Friday, July 29, 2011

Playing and Learning: Overcoming Fear of Technology

A fellow teacher and I have been distracting each other from doing any meaningful work whilst we are lurking in our classrooms this summer. OK, it is probably more truthful to say that I have been distracting him more than the other way around. But we are talking about school/education/teaching/student stuff. Honest.

The one productive thing we did accomplish was to help get him set up on his Moodle account. I was able to apply my latest reading on creating forums from here and here. Within the day, he was able to set up individual, student-to-teacher forums to track and evaluate their responses to topics and questions. This is not interesting or important: he is a smart and educable guy, I know the CMS (course management software), and we are open to sharing/learning resources.

What stood out was his initial reluctance to even utilize it because he felt that he was not thoroughly competent and knowledgeable about Moodle and its functions. My first reaction was something like this:

And then a thousand little voices sounded off in my head about being empathetic and supportive during moments like this. But it it did crystallize our discussion into an essential question about why there is a need for teachers to feel like they are required to be the font of all knowledge and wisdom: the "sage on the stage" syndrome. The rest of our digression was about our school's mission statement, student-centered learning, flat classrooms, and 21st century learning. This, too, is not interesting or important here: more on that later, I suppose.

What I really want to write about is how to help ourselves overcome this initial reaction to introducing technology into our lessons and classroom. I must admit I suffer it to, in a way. When I find something that I think would be great, I immediately want to learn more about it and, in time, do become a bit of a local expert (e.g. Moodle, NetClassroom, Prezi, etc). But not knowing every little detail about a program or machine has never stopped me from using it anyway. We talked about how he could turn his lack of familiarity with Moodle to his advantage by admitting to his students that he was experimenting, had no idea how it would turn out,  and wouldn't it be fun to try it anyway? My colleague saw this as "buying in" and I saw it as "let's play": different ways to see the same possibility and potential.

So I guess the main thrust of my point (and I do have one) is that we teachers need to hold onto and use our sense of play when it comes to learning/teaching. I think this especially holds true when we introduce technology into our classroom. Let me use the first time I decided that the software "Comic Life" would be a great alternative to use instead of traditional book reports. I took a look at it, listened to our IT coordinator describe it, verified that it was installed on our computers, and checked out all the digital cameras I could from our library. I had four days in the computer lab and not a clue as to how long it would actually take. In the end it was not a complete fracas, and it has evolved into a regular project for the past three years (although I saw a note to myself to scrap it: there were too many compatibility issues with computers at school and home). Here is how it plays out now (bear in mind that our class periods are 40 minutes long):
  • Day One: Before even getting to the computers, students took a Moodle survey on cell phone etiquette for the previous night's homework. Class is spent examining the results and establishing rules/guidelines about proper cell phone use in the classroom. We leave class with a clear idea of these guidelines and temporary permission to bring their phones into class for the rest of the week.
  • Day Two: In the computer lab, students verify that all software is present (Comic Life, PhotoShop, Word, etc) and they open a "book" from the class Moodle site (a "book" is a module in Moodle that I generally use for organizing step-by-step directions and the like). Students then play. Yes, for the whole period, they play with the software, play with the camera features on their phones, play with transferring and editing those pictures, draft a summary of their favorite parts of their books. This results in their discovering and learning how it can all work, they collaborate and share what they learned with each other, they teach me new things every time. And all the while there is NO fear in the lab about the software and hardware: they already "know" it.
  • Day Three and Four: After detailing the part of their book they want to share, they gather images, props, and settings to generate a sample graphic novel for their book report. The cell phones are slaved to our purpose by becoming digital cameras and DO NOT interfere in their other classes (see Day One). They use their class mates as actors and models to help retell the story and photoshop costumes and scenery for each frame. Using free online sources line Creative Commons, they add in props and additional scenery to their finished product. 
  • Home Work: This is one of the times when their homework meets little resistance. The students are excited to continue their work at home using family and friends to add depth and variety to their story. Student excitement + parent involvement + teacher advising = winning project. 
  • Assessment: We needed more than four days. Not because the software and hardware was difficult to use, but the students wanted more post-production time to really get their graphic novels to shine. As our school gets more technology to support out-of-lab work and allow greater computer consistency, we can now expand it to greater time limits.  
  • Moral of the story: Dare to play.

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