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February 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 5

Digitally Speaking / Good Teaching Trumps Good Tools

Digitally Speaking / Good Teaching Trumps Good Tools - thumbnail
Not long ago, I spoke to a group of preservice teachers at the local university about technology integration in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. The first question asked was, "What are the technologies you couldn't live without in the classroom?" My response—that I could successfully prepare my students without any technology in my classroom—always catches audiences off guard. "What's the point of 21st century teaching and learning," they'll ask, "if you don't have any technology in your room?"
This all-too-common perception that success in the 21st century is dependent on specific digital tools is flawed. Instead, those who will succeed in tomorrow's knowledge-driven workplace will be those who can solve problems creatively and think across domains. They will be able to create persuasive and engaging content and will be skilled communicators, fluid collaborators, and experts at managing information.
My point—a lesson I learned from Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, one of my closest digital mentors—is that focusing on specific digital tools instead of on the instructional skills they're designed to support often leads to poor technology integration. Students sitting in high-tech classrooms armed with interactive whiteboards, iPads, and handheld video cameras but staffed by teachers who can't craft lessons that integrate the skills needed for success aren't any better off than their counterparts in unplugged classrooms. Good teaching trumps good tools every time.
What the most effective teachers have discovered, however, is that good tools can make learning more efficient. New technologies make it possible for learners to sift through information quickly, collaborate on shared content easily, and reach influential audiences with little effort. The trick is choosing tools that neatly align with the skills you're trying to teach. Two tools that I find align with essential skills are VoiceThread and Diigo.

Powerful Online Discussions

VoiceThread (http://voicethread.com) is a service that makes asynchronous conversations possible. Creators of VoiceThread conversations upload content—quotes, images, video clips—that serve as starting points for discussions. Then, users can come together around that content and add text, video, or voice comments to the conversation. Depending on the wishes of the person who creates the forum, these conversations can be open to the world or available by invitation only.
I use VoiceThread to extend conversations we've started in class. One of the most successful VoiceThread discussions that we've had centered around a collection of political cartoons exploring the world's response to genocide in Darfur. In response to one cartoon implying that the world's indifference to Darfur's genocide will allow it to continue indefinitely, one student shared the view that the United States shouldn't intervene, partly because "we don't know how." Another student built on that thinking with, "Suzy, I agree with you that people aren't sure how to help. But I also wonder if people want to take action but then are too busy to do anything about it." (See http://ed.voicethread.com/share/62276 for the complete discussion.) Another interesting conversation was built around a series of quotes and pictures connected to the concept of hatred. (See http://ed.voicethread.com/share/88781.)
I spend significant class time teaching students how to make productive contributions to ongoing conversations, skills language arts teachers have been integrating into their classrooms for ages. It's worth the time because VoiceThread conversations allow my students to join together any time, from any Internet-connected device. They ask questions of one another, challenge one another's thinking, and have their own thinking challenged time and again, modeling the intellectual give-and-take that defines the best learning experiences.
Because they're asynchronous, VoiceThread conversations enable students to polish their thinking before sharing ideas publicly. This lends a measure of safety often missing from classroom conversations. Students can focus their attention on the most motivating discussion threads. VoiceThread conversations enable me to engage students who are absent from class for long periods of time and to spot misconceptions students hold about concepts we're studying in class.

Social Bookmarking

Diigo (www.diigo.com) is a social bookmarking and shared annotation service. Diigo enables users to tag, organize, and share information they discover online, and to highlight and annotate online articles. Other students who are using Diigo can see these annotations and read and comment on content together.
In my classroom, I turn to Diigo to motivate students to interact with nonfiction text. After setting up free, secure classroom groups and student accounts, I bookmark online texts about current events connected to our social studies or science curriculum. Then, I add a few highlights and annotations to each bookmarked article—a simple process done from a toolbar installed in any Internet browser—and mention the articles in class. Drawn by the social nature of reading together, my students start adding their own annotations to our online collection.
Often, sophisticated conversations develop. After reading an article about mining in Peru, students debated the ethics of the United States owning a company there. (See http://digitallyspeaking.pbworks.com/f/Handout_ReflectingonDiigoAnnotations.pdf.) Students ask and answer one another's questions and highlight bits of text they don't understand. They share opinions or make connections to other content that we're studying—and eventually bookmark new articles to share with their peers. Diigo provides my students the opportunity to interact with one another and with nonfiction text— essential skills that middle schoolers struggle with.
Although I'm not sure I could live without asynchronous discussion forums or shared annotation services in my classroom, I could live without VoiceThread or Diigo. Currently, they're the best free tools for exploring interesting content and having challenging online conversations, but I'd walk away from them tomorrow if something better came along. One of the characteristics of successful digital educators is a willingness to think beyond individual brands. Companies offering Web 2.0 services are constantly innovating and improving—or going out of business! The key to finding tools you can't live without is to think through the kinds of skills your students can't live without.

William M. Ferriter teaches 6th grade science and social studies in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is the coauthor of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year (Solution Tree, 2009).

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