Technology: Helping This Old Dog Do New Tricks

I read some of Prensky’s previous work as part of the lit review for my masters project on technology integration in history, so I wasn’t surprised to see “Shaping Tech for the Classroom” show up in the course readings. Prensky discusses a model for technology adoption in schools:

  1. Dabbling
  2. Doing old things in old ways.
  3. Doing old things in new ways.
  4. Doing new things in new ways.

In the spirit of reflection and to help document how this program is changing my practice, I thought it would be useful exercise to apply this model to my own teaching. While I consider myself a “techie” individual, I do not necessarily consider myself a techie teacher. But let’s see if this self-assessment holds up once I enumerate my teaching practices.


Defined by Prensky as “a few apples here. A PC there. Random creation of software…some very good, much bad.” This describes my interaction to date with the Hitachi Starboard (a smartboard product) that was installed in my room in early February. I represent the pilot group of about seven teachers who received these devices, but since I was away at the NESA Winter Training Institute during the Starboard training, I haven’t actually seen a demo of how it’s used. And it’s not like I would RTFM, because that’s not how our new technology-infused lives work: we learn by doing, not by reading. In any event, I’ve only dabbled with using the Starboard in my classes. So far I’ve used it as a kinesthetic activity, asking my history students to categorize information into graphic organizers by dragging text around. For example, they might categorize a list of terms into RECIPES (religious, economic, cultural, intellectual, political, environmental, social) components, or sort attributes of various religions into a Venn diagram (the Starboard software has built-in models). Alternately, I use the Starboard to annotate maps to sum up class activities and integrate geographical knowledge – last week, I had students brainstorm modern countries that practiced Islam, and then we shaded them on a projected map. This is all well and good, but I’ve only just scratched the surface of what I can do with this new technology – and so has the school. We’re schedule to have Starboards installed in all classrooms over the next few months, but at the moment we as a faculty are just dabbling.

Doing Old Things in Old Ways

Essentially, this is when we “pass documents around, but now in electronic form.” Prensky includes curricula and lesson plans as well as student work (essays and other assignments) in this category. A lot of what I do falls into this category. Submitting UbDs? That’s done via email attachments. Sharing lesson plans? It’s done via the file-sharing service Dropbox, which keeps up-to-date copies of lesson plans and assessments on the computers of me and the two other teachers with whom I co-plan. How about making course information available? Instead of using posters in my classroom and handing out printed syllabi and schedules, everything is posted on Moodle. Students can check their grades (by student ID), see the homework, and download powerpoints and handouts. This is different from before because it is easier to make information available, but the fact is that I’m still doing the same thing teachers could have done – albeit more difficultly – 20 years ago.

Doing Old Things in New Ways

So what am I doing that is new? Prensky cites examples exclusively from science and math – discplines in which technology helps students “manipulate whole virtual systems” to “arrive at their own conclusions through controlled experimentation and what scientists call enlightened trial and error.” But what about history, that famously static and often rote subject? I have used technology to increase student buy-in and make class more collaborative. For example, I can call up a passage of text on my Starboard and ask students to come up and annotate it. I use my new Elmo document camera for the same purpose. I can also use the document camera to showcase pen-and-paper work, which is useful for reward and feedback. Technology gives me a slightly newer, more collaborative, more public way to develop the same writing and editing skills that have always been part of the humanities. The difference is that today’s students need to be impressed, their attentions captured, more than was necessary in the past. I’m not saying that engagement has only become important recently, but rather that today’s students are accustomed to so many distractions – hyperlinks in text, push notifications on their iPhones, Tweets and Facebook updates coming every few minutes – that sustained attention on a single task can be hard unless something helps to focus their attention. My Smartboard and document camera help me to do that. At the same time, conducting an activity as a class rather than individually takes some of the onus off of the student, and this is a trend that worries me even while I enable it myself.

I see Moodle as a tool that will help me do more old things in new ways, especially by giving kids an audience other than their teacher (Wong documents the phenomenon of expectancy well in his work). I haven’t yet incorporated online discussion, but I see it as a way to give quieter kids the chance the make their opinions heard and to extend and apply the concepts that we cover in class. Two things prevent me from using online discussion (for example by using Moodle forums): one, I haven’t yet decided the best way to assess it (Quality of thought? Mere participation? What is an appropriate frequency for students to participate in it? Two, in line with my findings from masters project, many teachers seem to recognize that there’s only so much time in the day. Do we expect students to be engrossed in the subject even outside of class time when students have myriad class and extracurricular expectations?

I’m intrigued by the possibility of using wikis or Google Docs to facilitate collaborative writing – students could write an essay together or complete a study guide, and presumably the process would require them to discuss and defend their knowledge with their peers. As a teacher I’ve found it invaluable to have multiple editors for my UbDs and lesson plans. But I think students need to master the skills for themselves first, since the tendency I notice is for the lower students to be content riding the coattails of more active participants in a group. Collaborative tools will, I fear, enable such behavior.

Doing New Things in New Ways

What can I do that is really new? Prensky takes it on faith that we need “new teaching, new student assessments…invention.” Well, as a history teacher trying to teach the patterns of human civilization, I would love to use the video game Civilization (or its free equivalent, Freeciv) to have students apply their knowledge of political, economic, and religious concepts to a simulated world and learn not by discussion and memorization but through “controlled experimentation and…enlightened trial and error.”

Beyond this, one of the most intriguing ideas I’ve heard for doing new things in new ways is flipping the classroom, using online resources like Khan’s academy to take care of lecture at home and then using in-class time for assignments so that the teacher can provide feedback. This is certainly intriguing – media resources are our student’s primary literacy, and although I’m a smart guy there are many people who are more engaging and knowledgeable when speaking about history than I am. The problem is enforcement – the fact is that students DON’T always do their homework, and this model begins to break down when students don’t acquire the content on their own, because then the in-class teacher contact time can’t be leveraged effectively.

Oof. 1300 words is about the limit of MY attention span tonight, so I’m going to sign off rather abruptly here. Happy COETAILing, everyone!

2 thoughts on “Technology: Helping This Old Dog Do New Tricks”

  1. I really like this post, and how you sequence through the ideas presented in the article with examples from your own practice. I particularly like the ideas you present in “Doing New Things in New Ways.” How great to use the video game concept to connect and engage students. I also love the idea of flipping the classroom. I think this could be very successful and though it may take some time to re-train students, I believe once they start to realize that the homework is essential to work effectively and successfully in class, they will start to do it. This all goes back to the idea of expectation – do we expect students can and will engage once given a new formula for learning?

    Online discussion forums are also great for the reasons you cite (student participation and voice) and also because they enhance writing and reading skills. Couldn’t they be graded similarly to an in-class scored discussion? In that regard, comments would have to follow a thread and connect to the ideas presented by others or to the original prompt. That would be grading ideas and content, which is the essential skill we assess in any discussion.

    I also think using shared docs and wikis to practice writing skills could serve to enhance the individual writing of students. By writing together, they get more practice and they see more models of good writing. They can still be assessed individually on in-class work, so there is still accountability to improve on their own.

    Great post, great ideas – thought-provoking. You should present to your faculty.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I’m hoping that models of online discussion is a topic we cover in future sessions- its so much easier to adapt than create!

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