
To put it simply, our students have no trouble connecting, but no one has taught them about the power of these connections. Although tweens and teens may be comfortable using digital tools to build networks, few are using those networks to pursue meaningful personal growth. Our challenge as teachers is to identify ways that students can use these tools for learning.
This is why I experiment with every new tool that bursts onto the teenage radar—and show my students how these tools can translate into opportunities for learning. Consider the potential: Students from different countries can explore global challenges together. Small cohorts of motivated kids can conduct studies of topics with deep personal meaning to them. Experts can "visit" classrooms thousands of miles away.
Recognizing the power in digital conversations, I began using discussion tools like VoiceThread (http://voicethread.com) to create electronic forums for my students to interact with peers around classroom content—with extraordinary results. More than 85 percent of students in my classroom participate in our optional online discussions, logging thousands of page views and adding hundreds of comments. Whether we're working with other classes in our school or around the world, each conversation includes opportunities for students to ask questions and feel a push against their preconceived notions. As Christina—one of my former students—wrote, "I love it when someone disagrees with me online because it makes me think again."
If this makes sense to you but you haven't created digital connections yourself, it's time to start building your own personal learning network. Begin by signing up for a Twitter account (www.twitter.com) and visiting the Twitter for Teachers wiki (http://twitter4teachers.pbworks.com) to find colleagues to follow. Through Twitter, you'll get short online messages from fellow practitioners that point you to resources or pose questions. Join an online community of educators discussing teaching and learning. My current favorites are Classroom 2.0 (www.classroom20.com) and the Teacher Leaders Network (www.teacherleaders.org), but new groups form every day.
Not ready to cannonball into an ongoing digital relationship with a bunch of strangers yet? Then start by following some of the good education blogs written by teachers. Many of these are listed in the Support Blogging wiki (http://supportblogging.com) and on my list of resources (www.pageflakes.com/wferriter/16618841).
Once you've taken your digital plunge, share with students how the digital connections you engage in enhance your skills and deepen your knowledge. Model learning transparently.
The key to becoming an effective 21st century instructor is to become an efficient 21st century learner. Once you pair high-quality teaching with a meaningful understanding of today's tools for networked learning, you'll be prepared to support tomorrow's networked kid. Ready to take the first step?