The Changing Classroom: Challenges for Teachers

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Since the emergence of the Internet and the dramatic expansion of PCs in education, business and everyday life, there have been fierce debates about whether and how to employ computers in K-12 education. At first, there was a generational divide with younger teachers and some students putting computers to use in the classroom and discovering along the way how information technology could contribute to learning. However, for many educators comfortably conditioned by traditional teaching methods, the advent of technology was not a welcomed change. Yet with the explosive development of the Internet in the '90s and the enthusiastic embrace of the "information superhighway" by the Clinton administration, many educators noticed that computers could play a critical role in teaching. As the classroom began to change with the integration of technology, the role of the teacher has inevitably changed too. With technology delivering an ever-accelerating learning curve which everyone must keep up with, teachers have begun to see that they must learn to work differently with their students in order for education to remain relevant and effective.

Changing the Learning Process

In the late '90s, many in the education field and government, as well as in the media and public, recognized a "digital divide" in which some school districts and classrooms were "wired" and had up-to-date computer technology, while others did not. Accordingly, there were efforts undertaken by government, business and educators to wire classrooms and make computer technology available to a greater number of students and teachers.

While many teachers and students are engaging in innovative forms of research and novel projects, there are still many traditional teachers who resist learning new computer skills and do not want to bring computer-based technologies into their classrooms. Yet, these technologies carry a transformative power, and many schools recognizing this are now requiring that teachers make use of computer-mediated instruction. Students today are exposed to a barrage of new technologies outside of the classroom, including home computers, e-mail and text messaging, and many possess greater technological skills than their teachers. This has shifted a dynamic between teachers and their students, forcing teachers to engage in the learning process themselves.

Teachers have to develop the ability to demonstrate how these technologies can be used for academic purposes and convey the educational advantages of computers and the Internet to their students. This means acquiring and teaching new literacies involving teachers and students in innovative types of research projects, and interacting in novel ways as everyone learns to use new technology and media.

Indeed, to meet the challenges of an always-evolving high-tech society, teachers today need to develop multiple forms of computer and information literacy to help improve education. This means using technology in the classroom to illustrate lesson topics; teaching students how to use the Internet and information technology to research topics; and using technology to enhance education outside the classroom, ideally in ways that involve students in the learning process.

Cultivating Information Literacy Skills

While computer literacy concerning how to use different computer programs is usually interpreted in narrow, technical terms, a broader conception would involve learning how to access and evaluate information, using the technology for research and discussion of issues, and even producing Web sites, Weblogs or other forms of Internet culture. In order to achieve these goals, teachers need to involve students in hands-on projects that make them active participants in the learning process rather than passive receptacles of information. Group projects can also spark curiosity, making the learning experience fun.

Merely putting computers in a lab or classroom will not necessarily have beneficial effects; there are important preconditions that must be met before technology can enhance learning. At the most basic level, many schools lack adequate technical support and expertise that will enable teachers to make effective use of information technology. Some teachers simply do not have a clear idea of how they can actually use information technology to better teach their subject matter and their students.

Many teachers are developing highly promising projects that make productive use of information technology, and in some cases students are taking the lead and helping produce instructive educational material. However, some students may be more computer literate than their teachers. These students are often willing and able to share their skills with their teachers and their classmates. The result is a changing classroom and learning environment that promises to re-involve students in the learning process while cultivating multiple literacies that will be of use in further education, future job endeavors and everyday life.

To begin, it is useful for teachers to start with assignments that do not require specialized computer skills and knowledge. Teachers can take a topic from current events or an issue from an existing course, and assign students to use a search engine such as Google to search for three or four items on a specific topic. They can then ask their students how useful the material was for clarifying the topic or issue at hand. A further exercise might explore what limitations students encountered while using Internet materials as opposed to textbooks or library resources. Teachers must advance their own "information literacy" skills and learn to discern the quality of material their students are accessing through this process. Teachers, along with students, will quickly learn that some Internet sites may contain misinformation and be highly biased, while others will be educational and instructive. Just as students need to learn how to use the library to access the most relevant and sound print material, both teachers and students must also become Internet literate and learn to critically evaluate the online information they access.

Providing Participatory Learning Projects

When using technology in the classroom, teachers must become open-minded and recognize that learning new processes and skills is an ongoing necessity. Although this involves added work, there are many imaginative ways of using technology to engage students in the learning process. High school students, for example, can learn a more advanced use of information technology that would include developing a course Web site. Here, students could put in hyperlinks to relevant course material from reputable Internet sources on the topic being taught. Obviously, developing a Web site involves some technical skill, although there is often someone in the school computer lab who is able to undertake the project. In some cases, students also might be able to do the development themselves. The teacher can then have students do research to add to the site, which is an ideal way for everyone, teachers included, to develop Web site construction skills and learn to publish online. An additional plus this exercise provides is that classes can expand upon the site from year to year in order to provide important teaching resources that makes materials available to an Internet-wide audience around the globe.

Another shift for teachers comes with adopting a more flexible mindset about how the lesson plan should flow. This means that teachers must get comfortable with the idea of not teaching all their students the same information at the same time. Since most classrooms do not have enough computers to enable everybody in class to use them simultaneously, teachers can rotate students to different projects so that while some work on computers, others can utilize textbooks and other materials.

Next, if there is access to computer labs and technical support, teachers can also set up a class bulletin board or discussion forum on a Web site and have students log in to discuss a certain topic. Students can be assigned to make comments on topics studied in the classroom, share information or ideas, and comment on other students' postings. Also, students could be assigned to search and post Internet addresses (i.e., URLs) of interesting sites on the topic discussed, as well as given the task of commenting on what they learned from the site and why they think it is reliable and educationally useful.

A more advanced use of the Internet for high school students would be to have students develop Weblogs, or blogs, which consist of student postings on specific topics. (For a detailed look at the use of blogs in the classroom from a 2004 issue of T.H.E. Journal, visit http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A4677.cfm.) Blogs can range from personal diaries discussing what students are reading, learning and doing in relation to the course, to posting hyperlinks for useful Internet sites to debate over issues being discussed in class or of other topical interests.

There are several Weblog sites such as SchoolBlogs.com or Blogger.com that provide free Weblog technology. There have been recent articles on how students are taking to blogging, as well as making it a highly involving and interesting cultural forum as well (Nussbaum 2004).

Such participatory learning projects not only provide real-life experience of Internet research, production or discussion, but help prepare students for activities later in life, ranging from preparation for jobs to giving them the social and communicative skills necessary to be a good citizen. Therefore, teachers face the challenge of transforming their classrooms to make learning more relevant for the contemporary era, as well as preparing their students to actively engage and participate in the learning process and the society of tomorrow.

Reference

Nussbaum, E. 2004. "My So-Called Blog." New York Times 11 January (D1). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/11/magazine/11BLOG.html.

About the Author

Douglas Kellner, Ph.D., serves as the 2003-2004 Fellow of The Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media and holds the distinguished George F. Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. His work explores cultural studies, the philosophy of education, and the relationship between technology, education and society.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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