Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I Was a Mac. They Were PCs.

When I first began teaching in a computer-based classroom at Virginia Tech, I was essentially a Mac user. I had had some previous experience using an old DOS machine as a glorified word processor—anyone remember Volkswriter? But that was it. I had taken a summer workshop on using Macs in education and read extensively on the subject. Macs were my friend, and even if I didn’t know everything about how to use them, I knew where to find the answers.

The problem was that the majority of the students in my classes were PC users. The Engineering Department required all incoming first-year students to buy a PC, so these students knew far more than I did about their machines, which were nothing like the Macs that I knew and loved.

It was awkward going at the beginning of the term. Even though the Macs in the computer classroom were equipped with software that allowed them to read PC floppy disks, there were regular challenges to get students’ work off their PC diskettes and onto the Macs. And to make matters worse, the Engineering Department was using Word Perfect while the classroom was equipped with Clarisworks.

We were all frustrated. I knew that students needed to save their homework in Rich Text Format (RTF), but I didn’t know how they would do it on their PCs. All I could do was send them off to read their documentation and try again. They hated it. I hated it. I thought I’d made one of my worst decisions ever by teaching the computer-based class. Still we all kept trying.

At the beginning of class one day, one of the engineering students asked if she could share something. She handed me a sheet of complete instructions, starting with saving a document in RTF in Word Perfect on a PC and ending with opening the file in Clarisworks on a Mac. I gave her the class, and let her teach the process that day. Everyone left with a copy of her instructions, and the aggravations of our platform differences essentially disappeared. I no longer felt inadequate, and the students were no longer frustrated by the technology.

One of the challenges of teaching 21st-century literacy is the vulnerability that teachers like me feel as we teach with technologies when we are not the experts. The 21st-Century Literacies Policy Research Brief tell us to persevere in the face of this challenge:

Myth: Teachers need to be experts in technology in order to use it effectively in instruction.

Reality: Research shows that effective teachers collaborate with students to understand the information landscape and think about its use. Since success with technology depends largely upon critical thinking and reflection, even teachers with relatively little technological skill can provide useful instruction. (3)

With all due respect, research may show that teachers do not need to be the technology experts, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. But the truth is that it actually is more effective to let the students take control. When we talk about student-centered pedagogical strategies, we rarely think twice about asking students to be responsible for their learning. Somehow technology shifts things around though.

What can we do? Formally place students in the position of experts:

  • Ask students to write technology autobiographies, which share with the entire classroom community the experience and knowledge they have with technology.
  • Have students write instructions for the different technologies they know how to use.
  • Call for student volunteers to serve as peer tutors on specific pieces of software or processes.
  • Encourage students to share the ways that the technology they have access to effect their lives.
  • Invite students to share texts that they have found and to discuss why they think they are valuable.

In other words, ask students to take the lead. When they do, we no longer have to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. Instead, we are standing in the classroom alongside students who are strengthening the 21st-century literacy skills that they need to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world.


Jason Ohler said...

As I tell my students who are pre-service teachers, "Be the guide on the side, not the technician magician." Let kids help us with the clicks and tricks we don't have time to learn, while we help them use their collective talent to develop quality work.

Jennifer K. Lubke said...

I find the proliferation of web-based technologies to be such an exciting development because it seems to alleviate the problem of "platform differences" that you describe. I love the idea of "Internet as desktop"!

But the challenges do persist. For one, teachers still need time to "play" and experiment with technology, and yes, we need to let students share their expertise. Secondly, many of the best web-based tools for document sharing and collaboration are blocked by district and state content filters.