Technology isn’t taking over, but it’s transforming students’ education.
by Cynthia Long
Flipped classrooms, blended learning and one-to-one programs are changing the way students learn and think.
When Aidan Shaw designed his dream house on Autodesk Homestyler, he decided to go with a spacious one-story layout, with a swimming pool and playground outside where he could do cannonballs or swing on the monkey bars. Unlike most users of the site, who are planning home remodels, Aidan experimented with floor plans and design ideas to learn about area and perimeter for his fifth-grade math class.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website accomplished what graph paper and rulers never could—it got Aidan, 11, and his classmates at Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria so excited about geometry that they actually worked on the project during their free time.
Manipulating floor plans to design a house has a high whiz-bang factor for fifth graders, but technology in the classroom isn’t just about bells and whistles. It offers students hands-on projects with real-world applications rather than more abstract—and, let’s face it, more boring—lessons using traditional tools. It gets them excited about what they’re learning, and perhaps most importantly, it gets them to think in new ways.
“They learn to collaborate, brainstorm, inquire and then apply what they’ve learned,” says Ruth Brannigan, Aidan’s math teacher. “I see them talking about projects during lunch and recess and then telling each other what they tried at home the night before.”
Across Northern Virginia, schools have moved away from the 20th-century model of education, where teachers passed on knowledge to their students, to the 21st-century model, where students take charge of their own learning. With broader, more experiential projects, today’s students learn to think critically, to filter, to come up with arguments, find evidence and be more thoughtful rather than passively receiving information. In a 21st-century model, it’s not what you know that’s important; it’s what you can do with that knowledge.
Digital technology also breaks down boundaries of time, place and pace of student learning, giving students more control over where, when and how quickly they learn new material while letting teachers offload some instruction to technology and focus class time on hands-on activities that are more engaging than traditional lectures.
It can take place in a “flipped classroom,” where students watch video lectures at home and work on projects and interactive lessons in class, or in a “blended learning program,” where a portion of traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by web-based learning. “One-to-one” initiatives, which provide every student with access to a digital device, and “BYOD” or “BYOT”—bring your own device or technology—make it all possible.
Does this mean pencils and papers are going the way of the abacus and technology is taking over?
“We don’t see pen and paper as extinct,” says Timothy Flynn, director of instructional services in Loudoun County Public Schools. “There is always a place for books, reading and writing. Technology is not a substitute but an enhancement. Our emphasis is always on instruction and how technology can improve it.”
Loudoun County students regularly have Twitter conversations or video conferences with authors of books they’re reading in class or with a researcher who works in the field of their science project. Sometimes they Skype with classrooms across the globe for geography, language, history or cultural lessons.
“We have projects exploding with creativity because of the incredible access technology can provide,” Flynn says. “Some of our middle school students were studying fresh water usage within the Colorado River. They connected with local scientists who talked to them about ways they conserve water, what some of the problems are and possible solutions, and then the students started to examine how they can conserve water in their own communities and homes. They tackled a real-world problem, and when a project is real, when it comes to life, it’s more engaging and meaningful.”
Too much screen time?
Even though their kids are often brimming with excitement at the dinner table about how they’re using technology in school, many parents have very real concerns about screen time. It’s hard enough to limit screen time at home, so most parents don’t want to worry their kids are getting too much of it at school, too.
“The biggest fear of parents I hear is that we’re going to replace teachers with technology and have students sit in front of a computer all day to digest information, but that’s not where we’re going,” says Derek Kelley, coordinator of instructional technology integration at Fairfax County Public Schools.
In fact, the opposite is true. Many classrooms in Fairfax County Public Schools are flipped, so students watch video lectures at home and spend class time working in teams on “homework” projects while the teacher floats around to answer questions and provide individual attention when it’s needed.
“This gives the students more control over how, what and where they learn,” Kelley says.
He says when he talks to parents he explains that the focus isn’t on replacing traditional tools with computers but on determining how they can use technology to influence the best instructional practices.
Empowering students to direct their own learning
Kelley also tells parents that flipped classrooms let kids collaborate more by working in teams to solve problems face-to-face rather than with their heads bent over their own computer screen, and that teachers get help creating engaging digital projects with an FCPS school-based technology specialist.
“When there’s project-based learning in class, we’re seeing excitement across the curriculum,” he says. “One example is a class of third graders who studied the declining bat population in Fairfax County and presented their findings to the community. Their neighbors can actually use their research, and that’s extremely empowering for kids.”
The class met with experts from the Fish and Wildlife Federation in person and through Google Hangout then began their research online, searching for everything they could find on what causes the declining bat populations and what can be done about it. They created online videos, mock newscasts and public service announcements and posted them to YouTube, but they also printed brochures, recognizing that more low-tech solutions can be just as effective. They wanted something they could pass out to communities affected by declining bat populations so that people could hold on to and refer back to them. The class collaborated to come up with the best way to deliver their messages.
Kids are used to getting answers from their teachers or their parents, but technology-facilitated project-based learning asks them to get the information themselves, to become experts in the field and to share their answers with an audience that goes beyond their parents and teachers.
When they use technology to perform research at home, they collaborate with their peers in the classroom, work in teams, brainstorm face to face and learn communication skills they’ll need for college and career.
For a flipped classroom to work, students need access to technology in their homes, and FCPS has a Technology@Home program that allows students and staff to purchase products directly from vendors at discounted rates. To help bridge the digital divide between affluent and low-income students, the district has also partnered with Cox Communications and Comcast to offer high-speed Internet to qualifying families for $9.95 per month and a refurbished computer for $150.
Using technology responsibly
The digital divide isn’t an issue at Flint Hill School, an independent prep school in Oakton that was one of the first in the area to implement a schoolwide one-to-one program. Every student from junior kindergarten to 12th grade is provided with an iPad or MacBook Air. But educators are careful to make sure that students, and parents, know how to use the technology responsibly from day one.
“We start talking to them about their digital imprint in junior kindergarten,” says Emily Sanderson, dean of faculty and director of online and blended learning at Flint Hill. “We educate all of our students that what they create digitally will represent them, now and in the long term.”
Sanderson says there’s a yin and yang approach to technology at a school with a one-to-one program, and Flint Hill is doing a lot of work in mindfulness with their students. If a school is going to provide students with the devices, it’s part of their responsibility to teach them to use them responsibly and to guide them in knowing how to unplug.
“It may sound hippy dippy and kumbaya, but in this uber-connected world, we need to help our students find balance, unplug and connect with other people,” she says. “It’s also necessary for parents to model this for their kids.”
Once they strike that balance, they’re off and running, and Sanderson says it’s fascinating to see how technology offers different ways for students to meet curriculum expectations and how that drives engagement. In history, for example, students might have a research project. One student could write a traditional research paper, while another could produce a Ken Burns-style documentary with a storyboard and citation of images. It’s still a research paper, but when you call it a script, it sparks imagination.
“They have to perform the same level of writing and citations, but the fact that they get to speak into a microphone and create it in iMovie makes it a whole new ball game,” Sanderson says. “Technology allows us to really get into what drives and motivates different kids.”
Pacing and practice make perfect
Technology also allows students to take ownership of their learning by working independently at their own pace, like fifth-grader Aidan Shaw.
“Aidan is a quiet, thoughtful child who likes to mull things over and really give concepts his full consideration,” says math teacher Ruth Brannigan. “There’s a given pace in our class, but he’s able to set his own pace within that. That’s important. Not everyone can go in lockstep.”
Brannigan’s class uses Khan Academy for a blended learning curriculum. Through Khan Academy, students access YouTube video lectures and interactive practice exercises across the disciplines, with content covering everything from history, civics, art and music to math, biology, chemistry, physics, economics and computer science.
“I think it’s helpful because you can choose what sort of subject and what grade level you want to work on,” Aidan says. “So I can work in sixth-grade math, and in that category I can learn more about the area of triangles or negative numbers. Instead of having to go to some website and find a worksheet to print, I can search on Khan Academy and do the exercises there.”
When he’s not moving up grade levels in math or designing his dream house, Aidan creates video games in Brannigan’s computer programming class.
“I made a game where you’re like a ninja and have these weapons, and you attack a punching bag,” he says. “I just to like mess around with stuff. With technology, you have almost unlimited possibilities.”