I’m thrilled that Saint Mary’s Press asked me to write an article about technology in Catholic Schools for their January edition of CONNECT: A free newsletter for high school religion teacher, campus ministers and principals.
In this issue of Connect, Colette Cassinelli, of Valley Catholic Middle and High School in Beaverton, Oregon, introduces some manageable ways to use technology that can significantly enhance the learning experiences of our students. In doing so, she illustrates that it is possible to take steps into the world of education and technology without being completely overwhelmed by the possibilities that seem to multiply every day. Our own use of technology for learning can model to our students how they can use technology in responsible and useful ways.
In the feature article, Colette introduces the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (NETS) and gives examples of ways to make these standards come alive. In “Making It Happen,” she gives more in-depth descriptions of using technology in the high school classroom.
Catholic Educators and Twenty-first-Century Learning
by Colette Cassinelli
Everywhere around us the world is changing. Business, politics, and journalism are being transformed by rapid changes in technology, and education is slowly seeing technology’s potential. Catholic educators today must embrace a new pedagogy and embed collaborative technologies for a new society of learners.
Students in our classrooms today differ from those who came before them. Educational theorist Marc Prensky calls these students “digital natives.” They are well versed in the uses of computers, cell phones, digital cameras, and text messaging. They think and process information in a fundamentally different way than previous generations. The Pew Internet and American Life Project (2007) found that 64 percent of online teenagers (ages 12-17) engaged in at least one type of Web content creation, such as blogs and photo and media sharing. These students are creative, smart, and most of all, networked, and they want their education to be and feel meaningful, worthwhile, and relevant to the future.
Educational consultant Ian Jakes states, “The primary task of the educational system must be to give learners the right tools and provide them with a critical mind so that they can ask the right questions and make the right connections. The problem is that the world is not the stable, static place it once was. The world has changed and continues to change.”
How can we as Catholic educators adopt these new tools and contemplate ways the interactive Web can enhance our own practices and student learning? How can we encourage students to be lifelong learners and discover the power of self-learning? How do we rethink our curriculum and embed twenty-first-century skills into our teaching to create authentic learning tasks?
It is an overwhelming undertaking, and many of us educators who did not grow up with technology (Marc Prensky calls us “Digital Immigrants”) are hesitant to change and have no clear road map for how to begin.
National Technology Standards for Students (NETS)
An excellent place to start is with the newly refreshed National Technology Standards for Students (2007) outlined by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The new NETS provide a framework for educators to use as they transition schools from Industrial Age to Digital Age places of learning. These new standards focus on skills and knowledge that students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly digital society. They focus on cognitive skills, as well as creativity and innovation. These are the six standard areas:
- creativity and innovation
- communication and collaboration
- research and information fluency
- critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making
- digital citizenship
- technology operations and concepts
All educators want their students to be creative and innovative. We embrace collaboration among our students because sharing knowledge enhances student learning. We provide opportunities for our students not only to be able to access information efficiently but also to be able to evaluate sources and synthesize the content. We desire to challenge our students to think critically and understand all aspects of a problem before making decisions. We insist that our students be responsible and ethical citizens of a digital world and leave behind “digital footprints” that represent moral and upright citizens. We hope that our students will be technologically prepared for a job in the future that we can’t even imagine yet.
Each of the standards outlined by ISTE contains simple and easy to implement technology skills. First, begin by examining your curriculum and identifying areas where you want your students to demonstrate understanding. Focus on student learning rather than on your teaching practice. Look for opportunities where students can embrace creative expression and share ideas digitally through written or multimedia formats. Start small–you do not need to embrace everything at once! Find a network of other teacher-learners like the online forum found at Classroom 2.0 (http://www.classroom20.com) and explore new technology tools together. (This Web site does a good job explaining that we have experienced the “Web 1.0” as a one-way means of getting information. “Web 2.0” is a new phase in Internet usage, allowing a two-way exchange of information, meaning that all of us can post material on the Internet and shape its content.)
Creativity and innovation. The proliferation of free Web 2.0 tools on the Internet provides educators with ample opportunity for students to be engaged in creative and unique ways. Digital storytelling is now easier than ever with free downloadable software like Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 or by visiting Web-based programs like http://www.VoiceThread.com. These tools allow students to upload images, audio, and narration for personal narratives, to demonstrate understanding of a skill presented in class, or to share stories from school events. VoiceThread projects take it a step further and allow classmates to comment and create conversations around digital images–either in a private or public forum.
Communication and collaboration. Another great way to encourage collaboration among students is to use a wiki for classroom instruction. A wiki is a simple, easy-to-use Web page that anyone can edit. Students can document the steps of a science experiment, participate in collaborative story writing, or list Web sites used for a research paper. The power of a wiki is the collaborative nature of the technology, and any student can add her changes to the document. The revision history is automatically saved so it can easily be reverted back to a previous version if necessary. Many wiki Web sites, like Wikispaces, will give educators free access with no ads.
Technology integration. One place to start with technology integration is among professional activities for your faculty and staff. With Google Apps for Education, schools can set up e-mail, a calendar, and collaboration tools right from the browser. Administrators and educators can work together on documents uploaded to shared “Google Docs and Spreadsheets” and assign editing rights to facilitate synchronous writing. Google Apps for Education is free, with no advertising, and is easy to manage because there is no hardware or software to maintain. You can even customize your search page with your school name and resources you want made available to your school community (calendar, news feeds, announcements, etc.). After staff members see the power of sharing documents among themselves, then teachers can embrace this same type of collaboration with their students.
Digital citizenship. When implementing any type of technology into the curriculum, it is critical to simultaneously teach and demonstrate appropriate digital citizenship. We want our students to be safe online, so it is best to have students and parents sign “acceptable use” agreements before allowing students to use Web 2.0 sites (note that some sites require students to be thirteen). Students should use only first names, no identifying descriptions such as age or school name, and consider using avatars (a computer user’s self-representation as a two-dimensional icon or a three-dimensional model) or icons instead of real photos. Along with digital literacy, teachers can also address serious topics such as cyberbullying and online safety when using social-networking sites.
Most of all, we want our students to be digitally fluent inside and outside the classroom. We want them to see learning as a lifelong goal, not something that only happens inside a classroom. Learning is an active process with the learner at its center. Technology can provide unprecedented opportunities to explore new areas and can actively engage students in a wider range of projects than have ever been possible before. As Thomas Friedman states in his book, The World Is Flat, “the most important ability you can develop in a flat world is the ability to ‘learn how to learn’–to constantly absorb, and teach yourself, new ways of doing old things or new ways of doing new things” (page 302). As Catholic educators, we can use technology to excite and inspire these “digital natives” and lead them down a road to developing their own passion and curiosity.
Expanding the Uses of Technology
by Colette Cassinelli
Computer class is not just about learning how to format Word documents, write formulas in Excel, or make a PowerPoint anymore. It’s about using creativity and communication tools to challenge students to dig deeper and further student learning with real-world lessons. While I may teach students how to use various technological tools in the ways I describe, they can be applied across the curriculum.
Students learn best when they are fully engaged in classroom activities. I believe that as Catholic educators we must ensure that materials we use in class are relevant to our students’ lives and emphasize ways that learning can be applied in real-life situations. I like to present students in my computer classes with tasks that are authentic, built on life experiences, and use real-world technology tools. My desire is to have activities that provoke the curiosity of students but at the same time produce relevant, high-quality digital products.
Long-Distance Interviewing via Skype
Chad Lehman, a K-5 library media specialist from Wisconsin, posted a plea on the Classroom 2.0 online forum looking for teachers from other states to collaborate on a state project he was doing with his fourth graders. As part of their research on the fifty states, he wanted each fourth grader to interview someone about what it’s like to live in that state and what they like best about living there. I replied to Mr. Lehman that my seventh grade students would love to participate. I downloaded a program called Skype onto one of the lab computers and brought my webcam from home. Skype is a software program that allows you to make video phone calls over the Internet. We arranged the time of the interview and the class waited excitedly for the big day. Two students were chosen to speak for our class and answer the questions. We projected the Webcam image of the interview onto a large screen so everyone could watch. Mr. Lehman and a fourth-grade boy interviewed our class. All of my students were 100 percent engaged in the interview. If our two representatives didn’t know the answer to a question, the other twenty-eight kids scrambled to see who could find the answer first on Google. The interview went off without a hitch, and my students begged to do it again. These relatively easy-to-implement technology projects made me realize that my students were eager to communicate with students outside our school. I decided to next try a longer, more in-depth project.
Blogging to Make the World a Better Place
Using the quote from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” I challenged my middle and high school computer students to brainstorm how we could use the digital tools of today to “be the change.” Students used Inspiration (a digital graphic organizer) to map out ideas of how they could accomplish this and went to work researching a topic of their choosing. I wanted to make sure the parents understood the project and sent home a letter detailing our proposal, including an explanation of how we were going to use a blog for our publishing platform. (A blog is like an online diary where the students could write posts about their topic and share resources.) I set up individual student blogs at http://www.21classes.com. This Web site allows each student to customize their own blog but still be connected to the larger class.
Students posted their first entry explaining their chosen topic and how they hoped to change the world. The topics ranged from encouraging people to give blood, protecting the environment, teenage depression, animal abuse, recycling, and more. They designed original Web banners for their site and research facts to give their blog credibility. To encourage students to read each other’s posting, I set up learning circles of four to five students who read and commented on one another’s blogs. We discussed appropriate commenting, how to encourage further discussion, writing in a manner that was professional, using accurate facts, and citing resources. This activity gave a real-world experience to everything I taught in my earlier digital citizenship unit. We used only first names, did not use identifying photos, and did not reveal our school name.
In addition to discussing their topic and writing personal reflections, students also embedded other forms of media such as digital comic strips and educational public service announcement videos. The students enjoyed receiving comments from their classmates but were eager for a larger audience. I located a group of teachers online who were also blogging with their students and invited them to read our blogs. My students participated in a “comment challenge” to read and post on other classroom blogs. Soon my students were discussing their topics with elementary and high school students from around the US and Canada and as far away as Australia. As a teacher I was able to review and approve all comments before they were posted. The overall reaction to the blogging activity was positive and encouraging. Many students worked on their blogs from home and were always excited to receive new comments.
Giving my students an authentic audience raised the level of student engagement and quality of work in my classroom. Other classes have also made videos for Peace Day, evaluated the nutritional content of school lunches by using Excel spreadsheets, mass produced letters to local representatives about legislation, interviewed locals for career VoiceThread projects, and more. Next year I plan on incorporating additional interaction with other schools by having the students create original digital postcards and embed them into a Google map. We will send the URL of the Google map to the other schools and encourage them to visit our map and add their images and research.
Our teens are social creatures as we know. Allowing them to communicate with other students around the country and the world can help them learn about important topics in a way that is real, immediate, and personal, enabling them to expand their worldviews and ask more critical questions about any topic under discussion.
View all the Connect articles at http://www.smp.org/Connect/January-2009.cfm