Wonders and Challenges of a High-tech Learning Environment

This post also appears on Edutopia at this link

Because of the great generosity of the non-profit NapaLearns.org, and the Napa Valley Vintners who sponsor them, I have a lot of technology in my French classroom, and in particular, a class set of netbook computers, tables and chairs with wheels, and a large interactive whiteboard. Learning a language is a very different affair with the support of technology! I have been taking stock lately of the wonders and the challenges of teaching in this blended environment. Here are some of my observations.

Let’s start with some of the wonders…

1) Students LOVE having tables and “wheelie” chairs (read here, Freshmen boys and chair races!) so that they can re-configure the classroom at will. The chair races are fine with me, as long as they take place before or after class. It is amazing how many fewer tardies there are!

2) Students can work at their own pace, and make choices about what they view and re-view, including videos, readings, explanations, activities, games… as often as they want or need to do.

3) The computers offer more support for collaboration, and opportunities to think critically since students are more engaged. Every student has his/her own tool to explore, interact and share what he/she is learning.

4) Students like the cool learning platforms available. Not only are textbooks changing, but the need for a static, one-source of learning materials, is no longer limiting us in what we have available. The world has come to us!

5) There are some really cool language learning games out there, but my students really enjoy DuoLingo in particular. The developer, Luis von Ahn, has developed a free learning platform that students really enjoy. Students collect badges as they achieve levels of competency. I have decided to offer credit for the badges students earn. They are turning in a print screen of their badges as they earn them.

6) Students have many more tools to creatively display what they are learning! Opportunities for creativity are much more engaging and meaningful, since they are personally more relevant!

Well, what about a few of the challenges?!

1) One student said to me last week, “I hate how everything we do is making us go on-line more and more. It’s like the Internet owns us.” I have to admit, she has a point! I am very proud of her for thinking critically about  how her engagement with technology is affecting her life. I offered her the option to suggest ways she could do some of our learning activities in other ways. I care about more about her learning than the way she learns. I also suggested that she weigh what she thinks is essential for her to do online, and what she can choose to do otherwise. I learned a lot from her comment!

2) My preparation time has changed a great deal. I can’t “wing it” as much as I used to do. Organizing agendas with links, with specific steps so students don’t get lost as they bounce from one link to the next, and reconfiguring my thinking to ensure I keep all learning activities student-centered, with occasional “workshops” where I give some input and explanation, and lead class discussions to scaffold inquiry. My role in the classroom has changed considerably. That is a good thing, given the results, but it is a challenge to shift.

3) To come at point 2 from a different angle, I have had to learn how to manage my time to allow room for more curriculum development, curation of resources, and support materials. I spend less time on the kinds of assessment that I used to do. I don’t check as much student work either, because I have developed rubrics which students can use to self-assess more. I do check that they have assessed themselves well – I find that they are often more hard on themselves than I would be. On the one hand, I like this shift, because I now spend more time creating projects, curating content, and just being creative. On the other hand, I am spending more time on work! I love my work, but the 7am to 9 pm workdays are a real challenge. I suspect that in time, this will become more streamlined.

4) With this blended approach to learning, my colleagues and I are doing more planning in collaboration. I enjoy collaborating with my colleagues, but we are not always on the same page. Sometimes it feels like I have lost a lot of my individuality and personal space. There is a need to give a great deal. I don’t always come away with what I really need since the collaborative groups are not frequently narrow enough to focus on the specific courses I teach. Even so, I work with wonderful people, and it is a privilege to have built in time to work together frequently. There are more creative ideas in collaboration than in isolation.

What about you? Do you have a blended learning environment? What have been some of your wonders and challenges? I would enjoy learning about your experiences as well. Thanks for sharing!

Best wishes,

Don

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About Don

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT Co-Director Berkeley WL Project UC Berkeley Language Center Facilitator @Edutopia.org Keen on 21st Century Skills & PBLL View all posts by Don

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