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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Let the computer do what it does best



There is a misconception / fear among many educators that computers will "replace" teachers. I think this is not founded in the realities of the classroom. Let me tell you my opinion about what computers do best:

1- Immediate reinforcement
I believe computers are excellent at reinforcing concepts, particularly in math and "logical." For example, a teacher teaches fractions. The students work them on the board. The teacher checks them. But let's suppose one student had the person next to them help them for their board work (common occurrence -- kids don't want to feel dumb.) The student then sits down and works 5 problems and the teacher checks it.

All five are wrong! It has just taken 5 problems done the wrong way for the student to learn they did it incorrectly. Reteach. Retry. Re-miss. Reteach. Retry. How long will this cycle take?
Our math teachers tell me that fast grading is absolutely essential to the effective teaching of math! I've read about some of the work that Jason Kamras, 2005 Teacher of the year (See official article) and have become convinced that technology is a valuable tool in the hand of a good teacher. Our math teachers are hankering for some single concept based assessment tools that are in line with the curriculum. We are looking at several options now!
Such solutions can find areas that could become problems before the student has reinforced incorrect behavior. I find it useful in programming and any other type of logical concepts.

2 - Effective synthesis
As students are taught the new literacy they learn how to synthesize information from a variety of sources and put it together. In SAT prep this week, they used their handouts and classroom reviews from other pupils. They also used info from collegeboard.com and other Google results to get a complete understanding of their topic. They gained additional information and insight through their use of the Internet. (They used google image for drawings for the Geometry review.)

As they put things together in wikis, podcasts, and classroom review for their other classmates they put it all together which brings me to my third point.

3 - Effective summarization

Podcasts are born tools for summarization. Their very nature forces students to shorten and clearly explain information. The students have made their podcasts funny and are already downloading the quick reviews into their iPods and mp3 players to listen to as they review the SAT concepts.

Remember, I said review! Some podcasts teach but you would have to have a narrow topic, in my opinion. My topic is so broad that they are reviewing the mental cues and mnemonic devices that we've used to help them master this monstrosity of a test.

Wikis are excellent when you need a little more information. They are collaborative so as the students work together they improve things. They add links to additional information and are forced to put things in their own words (which they do to varying degrees of success!)

I've told the students that the target of their wiki is their future self in three months or six months when they take the SAT again. What will they need to review? What are the hardest concepts? Explain it so you'll understand when you've forgotten!

Classroom Review. I let the students take what they've done and do a class review. They use handouts, the board, PowerPoint, some of my fun review games (Jeopardy, etc.) and we review each concept. (We get an excellent mixture of methods! Better than I could do!) Classmates having trouble come to the board and review. They they have a quiz (previously approved by me) that they give the class. These are excellent grades so I usually use them as a daily grade (if it is fair and the concept was covered.) I find that we're harnessing the creativity of many more people and the energy level in my class multiplies exponentially.

Digital cameras and scanners are available as they supplement our activities.

What computers aren't!
As I've done SAT review over the last several weeks with 10th graders we've reviewed most of their high school math (boy am I glad I went to Georgia Tech!) We've used wikis, handouts, podcasts, and individual math tutoring programs. (We've seen over a 100 point jump on our old SAT over the last 4 years.) We also use a very cool SAT essay scoring program that helps the English teachers and they say is right on the money.

The least effective tool for reviewing material is an online tutor. The static words and line art do not adequately review or reteach concepts where student is weak. Conversely, the most effective tool for reinforcing items that have been reviewed is the computer. Interesting dichotomy!


In conclusion, I do not think I will ever see a one stop shopping computer software program that effectively picks up on the body language, mood, and mental capacities of a student in order to create their ideal educational environment. I can replace my vacuum cleaner with a roomba but I can't replace a good teacher with a machine and a piece of software.

I adore technology but as much as I love it -- it is vital that I am cognizant of each technology's strengths and weaknesses.

That is where I think the value of blogging in education is so paramount. We can share the strengths and weaknesses of differing approaches and techniques. We can get past the sales hype from the "marketeers" and into the realities of the classroom at work.

In my opinion, the key to a cutting edge classroom of any kind is going to be:
  • the effective use of technology as an integrated part of delivery and assessment and
  • the effective use of the blogosphere by teachers to share information and reduce the time it takes for best practices to spread from school to school.
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