Learning Collaboratively With Technology

by Jim Hirsch

A recent study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation titled “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds” finds that young people today spend an average 6½ hours per day with one or more forms of media. Given that a majority of media available today is in digital format, our students are increasingly expecting to use the same or similar access in school.

In addition, most of these newer technologies involve students collaborating with one another. Sometimes this is a simple one-to-one communication over distance such as a phone call, but increasingly it is more often a many-to-many conversation using Internet connectivity and a variety of applications. Remember the days when you and your friends would get together at one house and bring your 45-RPM records to listen to? Today’s students still follow that same social interaction pattern by getting together as a group, but now they bring DVDs to watch or connect cables that enable them to play games in a collaborative fashion.

What services are students using to collaborate and communicate with each other in this 6½ hours of media use per day? Beyond computer e-mail and cell phones, they use instant messaging, chat rooms, blogs, wikis, iPods and handheld game systems. Their pen-pal communications involve not only instant text relay, but also sound, photos and videos.

These services make their world instant and easily accessible compared to the mysterious, far-reaching world boundaries that many of us grew up imagining. Our students are comfortable using online help screens and can learn effectively using digital tools while sitting in a classroom environment that is remarkably similar to the ones that many of us learned in. Today’s students work collaboratively more often and more naturally than students have in the past due to this increased digital access. It’s important that educators today realize these 21st century skills will enable them to be better communicators and collaborative, yet independent thinkers.

The explosive growth in online school participation is just one indicator that our students enjoy the greater flexibility and independence digital learning tools can bring to their school experience.

Handheld Tools
What devices do students interact with most frequently? More and more, it’s a handheld device of some kind. Forget the argument that screen sizes are too small and ask yourself a few rhetorical questions: Why did Texas Instruments announce the production of new chips that provide high definition television on cell phones? Why does Europe already have wireless video services that allow you to watch TV via your cell phone even as you travel? Why do students in Japan demonstrate that they can thumb keyboard at rates approaching a traditional keyboard user? (Guinness recently announced a new world record for thumb keyboarding.)

What exactly does the consumer market know that we in education choose to ignore? For example, why does the Princeton Review provide SAT preparation via cell phones? Why are Cingular and Verizon working to allow cell phone data (such as photos) to cross their respective networks seamlessly? Why does a software application like CoffeeCup Wireless Web Builder exist to create web screens that operate in a cell phone size? Why does a website catering to cell phone users like WINKsite exist and continue to grow exponentially? Why have Nintendo and Sony introduced new game systems that have built-in ethernet wireless capability and Internet browsers, along with touch screens and USB ports?

These questions lead me to believe we need to place more effort in understanding tools that our students already access on their own and find responsible ways to leverage those tools in our schools. Students are investigating, collaborating and learning with these digital tools as soon as they leave our schools each afternoon. Providing an outlet during school hours that enables students to use their learning tools of choice can make the school environment more relevant to their overall learning preferences.

Network Support
The thinking that schools can (or should) provide all of the technology tools that students will use in their learning must evolve to where schools provide some of the tools that students will use in their daily activities and then provide secure network access for student-owned devices.

An increase in staff awareness and training must accompany a major shift in student technology access such as this. Now is the time to begin planning your policies and practices that will enable students to use their personal digital media in the school setting while preserving the integrity of school technology systems and the overall learning process.

What technology should you become familiar with and consider allowing for educational use in your schools?

For a long time, technology in schools consisted of a room (or lab) where computers were situated and students had to leave their classroom learning environment and move to that room for a scheduled period of time. If it happened that the students could benefit from a technology tool on a day their class wasn’t scheduled to be in the computer room, few options were available to accommodate that teachable moment.

This type of environment tends to turn technology use into an event rather than treat technology as a tool to be used as necessary. Having technology in the classroom, ready to use at a moment’s notice, makes it possible to move beyond learning about technology and get to learning with technology.

While you may not be able to afford or support distributed computers or other digital devices for student use within each classroom, other options are available. The use of wireless laptops affords two opportunities for student use within classrooms.

First, the use is flexible and immediate. If students find a need to use the laptop for learning at any time during the class, it can be used without leaving the classroom. Second, because the laptops are wireless, they can easily be moved throughout the classroom and allow students to use them at their desks or in collaborative groups.

The disadvantage of what seems like an obvious solution to technology use in the classroom is the total cost of ownership of these laptops (or tablets). With a typical usable life of four years, the average cost per year including support, software licensing and the cost of the hardware will be about $400 per laptop.

Are personal digital assistants, or PDAs, such as those using the Palm OS or Windows Mobile OS a better option than laptops? If you consider the cost for either of these devices, including wireless Internet access and mini-keyboard, approaches $500 with an expected usable life less than a laptop, then the anticipated cost savings may not be realized. Add the fact that a relatively small number of software applications are available for these devices and their usefulness may be even more limited.

Enabling Tools
One answer to enabling student collaboration using technology is to forget the conventional wisdom of the necessity of a traditional computing device. Consider new ways to use digital tools that allow students to work with one another in solving problems and creating projects. Most students are familiar with the concept of instant messaging and use it as one of their primary collaboration tools while away from school.

The fear that students would use that capability to just send personal notes electronically while in school needs to be overcome. Their use of IM at home is certainly social, but it’s also a major scholastic event. Impromptu study groups are scheduled or form almost at random and learning is shared in a collegial manner. Isn’t that exactly the type of scholarly behavior you wish for your students?

Do some students use instant messaging to cheat and would they also do that in school? Unfortunately, yes. Does that mean we shouldn’t find ways to minimize the risk of inappropriate use so we can generate the greater benefit of having students work with each other on high-level school projects? Your attitude toward solving that issue goes a long way in determining whether you want your schools to remain relevant learning environments for students over the next five years.

Other technology resources that students use to work collaboratively include message boards, which are not real-time communication options, as well as chat rooms, which operate in real time. Both offer great opportunities for students and teachers to share ideas about any school content area.

Is there an opportunity for misuse of these digital tools? Again, the answer is yes. Can expectations for appropriate use along with structured activities designed to take advantage of the technology overcome that risk? I believe so. Good examples of the use of these two technologies abound in online courses where teachers depend on student collaboration to further discussion when face-to-face communication is not possible. Within the school setting, these tools allow students to interact with other students in the same content area without having the class at the same scheduled period or in the same classroom.

Closely related to these types of digital tools is a newer technology called weblogs or, in common usage, just blogs. These are today’s equivalent of student journals, but hosted on public Internet sites, moderated and maintained by the owner (student or teacher). Even more interactive and comprehensive is the technology of wikis. These are self-supporting websites that allow contributions from others.

Collaboration tools such as Elluminate (www.elluminate.com) allow a teacher to offer tutoring in a virtual classroom setting where students communicate and ask questions using chat room features and even work in virtual study groups created by the teacher. Because teachers have to create student accounts to access their classroom, students gather there for the express purpose of getting help in their learning. Software applications such as this may be an appropriate first step for you to consider before implementing tools with more student independence.

These new tools can enable student collaboration in school and at home, at public libraries, community wireless hotspots (such as Starbucks and McDonald’s) and the like. More proficient students can be paired with students in need, and the collaboration can occur at times and manners that fit the students’ preferences most easily.

Online courses, typically thought of as options for students to consider outside of the school day, use some of the above technologies as their core operating procedure. You might consider bringing your virtual school and the associated collaboration tools into the traditional school day to assist students with specific needs.

Take the example of a high school student who is credit deficient for any number of reasons and unable to attend night school, summer school or even take a course in your virtual school outside of the school day. Situations like these exist in most school systems today with not many options left to consider. The use of digital resources and online courses can enable a student in this situation to accelerate his or her learning during the school day. The option of taking a full-year, one-credit online course while scheduled into a classroom with technology access for a semester would have students completing that course credit in the same time as a single-semester credit can typically be earned in a stand-ard classroom setting.

A second example would be the student who may be at risk for not passing a state-mandated end-of-course exam. Providing this student with a double-blocked academic course might allow him or her to use online tutoring tools such as those provided by Socratic Learning (www.socraticlearning.com) to work with a collaborative group of students and a virtual tutor while the classroom teacher differentiates instruction for another group within the classroom. Similarly, allowing 8 th-grade students to take an online course for high school credit during an elective class may provide them with the opportunity to take an additional core class in high school or even double-block a class that may be particularly challenging for them.

Personal Devices
What about the use of personal entertainment devices for educational purposes in school? The obvious advantage would be that a certain percentage of your students already own these devices so you wouldn’t need to purchase them for every student in a classroom or in the school. Additionally, the students are already familiar with their operation and know the most efficient way to make use of them. New devices, such as the Noxia 770 Internet tablet, are being released regularly.

While you’re probably familiar with Apple’s iPod and the revolution it has initiated in terms of digital music, do you realize that the technique of broadcasting ideas through digital audio has its own label? It’s known as podcasting. Internet sites such as Podcast Alley now list more than 60 education-related podcasts that cover a variety of disciplines and even come in different languages. You can visit the site at www.podcastalley.com/.

Beyond audio, these small personal devices also support a Linux operating system so computing applications can be run on them. Although these devices cannot operate on a wireless network (yet), there may be real value in certain courses by allowing students to take audio notes or download audio files that the teachers have prepared for them to support the learning activities in the class.

Similarly, handheld game systems such as the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP offer features that just might be applicable to use within your schools. Consider that both of these devices offer built-in wireless networking so not only can they connect to like devices for game playing, but they could connect to a school network for access to a host of educational resources. Web browsers already are available so connections to websites that support educational activities can be easily accomplished. With a cost of less than $250, these devices are in students’ hands.

Additionally, standard expansion ports such as USB exist on these devices so connecting a keyboard for word processing or spreadsheet applications can be accommodated. Can content producers be persuaded to provide student resources in a format that these devices can take advantage? Although the answer may not be quick in coming, the students themselves will be using these devices to find information on the Internet, collaborate with friends and generally enhance their learning and personal enjoyment environments whether the traditional method of teaching and content delivery changes or not.

Visionary Goal
I encourage school system leaders to view a video representation of the perfect personal digital device produced by Apple Computer in 1987 (the video, not the device). Gauge for yourselves how far we have moved toward that vision, especially as it references the year 2006. The video can be viewed at www.digibarn.com/collections/movies/contributed/knowledge_navigator.mov and requires QuickTime 6.5 to be installed on your computer.

Now is the time to be pro-active in providing students the means to collaborate within your schools using these new technology tools. The day may be coming quickly when it becomes impossible to police student use of personal devices within school. Be ahead of that time and find ways to enable their use in educationally sound ways now and leverage your students’ input as you make these plans for a new level of student collaboration.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent of technology in the Plano Independent School District, 2700 W. 15 th St., Plano, TX 75075. E-mail: jhirsch@pisd.edu