Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mandarine/Emily Interview Part III

Here was the second question posed to me by Mandarine (I'm hoping by now I don't really need to keep linking to him, as you may have noticed I haven't been. You can access him through my blog roll if, for some odd reason -- like you found this blog post, because you were doing a Google search for mandarin orange recipes and actually think you might find something here -- you don't know who he is).

Same with teaching. What opportunities does the internet give us in terms of new ways of teaching and learning?

If I think I know nothing about publishing, I know even less about teaching. However, when has that ever kept me from opining on any topic? So, I will begin by telling you that if the Internet is opening up worlds of exciting opportunities for writers and publishers, it's opening up universes for teaching and learning. I could say so much about this, but I will try to focus on just a few pluses, my favorite being the opportunities the Internet can provide for all students to be able to benefit from excellent teachers.

The best teachers no longer need be stuck in one classroom at one school, reaching only x number of students per year. Through podcasts and social networks and sites like youtube, talented teachers can share their techniques with other teachers, and wise administrators can substitute excellent lessons in classrooms of teachers they know are not reaching their kids. Let's take math lessons as an example, since I'm somewhat familiar with teaching math. Say you are a math leader in a school with five fantastic math teachers and two teachers you know are losing their kids. You can provide those teachers with sample lessons from excellent teachers they don't know, that might help them learn better ways to teach. You can also provide opportunities for those kids and their parents to have online access to other teachers' teaching the lessons in ways that will engage the kids. Finally, you can provide the kids with online math tools and activities developed by excellent teachers that will help them practice what they have learned.

Technology is also allowing innovative teachers and schools to provide students with truly unique learning experiences. I once saw a movie about a woman who is an Arctic explorer as well as a science teacher. While on one of her Arctic expeditions, she was able to teach her fifth-grade students who were back home in the classroom through podcasts of what she was doing and what her team of scientists were finding. The students had a whole lesson based around her expedition. I would have been far more interested in science when I was a student had it been brought to me "live" that way. I also like the idea of being able to connect live to other classrooms around the world. What might the world be like if classrooms in America were connecting to classrooms in Iran, and teachers and students were interacting with each other?

And then there are all the possibilities for electronic textbooks. First the practicalities: how about being able to download all those extremely heavy textbooks onto one small device, so that students no longer have to lug around all those back-breaking book bags (or purchase ones that have wheels)? How about students only having one "book" to remember instead of ten? If you aren't into practicalities, there are lots of cool aspects to e-textbooks: how about being able to cut and paste your own outlines from textbook pages to create your own study guides? How about easily being able to search for terms or key concepts? How about being able to watch video clips embedded in your "textbook?" How about being able to comment on what you are reading and have conversations with your fellow students? Going back to school might actually hold some appeal for me if I could go back with the technology we have today put to innovative use.

Of course, this brings me back to publishing. The textbook companies have been very slow to embrace the new technology. In the early years, they latched onto the model of providing electronic versions of their print texts and selling those as supplements, as well as providing other supplemental material on web sites. What they should have been doing is finding people to develop superior ebook technology for textbooks, giving away the readers to schools, and giving schools no choice other than electronic versions of their textbooks that were compatible not only with individual ebook readers but also with electronic white boards. I'm sure they were afraid to do this, given that so many teachers were wary of technology, but educators would have been forced to adjust, just as people were forced to adjust from record albums and turntables to CDs and CD players. Instead, textbook companies spent lots of time and energy trying to make print books that mimicked web sites, and a lot of them have driven themselves into bankruptcy. Maybe, just maybe, we're teetering on the brink of this sort of textbook publishing?

Oh, and one other idea. Wouldn't it be cool to have a "kid-run-and-operated" Wikipedia? They would include the entries that interest them, and they would patrol and police it, adding and taking away information as they did research or as new research findings became available. What a fabulous teaching tool that would be. Teachers could help kids learn to do research for their entries, learn to conduct their own research and post their findings, learn how to write proper entries, learn how to think critically about the information they were getting and giving, translate their entries into the foreign languages they were learning, etc. The kids would then have the satisfaction of having something they wrote be available for all the world to access and read.

All these exciting ideas are moot, however, if schools don't change, and, unfortunately, they are not doing so fast enough. How sad that we can walk into classrooms today that still look pretty much the way classrooms looked when I was in school 35 years ago. In fact, many still look pretty much the way they did when my parents were in school. If we walked into a business today that looked like a business from 35 years ago (no computers, typewriters, carbon paper, big black telephones sitting on desks, etc.), we'd laugh. How could anyone get any 21st-century work done in such a place? And yet, we expect our kids to get 21st-century learning done in classrooms that don't give them the proper tools. What are we thinking?


Stefanie said...

You go Emily! I think Obama should have appointed you education secretary!

Rebecca H. said...

Very interesting ideas here. I think you're right that if publishers changed to electronic textbooks, schools would adapt and would quickly figure out how to make good use of the cool things they can do. I'm definitely in the middle of the change that's happening -- still using paper books because that's what's available, aware of the online resources that accompany books but not using them much because not all my students have regular internet access (most do, but there are always some who don't). But I'm aware of cool possibilities out there and I'm certainly interested in online teaching, which I think can be a great way to learn -- and maybe even better is a combination of classroom time plus online work.