Sunday, March 7, 2010

Most Overrated Tools

I was recently asked by a teacher during a casual conversation, "What do you think are the best and worst tools to use in the classroom?"

It was very apparent the teacher had put a lot of thought into this; someone wondering what the "worst" tools to use in the classroom has an understanding that technology is not a panacea. There are indeed uses of technology in the classroom that are harmful to student learning, mainly because they offer no new access to learning and take up valuable time.

Of course, I equivocated in my response. The tools themselves are not bad. In fact, any tool can be used well by teachers. But there were indeed several tools that I have seen misused quite a bit. Here's my thoughts:

Interactive whiteboards have taken many hits among edubloggers, and my thoughts are similar. The tool is teacher-centered instead of student-centered, and while it does allow for more use of visuals during a teacher lecture, you still have a lecture, which doesn't change from the traditional learning process very much.

What makes this striking is that many schools see this as the penultimate tool of dynamic learning. So much so, that I've seen about a dozen district technology plans calling for SmartBoards or Prometheans in every classroom. In many cases, those whiteboards will be installed without comprehensive professional development, and even if they were, classrooms will still function the same.

This tool is now over 10 years old. When it first came out, teachers (including yours truly) raved about the way iMovie supports project-based learning and appealing to visual learners. Students could take their learning and share it in a much more vibrant way than the traditional posterboard activity or oral presentation.

The reality is less rosy. Teaching with iMovie has not changed much in those 10 years. It is not very collaborative (it ends up being one person working on the computer with the other group members occasionally looking over her shoulder). It more often than not becomes an exercise in regurgitating content rather than tackling content at higher-levels. Other students usually come away from watching a fellow student's iMovie with less understanding than if the fellow student had simply talked to other students. It is gadgety and gizmo-y. And it is a monumental waste of time.

There are places where video production can be a valuable enrichment or a truly authentic exercise. But making an iMovie on the four stages of the butterfly should be avoided.

This tool is more qualified. It saves so much time over iMovie, that it is great if for no other purpose. And since it is web-based and has built-in a place for comments, you are opening up your students to a larger audience (at least, more easily than through iMovies).

But, the tool is still misused at high rates. A typical Animoto project might ask students to do an Animoto on the 3 branches of government. The student will go find a bunch of pictures of the White House, Capitol Building, and Supreme Court, and then string them together with some adrenaline-flowing music. Other students watch them and love the images flying in all over the place and the music. Fun all the way around. But none of this demonstrates or facilitates learning.

In fact, Animoto is often used after students have already learned the material, and if not, it lends itself to cut-and-paste exercises. The questions a teacher has to ask herself after seeing the student video is 1) How do I know they understand the concept, and 2) How do I know they understand it because they used Animoto? If the answer to either is "I don't", then it shouldn't be used.

When I started my foray into web-based activities in my classroom, podcasting was my bread-and-butter. There was true irony that students loved giving speeches and presentations to fellow classmates when they didn't actually have to stand in front of them. I literally had to kick students out of classroom at the end of the day because they were voluntarily staying after to tweak their podcasts.

Podcasting has lost a lot of its luster in recent years, though. I don't see it used very often in the classroom, and teachers who use it tire of it easily.

The problem is definitely not the tool, but how the tool is used. Teachers tend to have students make a podcast as a project (often just a recorded speech). It is not used often as an audio-blog, which is a great misuse. There is greater continuity and development of both individual learning and individual expression when a student builds their podcast episodes one after another. Plus, when podcasting is used only in project form, too much time and emphasis is spent on the fine-tuning of a project... putting in the sound effects and such. It is more effective for students to use as a brainstorming tool, getting a chance to put ideas out without killing thought with too much refinement.

The larger problem with podcasts is that they aren't assessed very well. First, fellow students don't listen to them, usually because they are too long and the class has moved on. In the same vein, teachers usually give a summative grade at the end of a podcast. This misuses one of the greatest features of podcasts, that being you can easily go into it and point to places for improvement. This could be a great formative assessment tool to help students not only in the creation of their thoughts, but also their ability to articulate them. However, students are rarely asked to go and add/alter a finished podcast.

There are many fans of Wordle out there. In most cases I've seen, the amount of learning that has taken place is far less than the perceived amount of learning a teacher feels Wordle brings.

I've mentioned my thoughts on Wordle before. The main item I keep coming back to is Wordle, like many other tools, is powerful if it is used quickly and seamlessly in the learning process. In this way, it is just like any other graphic organizer, such as a flowchart or a graph, to help visualize abstract qualities and relationships. The use of Wordle should take mere minutes out of the instructional process, and then students should be on to the processing of what they see. Any Wordle-creation time that takes more than 10 minutes is a waste.

After having this conversation, I thought of probably 2 or 3 others that I should have put in there. At any rate, the tools themselves are immaterial, for all these tools could be used well. It is the intentions behind the tools that is important. Teachers need to pay attention to the ratio of time used on the tool vs. time using the tool to build learning, the tendency for a tool to lead to simple cut-n-paste, the ability for a tool to share learning with other students, and how a tool can be used seamlessly in the learning process.

We'll take a look at the most "underrated tools" next.

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