Raise your hand if you grew up visiting the "computer lab" at school. Chances are, if you are in your mid-20s or older, you probably learned "technology" at school in a dedicated classroom with a teacher who specialized in computers — and by technology, you learned how to perform basic functions (i.e., word processing) and maybe play a few educational games.
The world of classroom technology is different now than it was in the 1980s and '90s, and even to some extent the early 2000s. Technology is no longer treated as a separate subject or an elective. Rather, technology and computers have become inextricably linked to the educational process.
Children as young as kindergarten are issued iPads to practice reading and math skills, and play games and create work via apps. Computer workstations are replacing traditional desks in many classrooms, and in those that aren't, students are bringing their own tablets and laptops to school and completing their work on apps like Google Docs, and emailing them to teachers instead of turning in printed documents.
Yet for all of the access to technology that students have, the overwhelming majority of schools only use the internet to research information. The traditional classroom environment often makes it difficult for students to use technology to its full advantage.
One major area where technology in the classroom can make a significant difference is in collaboration. With the right tools and applications, students can learn from each other, both in the same classroom and around the globe, in a number of exciting ways.
Fostering Classroom Collaboration
First, it's important to address the issue of why collaboration is so important in the first place. We all have memories of disastrous group projects in which everyone was supposed to contribute but only one or two people did most of the work. As anyone who has been in that position might argue, why would you ever want to promote such an experience?
The fact is, the ability to work in a team is the most sought after skill by employers, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE.) And while assignments like group projects can help build some of those skills, the traditional educational paradigm of teachers instructing students who are isolated at their desk doesn't foster true teamwork. Students aren't encouraged to learn from each other, to study and explore together and try to solve problems using all of their input.
Experts call the typical educational model "teacher centric." Assignments and queries tend to focus on students providing answers to the teacher, and don't allow for much interaction between students. Students want to give the "right" answers and move on.
A more student-centric approach, though, puts more emphasis on interaction and learning between students. When assignments and prompts are designed to promote student interaction, discussions often grow deeper and students explore concepts more deeply.
So Where Does Technology Fit In?
Technology can play a vital role in creating student centric learning experiences. One of the most common ways to bring a student centric collaborative experience into the classroom is via online discussions. Even in face-to-face classes where students interact in person, incorporating an online discussion component can improve outcomes and boost collaboration.
Teachers become facilitators as students problem solve together, and practice important skills. Those teachers who have added online discussions to their classes report that students who typically get "lost" in the classroom are more likely to participate online, and that students' critical thinking, literacy, and problem solving skills improve as they work together to find answers to their questions and explore topics.
However, it's not only collaboration in the sense of online discussions that can foster teamwork and learning. Encouraging students to use technology to share their learning also fosters collaboration, as students work together to create their projects and provide feedback to each other. They can start by using tools like animation makers to make videos explaining concepts, creating other multimedia presentations, and even interacting via iPads and smartboards during classwork.
Even using simple applications like Google Education tools, or creating Wikis, can support collaboration and student centric learning. Finally, another trend that's gaining traction is the concept of a flipped classroom, in which students study material outside of class via videos, books, and other materials, and then use classroom time to refine their learning via projects and discussions with the teacher and other students.
Technology in education has come a long way from the days of playing "Oregon Trail" in a computer lab and doing your best to not die of dysentery somewhere in the Midwest. However, despite all of the available tools, many educators are still only scratching the surface of the possibilities. By looking at technology as more than just a source of information, and a tool to foster learning, teachers can help their students develop skills that are in demand, while also becoming more engaged and excited about what they are learning.