Sunday, January 24, 2010

Entertaining, Engaging or Empowering?

The first computer I ever used was one I borrowed from my next door neighbour about 25 years ago when I was off work sick with back pain. I think it hooked up to my (black and white) television and was used just to play games. I never used a computer for work until I started teaching in an international school and managed to buy one out of my professional development allowance one year. At home I used it for recording my students grades. I'm sure I used it for other things too, but right now I really can't remember what. At some stage one appeared in my classroom (I was a middle school social studies teacher by this time) and after a visit to our school by Tom Snyder, I also had the Decisions, Decisions software installed on it and used it with my students in the one computer classroom. Students were in groups trying to find the best way to tackle an environmental issue (dead fish found in a lake because of a leak of toxic waste). The students were enthusiastic, and the computer made it more entertaining for them than if we'd done the simulation straight from a worksheet or booklet. The computer added a little to their learning experience, but to be honest, not that much.

Some years later I became a 6th grade teacher and we started using the internet. Now when I say using the internet I don't mean that we were connected to the internet at school. Our ESL teacher, Linda, who was connected at home, downloaded websites she thought were useful for us and brought them in on disks and we then viewed these sites offline. Somehow we started to move from using the computer for enhancing the lesson, to being more engaged in the content. However the students were merely the "consumers" of information and while using the computer was more engaging than previously, we could probably have got by perfectly adequately without it. But something important happened that year - Linda started to publish the students' work online - and at that point everything changed. Although we were still not connected to the internet at school, students could view their work from home. We started getting emails from other teachers and from other schools and from some parents.

The real shift for my students happened the following year after Linda moved back to the USA and our school moved into a new building where we had an internet connection in each room. At that point we had decided we would continue our collaboration using email, and Linda continued to find us websites that would be useful in our inquiries. One of the projects we did over the Christmas holidays when the students returned to their home countries that year was to have the students interview the oldest person in their families, usually their grandparents, about their lives and to publish these on the internet as "My Grandmother's Story" or "My Grandfather's Story". That year I had an Israeli girl in my class and she interviewed her great grandmother about her life. She called her story "War of Sadness" and in it she wrote about how her grandmother had left her family in Poland shortly before the second world war, taking a couple of her children with her to a Zionist colony in what later became Israel. The rest of her family who stayed in Poland disappeared during the war. Michel wrote about the village where her great grandmother was born and about what her grandmother did in Israel after moving there. Some months later, we got an email from a man in the USA. He had recognised the name of the village (which Michel had spelt differently in her story) and also the last name of her great grandmother and wondered was he a relative. Michel's mother flew to Israel with the information he gave us and yes, he was one of her relatives who had survived. This story has a happy ending and would never have happened without Michel's interviewing her great grandmother and publishing her story, and without someone else, far away, recognising some names in the story and wondering if he was part of that story too. This had a tremendous impact on my class: the students went from being engaged to being empowered as they realised the internet had enabled them to bring people together.

A couple of years after this, I was teaching Grade 5. My students, being international, were often a long way from their families. That year I had a girl in my class called Jordan. Her mother lived in Holland with her second husband, her father worked in California studying earthquakes and earth movements. Because of the distance, it would usually have been very difficult for Jordan's dad to be a part of her school life in Amsterdam, but because of the internet and because the students were publishing their work on a weekly basis, he was very much a part of our class community. I would hear from him by email almost every week - he was totally involved in all we were doing. So much so that when we studied earthquakes he was our expert who talked to the students and shared his work with them.

Nowadays these stories are probably commonplace, however the days I am talking about are before I was an IT teacher and I have been an IT teacher for over 10 years, so we are talking about the late 90s here. Looking back I would definitely say the computer led to more student engagement in their studies, but did it really lead to them being empowered? The truth is, only sometimes.

Today we have 1st Grade students who communicate using email and skype, we have students using VoiceThread and sharing their stories with others worldwide. We have students posting videos to YouTube. We have students making their own Google Earth tours. We have students composing their own music and sharing it. We have students blogging and using wikis. For sure we have engagement. They are definitely more confident and they know what they want to do with the technology. What I am seeing more and more these days is the students doing things in school using Web 2.0 tools, and then going home and making their own accounts, and coming back a few days later and showing me what else they have done. They have taken control of their own learning and the ways they express themselves. This wasn't possible before Web 2.0. In the past students would create something at school, but it would stay at school. Most didn't have the software at home that we had at school. Now that's changed - now any computer connected to the internet is able to be used to continue the creations they have started at school or to make new ones. That's powerful. And that's empowering.

Photo Credit: Although you're far by ~Aphrodite


  1. Maggie, what a neat story of the evolution of technology from a classroom perspective. It is incredible that your students were able to view the world shrinking right before their eyes. Few have that experience. I love the journey.

  2. What a great journey you have been on (and are continuing). I want to have stories to tell like that so I need to go about making those things happen. You have inspired me to DO something :) Thanks!