Yea, there’s an app for that, but…

It seems like many of the groups I’ve been working with recently—from schools on up to states—are going gaga over touch-screen mobile devices (especially the iPad and sometimes the lesser known Android Honeycomb and Dell Streak, among others). I have to admit they look pretty sexy, from a technology standpoint, but the fervor with which some educators are throwing limited technology budgets at them has me a little concerned.

I recently complete a review of literature for a state department of education that was investigating the possibility of an iPad pilot. I found out some interesting things about the app market that I thought worth sharing.

And the winner is…

Foreign language, actually. In a review of apps available in the education section of the iTunes Store in 2009, Carly Shuler from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that the most popular content areas for apps were foreign language and literacy. That piqued my interest. A total of 92% of the apps available at that time targeted either adults (57%) or toddlers/preschoolers (35%)—very little for elementary, middle, and high school students. I did a quick review of the education section of the iTunes store a couple of weeks ago, and it looks like the foreign language apps are probably geared towards the adult (and older student) side and the literacy apps for the toddler/preschoolers. Makes sense to me.

Another nice finding was that most of the apps for children are very inexpensive. Most are only 99 cents and none were more than $2.99 (from Shuler’s 2009 report). Some of the apps for adults could be quite pricey—with one for $149.99(!)—but even with that outlier the average price was around $5.

The Sesame Workshop folks commissioned outside research on two apps, Super Why and Martha Speaks: Dog Party (see the Executive Summary at http://pbskids.org/read/research/mobile.html), that showed significant gains in learning for young children between the ages of 3 to 7. Both of these apps targeted literacy, not foreign language, and were based on popular children’s television shows on PBS. The researchers also found that most of the children had little problem operating the devices, and those that did required very little guidance to overcome them. The kids were persistent, too, and kept working with the device to overcome problems on their own. I was encouraged, however, to find at least one experimental study that focused on these new learning resources, as experimental research is quite difficult to find when it comes to educational technology in schools.

And the catch?

While the future of these lightweight, portable devices seem promising, there are also a few issues anyone considering implementing them should be concerned about. My belief is that these will be less of an issue over time, but there are some things to think about.

One of the most talked about issues is that the iPad does not currently support Flash, which is software that’s used to show much of the animated or video-based content on the web. There’s a lot of it out there, and if your textbook series or other curriculum contains online multimedia elements in Flash, it’s may be a deal breaker—for now. This is currently a marketing point for other makers of touchscreen devices. None of us know where this will end up, whether next generation iPads will support Flash or some third-party workarounds will evolve, but just be sure to test your favorite content on any device to determine whether it works for you or not.

Perhaps the most important issue is that anyone can create and post an app. Honest, there’s a group called Moms with Apps (http://momswithapps.com/) that consists of moms and dads who have created apps, whether they’re educators, instructional designers, or even software developers. Sound familiar? If you were teaching in the 1980s, you might remember the early software available for the then-new personal computers that were coming into our classrooms. Most of it could be summed up in one word: horrible. Primarily drill-and-practice programs that focused on low-level recall with rudimentary branching, limited learner control, and a bevy of multiple-choice questions, the early software had little to do with learning theory and sacrificed learning for novelty.

And how do you find the good  apps? There’s no universally accepted standard or quality metric for apps, and the app stores will list their top sellers, but you don’t have any information as to how good they are. A few school districts and individuals are now posting list of apps they use and some reviews, but little of the information relates to how effective the apps are and the reviews can be hard to search. My favorite review site for apps—so far—is Common Sense Media, that uses developmentally appropriate criteria at each age to review apps and other media, like television shows, books, and movies. You can check out their reviews and filter them by some helpful criteria at their review site (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/reviews?media_type=30061).

Do Your Homework

If you’re interested in incorporating apps into your language teaching, just be sure to do your homework, just as you would with any curricular resource. It’s easy to find what’s selling well through the iTunes Store or Android Market, but even just a simple search for “foreign language” can be frustrating as it brings up many erroneous matches. The app descriptions are also often short and—again—most are focused on features rather than how well it supports learning.

Researchers for the Sesame Workshop also found that, at least with young children, that student usage either stopped or changed relatively quickly, even after a week. The problem was that most apps have a limited amount of content, and once the students master the content, the apps can be of little interest, so they start “gaming” the app and trying to earn high scores or try other strategies that don’t necessarily match learning. From this lesson, it’s important that you find apps that have a good deal of content or that release updates to the content over time.

On the plus side, as mentioned earlier, the low cost of many of these apps means that you may be willing to download one or two and try them out. If you do, let us know how it worked! I’d be glad to hear how you are using these new devices and software, your successes, and the challenges. Until the market matures and we have a better way of finding the best apps, we’re going to have to depend upon each other to share what we’ve learned.

For more information:

Chiong, C. & Shuler, C. (2010). Learning: Is there an App for that? Investigations of Young Children’s Usage and Learning with Mobile Devices and Apps. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Features-82.html

Rockman et al., (2010). PBS Kids iPod app study: Executive Summary. Available from http://pbskids.org/read/research/mobile.html

Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning, New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Available from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Cooney-Center-Blog-69.html

Bringing the World to Your Language Classroom: The ePals Global Community

ePals logoLanguage teachers have long had a variety of technology-based resources available to support their instruction. Language labs with audio and video recordings, texts and workbooks, and other supporting materials go well back in to the era of analog media, and the digital revolution has only increased the number and type of interesting and helpful resources available to support language acquisition in today’s classroom. When I ask language teachers what needs still remain, many respond that it’s difficult for them to find native or fluent language speakers that their students can interact with. Most have access to a wide range of print materials and recordings they can use with their students, but finding a way for students to really engage with fluent language speakers remains a challenge.

In researching options over the past year to determine how language teachers might use technology to address this need, my paths kept crossing with Dr. Rita Oates, vice president of education markets for ePals. I’ve known about ePals for years, but there was some sort of synchronicity with our crossings, from her presentations in this world at the national ISTE technology conference in Denver last summer to my attending a session she presented in Second Life last fall. When we both appeared on the roster of an online learning Ning this Spring, I thought it was a sign I couldn’t resist and asked her to share some information about ePals and how educators from across the world are using ePals’ services to connect schools, classes, and students, especially in support of language acquisition.

More than a Pen Pal

In the textbook I co-authored and in workshops I present, I use ePals as one example that I encourage teachers of all disciplines to investigate, because the global connections it provides support multiple content areas and learning goals. In fact, ePals may best be known for successfully connecting classrooms from across the world so students (and teachers) can learn from each other and gain a better understanding the nuances of culture, society, politics, and exploring everything from what kids in other countries do for fun, have for lunch, and learn about in school. In fact, to date, ePals has connected more than 600,000 classrooms (that’s just classrooms, not people) in more than 200 countries or territories—for free! They have more than 2500 new schools sign up for their services every month.

Students from Sarah LaComb's French class in New York meeting their ePals form Arras, FranceStudents from Sarah LaComb’s French class in New York meeting their ePals from Arras, France

That all sounds good for some kind of classroom sharing, but in communicating with Rita, I wanted to know if ePals offered specific services that could help meet that one big need—providing access to native or fluent language speakers. She responded that this is one of the two main reasons teachers sign their classrooms up for ePals, the other being English as a second language teachers in countries where English is not the primary language looking for English practice for their students. If you think about it, it’s the same reason, really, with interaction with native language speakers being the ultimate goal. Need…meet solution.

Example of a French class in Spain seeking ePalsExample of a French class in Spain seeking ePals

The Menu: Taste or Feast

ePals offers a variety of services for educators, many for free, with new services developed and offered based on input from the educators that participate in its programs. One of the most common starting points for new members is the ePals Global Community, which is the traditional classroom connection that many people associate with a pen pal connection. But, of course, it has a 21st Century twist.

The ePals Global Community was built by educators for educators, so the sharing has learning outcomes in mind. The primary resource for sharing is e-mail, which might be common in American schools but not so in all participating countries. ePals provides a secure, filtered e-mail environment to support communication that includes several levels of protection for students. They hold TRUSTe certification, an especially rigorous data security certification, that makes them well suited to work with children of all ages, including those younger than 13. (According to the Children’s Internet Protection Act, parents must provide consent for children under 13 to enter data to an online service, which is why sites like Facebook do not allow these younger people to participate.)

Teachers can choose to moderate all, some, or no messages before they are sent, and can request to receive notification of all or just questionable communications. ePals also offers the option of an online translation solution that supports 58 languages, and that number keeps growing. Many classes go beyond exchanging short e-mail messages and share everything from poems, stories, multimedia presentations, to video. Others have incorporated videoconferencing for real-time interaction, which obviously requires some coordination depending on time zones and school calendars. You can view a short video presentation by students with emerging Spanish skills from Darlington Community High School in Wisconsin at http://www.epals.com/media/p/236857.aspx.

 

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

The Teacher View of ePals Message Center

There are also student forums that are organized by topic and a Student Media Gallery, which provides a safe and secure place for teachers to post student work. Students can communicate with other students from across the globe on a range of topics that they find interesting, from the impression of Justin Bieber’s hairstyle to the impact cheating has on schoolwork. The forums are moderated by real people and nothing gets posted without review. Oates notes that music and sports are some of the most popular topics, however, the single most popular social issue based on student responses is “Do glasses make you a nerd?” So while the teacher-moderated communications in the ePals Global Community may be more formal and stress the use of academic language, the student forums provide a level of engagement through social interaction with other students with similar interests.

Teachers can choose the purpose and intensity of interaction, from once a month, once a week, or several times a week. It just depends on what they work out with the teachers they collaborate with. For example, one teacher required her students to compose three sentences twice a week to share with students in their ePals collaborating class in Italy. Oates recounted that the response from Italian students would often incorporate cognates that were familiar to them but not so much to the American students, who often had to look them up in order to reply—emphasizing the difference between academic and social language use and building connections between the two languages. (As an interesting aside to that particular story, the scores for the American students on their tests of English writing improved so much after the experience that the teacher was investigated by the state to ensure that the students hadn’t cheated!)

Teacher request for connecting via languageTeacher request for connecting via language

How to Get Started

One of the best ways to get started is to visit the ePals website at www.epals.com. The home page scrolls the news ePals classrooms so you can see where the classes are located and view a profile with the age and grade level and number of students in each class and the type of interaction the teachers are looking for. A search feature allows you to find additional classrooms from the hundreds of thousands that are registered in the system based on location, grade, interest, and other parameters. You can also sign up your class on the ePals website but all new members are reviewed and must be approved before their requests are posted or they are able to participate in any activities.

If you’re not sure how you’d like to interact with another classroom, ePals has some suggestions and offers other products and services that could serve as a focus of a project. For example, in2books is a curriculum for grades three through five that incorporates eMentoring, and the ePals LearningSpace is an online collaborative environment that encourages the sharing of curriculum and supports common Web 2.0 tools, like blogs, wikis, and forums. New services are developed and delivered based on input from ePals uses, so you can have a say on what additional services might be helpful.

One of the many projects ePals offers participantsOne of the many projects ePals offers participants

If you need more information, it’s likely you’ll run across Rita or one of the ePals team members at a conference, but in case you don’t, you can attend a free webinar to learn more about ePals. Rita actually presented the webinar I attended. To sign up for the ePals 101 webinar, sign up at http://epals.101.sgizmo.com. Get other questions about ePals answered at support@corp.epals.com.

There are other electronic pen pal services that you can investigate, so compare and find the solution that is best for you. I do want to thank Dr. Rita Oates, however, for working with me and sharing information about the technology-based solutions ePals provides that language teachers may want to use to address the critical need of student interaction with native or fluent speakers. It was nice to move from an awareness of the program to a better understanding of how teachers are using these services in their classroom. If you’ve used ePals or a similar program, I’d enjoying hearing about your experiences, as well.

All A-Buzz: The 21st Century Language Classroom

Last Fall I visited some schools in Henrico County, Virginia, which is on the outskirts of the Commonwealth’s capital, Richmond. During those visits I had the great fortune to observe a fantastic 21st Century lesson delivered by Spanish teacher, Patrick Wininger. Patrick teaches Spanish to seventh grade students and works in a district that has a one-to-one laptop initiative. While that may be a plus for technology integration, his lesson was an excellent example of varied and seamless technology use that not only supported skills often referred to as 21st Century skills, but repeatedly gave students practice in the critical areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking Spanish. It was also one that could be accomplished in classrooms without the laptops, but maybe just not as efficiently. Patrick graciously agreed to a follow-up interview and has some great tips to share for incorporating technology in language acquisition instruction.

Focus on the Student

While I was invited to visit showcase lessons for 21st Century skills, you could tell this was pretty much just another day for Wininger—a day brimming with excited and active students very much engaged in the business of learning language. In fact, the class was so full it was almost bursting at the seams, with some students squeezed into corners to accommodate the visitors. The noise, at times, rose to a pleasant roar of excited students clearly engaged in learning, collaborating, and communicating with and without their laptops. I love that sound.

When you visit a classroom, it’s usually pretty obvious when what you are watching is SOP—standard operating procedure. Students know what to expect, what to do, and are familiar with the transitions from one activity to the next. Wininger was a great conductor, but the students were truly the stars. He confirmed with me, later, that he really tries to give the students what they want. “Foreign languages, especially Spanish,” he told me, “are growing in popularity and students really want to be able to use it to speak with others who speak Spanish.” These may be other students who go to their schools, play on their sports teams, or others they meet in their communities. “Many people,” he says, “now see Spanish as useful in day-to-day life. It changes the reason why students take a language.” So he capitalizes on that.

In fact, Wininger is a career switcher who came to language instruction from corporate training and communications. In the business world, you focus on the customer, which is also what Wininger does in his classroom. He focuses on what the students want and uses the available technologies to engage them and help them learn language. “It has to be useful. If teachers can’t explain why this matters, they shouldn’t be teaching it.” He notes that students are becoming more consumer-oriented, and if what you are offering doesn’t have value, they won’t buy it.

Freedom to Learn

Wininger notes that “It’s more about how you teach than the tools you use.” Yes, his students have laptops, but in many places increased access to different technologies is blurring what one can do in the classroom and at home. He incorporates a textbook series with many digital resources, including handouts, recordings, presentations, and even a website where students can go online and listen to native speakers. The district has a web-based student information system, so students don’t even have to turn in homework at school. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t because then his instruction can focus more on active language acquisition than checking homework.

During the 45 minutes I was in the classroom, the students quickly moved through a logical sequence of instruction that was building to an assignment they’d complete for homework. Students focused on action verbs and vocabulary and worked through writing, listening, and speaking (and reading, of course) supported by digital handouts, presentation software, digital recordings and lots and lots of interaction. The digital resources served as a basis, but all activities were customized and required students to create their own examples, to relate it to their own lives, and to speak with others. They spoke with each other, they spoke with Wininger, and they responded to the digital voice that hovered over the room, with reminders all the way through—by Wininger—of where they were headed, why they were doing this, and constant reminders about the connection between reading, writing, listening and speaking. And what were they going to do? Students had to build on the sentences they wrote during class to post a blog response related to a favorite hobby or pastime. It was practical, relevant, and used tools the students enjoyed.

Wininger notes that foreign language classrooms have always had tools, like language labs, it’s just that the tools are different now and can all be in one place. “It’s not about what you have, it’s about being skilled at what you have.” Technology empowers students. Many of them are using it outside of school already, whether it’s texting on their smartphone, mastering multi-player games, or chatting with friends online. His students just use technology to learn a new language in ways that feel comfortable.

Wininger says his students are like sponges. They love to try new things, especially with technology. He said he’s never had a student not want to participate when technology was included. He says, “Whatever I’ve tried with technology, they’ve been willing to try it, too.” Even if it’s something new they don’t know how to use. Once they begin to use it, even in small ways, they feel empowered. One example was when the young girl next to me had a problem with her document, before Wininger could get to her, she had several classmates at her computer who overcame the issue in a few seconds. He notes that the more students interface with technology, they build a repertoire of skills they can use elsewhere.

The Tips

So, what are some of the activities Wininger and his students participate in during class—and beyond? I’ve already described what could have been a very traditional worksheet-based lesson that was put into overdrive and ended up being a blog post. Following are some additional technology ideas Wininger shared.

Create games to play in class or online. Many applications have multiple functions, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. With these, you can manipulate text, images, video, and include hyperlinks that connect information together. You can create a presentation to use during class, or add buttons and links that branch to different parts of the presentation.

Bring in the world. Most teachers have Internet access, and so Wininger uses it to go beyond the walls of his classroom to engage his students with cultural artifacts as a subject for language acquisition. One example involved a painting by the artist Frida Kahlo. He provided background information through a lecture supported by presentation software, and the students read a section about the picture in their text. But then Wininger “visited” the Smithsonian where the students not only got to see the image projected larger than life in class but explored more information about it. Students followed up by writing a reaction paper, which could be in Spanish for more advanced students.

Build a website. There are many different tools that you and your students can use to create a website, it’s how you frame those activities that matters. Wininger has had his students participate in the traditional travelogue activity in which students plan a trip to another country where Spanish is spoken, but he also requires students to create budgets and build a website based on their trip that includes a daily blog that they keep while they are “traveling.”

In another web-based project Wininger identifies 20 contemporary Spanish songs that students select. They learn the song, of course, but they also learn about the performer and partner with another student to develop a fan website. Some of the students didn’t want to stop, and even during the class I visited I could hear students singing along to some of the Spanish pop songs that played in the background during one activity.

Shoot a video. Again, you don’t have to have access to an expensive videocamera and suite of editing software to incorporate video into your instruction. Wininger’s students researched, wrote, and produced daily weather reports in Spanish…for Spanish-speaking countries. They searched the Internet for real-time data and presented the whole project in Spanish on video, even using green-screen technology so it could look like they were “on location.” He said the students were not only engaged, but motivated to do a good job and to deliver the reports convincingly.

Make it interactive. Wininger admitted he was a little reluctant to get a video beam projector, not wanting to give up his trusty overhead projector. But now that he has one he absolutely loves it. It projects large, clear images that the students find engaging and focuses their attention unlike everyone staring at their textbook, and is useful for a variety of video resources, as well. He’d like to have an interactive whiteboard, because he feels it would make it that much easier to move images and objects around and he’d like to get his students up and interacting with the content—highlighting, summarizing, matching, ordering…there are many possibilities. While he doesn’t have one currently, he suggested—my favorite tip—you can create your own interactive whiteboard out of a Wii game remote and an infrared pointer for about $40. Honest! There are dozens of videos on YouTube that show you how, so go check it out.

Practice What You Preach

Wininger does more than have his students do all the work; he has modeled 21st century communications for his students, friends, and teachers. He participated in a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad seminar in 2009 that took him to Mexico with 15 other teachers, and to keep everyone informed he kept up a daily blog (http://patrick-wininger.blogspot.com/). A blog alone can be a lot of work, a daily blog even more so, but while traveling?!?

However, “the experience was really valuable,” says Wininger, as he was not only able to communicate with friends and colleagues back home, but it really helped him understand the potential of this form of communication. His blog entries include reflections, new learnings, and incorporate images and even videos. Some of the images make it into his instruction, as do some of the things he learned, like how the textbook he uses inaccurately described the Sun Stone in the Aztec room in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The textbook describes the stone as a calendar, but that’s not what the museum reports. Wininger can now not only describe its real purposes to his students but show them pictures he’s taken of the stone. His excitement on his blog is palpable, “…now I get to teach my students the RIGHT thing instead of the wrong.” The 21st Century has already emphasized the shift from receiving information to creating information, a key characteristic of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies. Wininger’s blog is a great example of creating information that is available not only for his students but with anyone with a web browser.

No, not those Natives vs. Immigrants again!

I get a little tired of people telling me I’m not a “digital native,” Marc Prensky’s famous description of students who grow up with digital technologies. And, no, I didn’t. I’m comfortable not being a digital native, because I think I do pretty well. I work in educational technologies, after all, and I work with others to try to help them figure out how to use them to support teaching and learning. I have never been one to think it matters much. But Wininger may have changed my mind…may have.

He notes that it’s not the digital natives that we have to be concerned about right now, it’s us digital immigrants. He agrees that 21st Century skills that promote communication and collaboration, solving complex real-world problems, and being creative and innovative are valuable. The issue is that most digital immigrants have never been shown how to teach them. He said they’re very different teaching skills, and since they haven’t really been valued so much in education until recently, teaching digital natives is a bigger challenge than being one.

I’d like to thank Henrico County Schools and especially Patrick Wininger for allowing me not only to visit but to follow-up with my many questions. Patrick may not be a digital native either, but his students don’t care. They’re learning, and having a great time while they’re doing it, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an immigrant or not when you make that happen.

Don’t Miss the Bus!

Regardless of how you’re keeping track, the 21st Century is almost one-tenth over. Remember all the hoopla for the new millennium? Can you believe that was 10 years ago? An entire decade? We were worried about what the “millennium bug” was going to do to our computer systems, and educators were being encouraged to help students develop “21st Century skills.” Well, a decade pretty much places us into that new century. Are we there yet?

My November TechTips article explored the 21st Century theme from a broad perspective, and I’m glad to say I received some great feedback! Some asked me to “just tell us how to do it,” with “it” being technology. Others wanted to know more about “just what these 21st Century Skills are.” Over the next few months I hope to provide some more specific strategies to help world language teachers not just get ready for the 21st Century but put them square in the driver’s seat in their 21st Century classrooms. We’re already there, after all. That bus may be on the road, but there’s still time to get aboard. I’ll explore some of the “its” but also have contacted several exemplary teachers whose stories I hope to share in subsequent articles. If you know of some additional exemplary teachers, please contact me. I’d love to talk with them.

“It” Is All About Learning

I get the “just show me how to do it” response a lot in my line of work, and I have to admit I’ve been guilty of saying it, at least in the past. I sympathize but want to shift that line of thinking just a bit. As I’ve mentioned, the “it” that most people want me to tell them about is technology, whether a laptop, a podcast, or some other application. They want me to tell them which buttons to press, which menus to use, which steps to follow, but technology varies, and it all changes so quickly.

I recently developed a workshop for a school that had just gotten new laptops running Windows 7, so I upgraded to that operating system and created some step-by-step handouts with screenshots from the latest version of Microsoft Office. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t have the latest version of Office, just Windows. My handouts didn’t look like their screens or have the same steps. What to do?

This is a pretty common occurrence in technology, actually. Trying to tell people how to complete a task in common software, like Microsoft Office, varies depending on which computer you have, the version of the operating system on that computer, and the version of the software. In a single workshop I can have Macs and PCs, two or three different versions of either operating system, and a similar range of application versions on each. All of these differences change the steps to follow. What I do—or try to do—is to focus on the learning, not the technology.

In this case, I took an activity like inserting an image into a document and I turned it around on them. I showed them some common places to find images. I demonstrated how I would insert an image on my computer, highlighting some common commands or menus to look for. We even talked about when and why to insert an image. Then, I told them to work together. They had to figure out how it worked on their computer and then share it with the rest of us. They could go online and find tutorials or ask me for help, but mostly they shared with each other. We revised the handout together which they could then use with students or other teachers in their schools. I got new handouts out of the deal, too.

That’s a simple—and true—story of 21st Century skills in action. It also demonstrates shifting the focus from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction. Instead of telling them what to do, walking through a handout step-by-step, ending up with cookie cutter products that all looked the same, my teachers had a very real-world problem to solve. They were going to have to teach these skills to other teachers in their district after I left! It was an authentic problem that required them to do a little critical thinking along with communication and collaboration. And some of their results were more creative than my solution, including one who posted her handout to her blog.

Beyond the Handout

Moving from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction can be a hard shift if you’ve never been given autonomy as a student. I started out teaching the way I was taught, and probably so did you. But just like my handout story above, you can take small steps and don’t have to give yourself over to full-scale student autonomy—at least not right away. Digital resources make this easier, because we’ve gotten to a point where there are more high quality materials and applications that are available 24/7. These give you more opportunities to interact with or engage your students in language acquisition in and beyond the classroom.

While sometimes a handout or two may be helpful, I’m encouraging moving beyond relying solely on prescriptive activities in instruction—whether that instruction involves teaching teachers or younger students. Think about when we use our own language skills. Maybe you’re trying to figure out a train schedule in a foreign country, or you’ve been asked to talk with a new parent who doesn’t speak English, or you’re going to chaperone a student group to another country. How often will you have to fill in a blank or answer a multiple-choice question in that setting? Now consider the situations where your students will use their language skills.

As I mentioned last month, it’s not all or nothing. There’s no cosmic switch that will help a teacher magically transport to 21st Century teaching and learning every lesson of every day. And sometimes, you may not want to. Language acquisition, like all content areas, requires foundational skills and knowledge, and sometimes students have to practice those. But we can move to more authentic and relevant instruction for our students, often relying on the many free digital resources available now.

What would I suggest if you wanted to do that? What would I do if I wanted to move to more 21st Century teaching and learning? Following are a few suggestions.

Set a goal and monitor your effectiveness.
Remember, it is generally understood that teachers progress along a continuum as they learn new technologies. One of the best strategies to move forward is to set a periodic target to incorporate technology that promotes 21st Century skills (e.g., creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, or communication and collaboration) until you feel more comfortable and they become second nature. You can start a class discussion list or blog. You might incorporate a weekly podcast, that you or your students create or find. Or have students create newscasts—print, web, or video—in the language they are studying. You may want to conduct one of these activities once a week, or maybe try a longer activity once a month if you have limited technology access. If your students have access to laptops, I’ve seen technology experts recommend once a day.

Use what you have. We don’t all have access to interactive whiteboards or a laptop for every student, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create more authentic learning opportunities that rely on the digital technologies at our disposal. Using one computer a teacher can still create concept maps, digital stories, or explore web resources during whole-class instruction. It can become a student center during small group activities. When relying on a lab, plan ahead and prepare students in during class before getting to the lab, so time is focused on applying language skills and knowledge, not the technology. Technology is not required to create 21st Century teaching and learning, but in this century we use technology for everything from shopping to finding medical breakthroughs. Technology is the way we do things in the 21st Century, so use what you’ve got.

Practice, but you don’t have to be perfect. I know, as a teacher, I want to be the authority and don’t want to look like I didn’t know something in front of my students. But when I visit and interview exemplary technology-using teachers, they all tell me, “I learn from the kids.” All of them. Remember, technology is going to change. I planned a workshop on Delicious, the social-bookmarking website, which I have been using for years. When I got to the workshop, I discovered that Delicious is now owned by Yahoo! and registering was much different than when I had first created my account. You’re the learning expert. Keep the learning goals in mind, and when technology throws a wrench at you, use it as an opportunity to learn along with your students. You’re modeling valuable 21st Century skills when you do.

Find a buddy. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, research on exemplary technology-using teachers shows that they don’t. These teachers have a network they can rely on to learn new things, bounce off new ideas, and even try new technologies and techniques with. It’s nice when your buddies are in your own school, but with technologies like webconferencing and web-based resources, including those from the NCLRC, you can find a buddy around the block or across the globe. You can communicate through webconferencing (e.g., iChat, ooVoo, or Skype), jointly create documents (e.g., using GoogleDocs, TypeWith.me, or Scribblar.com), and share your results (e.g., creating a podcast with Audacity or GarageBand or even uploading a video to YouTube or TeacherTube).

Technology Tip: Getting Your Act Together

In an effort to comply more with the “just show me how to do it” requests, I want to offer this real, bonafide technology tip. In the 21st Century, we have to deal with a lot of information, and now a lot of that information is found on the web. It can be hard to sort, store, and find when you need it. In order to deal with that information, I encourage you to set the goal of using a social bookmarking service, if you are not already doing so. It should help you get started in moving up the continuum.

Many of us are used to bookmarking information on our own computers, but what happens when we have to use a different one, or we buy a new computer? Yes, you can transfer bookmarks to new computers, but a more useful solution is to use a social bookmarking service. Essentially, this service allows you to store all of your bookmarks online, so you can get to them any time you want to, from any computer with an Internet connection.

They allow you to create tags, or groupings, so you can organize your bookmarks in different categories. Then you can share them (or not) with others. Coming up with the tagging scheme may be the most complex aspect of using them. You may want to do it by general categories (e.g., travel sites, government-sponsored resources, language practice, etc.) or organize them by lessons or units. This latter arrangement will take more planning and is probably something you might accomplish over time.

In homage to 21st Century skills (which encourage you to be creative, solve problems, incorporate critical thinking, and communicate and collaborate), I’m not going to tell you how to do it step by step. Each site contains tutorials and answers to frequently asked questions that provide that information. There are three social bookmarking services I know of, two that I use routinely and one that I have read reviews of that seems to be promising. You can decide which one works best for you, but I encourage you to use one of these free services to organize information for your language instruction and to model 21st Century skills for your students. Already use one? Be a buddy and help someone out who doesn’t, or check into one of the other ones. They may offer functionality you didn’t know about.

Social bookmarking services:

  • Delicious (www.delicious.com) One of the earliest bookmarking sites with an easy-to-use toolbar you can add to your web browser. You do have to create or use a Yahoo! account for this service. Unfortunately, if you have more than one Yahoo! account, you’ll have to switch back and forth, which is cumbersome. This is my problem because I have a Yahoo! personal e-mail account and one I created just for trainings.
  • Diigo (www.diigo.com) Another easy-to-use service that has really ramped up its social networking aspect. It also allows you to annotate websites, so you can highlight the most important information on the site for your students. There is an educator version (www.diigo.com/education) that allows you to share your bookmarks with a class and does not require students to have an e-mail account. Unfortunately, because it does have this social networking aspect, which I think can be pretty useful, you may have to get it unblocked on some school networks.
  • iCyte (www.icyte.com) I have only read about this service and viewed some of the tutorials, so I admit I’m not an expert on this one, but maybe you are and can let me know how you use it better. iCyte claims to be more than a bookmarking site, but both Delicious and Diigo are constantly evolving, so if you find a feature you like on one, chances are it will be on one of the others—if not now, then soon. Like the others, it appears to be very easy to use, allows you to annotate, and you can install the iCyte toolbar on your favorite web browser.

Creating and maintaining a social bookmarking site is a good way to get started with moving along the continuum towards more 21st Century teaching and learning, and it will help you organize all the information you collect, from the NCLRC and elsewhere. If you’d like to see one in action, please feel free to review the sites I maintain at the links below. If you do need some more help to learn more about social bookmarking, want to suggest additional topics, or just send some feedback, please feel free to contact me. I appreciate all the advice I’ve received.

My Delicious account: www.delicious.com/tltbookmarks
My Diigo account: www.diigo.com/user/tltbookmarks

Moving Beyond the 18th Century

I had the pleasure recently of visiting several middle schools that are participating in a one-to-one laptop initiative. I was part of a team that went into classrooms to observe teaching and provide feedback to the schools and district. We visited several foreign language classrooms—both French and Spanish. The classrooms I visited were fairly ripe with technology, not just the laptops every child sported, but interactive whiteboards and many digital resources. These are what many people might consider rich “21st Century classrooms,” and our visitors included administrators from other schools and districts who may have been a bit jealous about the preponderance of technology. Unfortunately, the teaching I most often observed took little advantage of the wealth of technology. The instruction could have occurred 100, 200, or even many more years earlier.

One member on my team was a principal who had been a Spanish teacher. He concurred, but also said it was representative of how he had originally been taught how to teach. What we saw was very traditional, teacher-directed instruction that took little advantage of the available resources. Primarily, teachers lectured at the front of the room, using print-based handouts that had been digitized so they could be displayed on the interactive whiteboard. Students could access the forced-choice and fill-in-the-blank handouts on their laptops, but most used the paper-based versions even though their laptops sat unopened on their desks. Students were passively engaged and called upon one at a time to give their answer to questions that related to vocabulary recall, sometimes going to the front of the room to write an answer on the interactive whiteboard. That novelty didn’t seem to engage many students, though. That’s pretty passé to someone who can spend hours a day online pitting their skills with others from across the globe in a multi-user videogame.

These were language classes, and in the 45 minutes we visited each, there was very little language going on, especially when considering language consists of reading, writing, speaking, and not just listening. The students might have read 10 sentences total and underlined vocabulary. The worksheets had an opportunity to write out approximately 20 isolated vocabulary words, and the listening—besides the language immersion approach the teacher should be commended for—consisted of a digital recording that required students to “check off” whether spoken terms were masculine or feminine, so very little written language occurred, too. Students might have been called upon once—at most twice—during the entire class to respond, so there was very little speaking going on, and none in context, as they merely reported their vocabulary responses. It’s reasonable to assume that these students spoke no more than one or two words in their language of study in an entire class period.

You’re Not Just On or Off

In our discussions following the classroom visits, we considered ways to better monopolize on the digital technologies now available, so we can break the paradigm of the teacher-directed instruction we saw that provided so little opportunity for engagement in language (and other content). We did usually see a variety of activities within a 45-minute period, but if I had to sum up the instruction we observed using a single word, I’d say it was boring. I was bored. The kids were obviously bored.

The key is changing the instruction, not providing more tools. The tools are nice, and provide some unique opportunities, but most classrooms now have at least one Internet-connected computer that would allow teachers to bring the world to their classroom, if they felt comfortable changing their instruction. That change has to occur in more places than just that classroom, though.

There are several continuum theories applied to the adoption of technology in instruction. That’s important because it’s not like you are or aren’t a 21st Century teacher. You’re not on or off. Most of these theories suggest that teachers begin using technology by replicating what they are familiar with. That’s what we saw with the workbooks and handouts—that were just as effective either as paper or digitized—and the heavy reliance on response and recall of low-level information. But higher up those theories are stages where teachers create instruction that utilizes the technology in such a way that the instruction could not otherwise happen. The technology provides access to activities and information that are not feasible or not practical in an analog classroom.

Knowing when a teacher is at a lower stage of the continuum is important for supporting professional growth. You can’t expect these teachers to leap to the end of the continuum. But it is reasonable to expect them to move to a higher level of the continuum, maybe the next level at first, and then going on. It takes some skill training, obviously, but perhaps most importantly it takes an environment in which teachers are willing to take risks and are given the opportunity to practice new pedagogies and give up some of the control they may feel in more directed lessons. To a teacher, the term “student-directed” implies “I’m not in charge,” and that can be the hardest change to make.

I know these types of lessons may not happen every day, and building basic foundational skills is important, but we were invited to see the very best “21st Century lessons” from these teachers, not 18th Century lessons with 21st Century tools. So, what would we have liked to have seen?

It’s About the Skills, Not the Tools

To me, the workbooks and handouts obscured the real purpose of the class. They were not the best means to an end. They were an end to themselves. Why do students study language? To use it. They should be able to read and write the language and use it to communicate with others. Ultimately, we want them to be able to engage in language at a level where they are thinking and responding from the new language. How reasonable is it that these kids will go to an area where these languages are used and complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet? Or to check off which words they hear are masculine or feminine?

Digital technologies allow you to bring the world’s resources to your classroom, not just scanned worksheets. You can bring in newspapers and video broadcasts from across the world. You can access images, audio, and video from government organizations, travel services, and educators from across the globe. You can find podcasts in many languages for students of all ages, or you can have your students create their own with free tools like Audacity or GarageBand. You can also store and organize all of these resources on a class website, a school file server, or using a social bookmarking site like Delicious or Diigo, so you’re not recreating lessons every year.

Real life is engaging. Walk through the halls of your local middle school when kids are changing classes, and you’ll hear lots of language and engagement. Bring it into your classrooms. Have your students apply their language skills, either with their own classmates or with those from another class. You don’t necessarily have to sign up for an electronic pen pal in another country (although it can be fun and engaging to do so). You might just want to pair your students in different classes, or with students in other classes in your district, just to give them an opportunity to apply their language skills with other kids their age. Focusing on their lives makes the instruction more relevant to them and will increase engagement.

They can participate in real-time interaction through common webconferencing tools like iChat, ooVoo, or Skype or they may create asynchronous interactions. If you have limited access to computers, consider broadcasting you streaming web video to the front of the class and using different students each time to lead discussions with those at a distance. Consider creating a class website, blog, or wiki, that allows students to communicate to each other during class and beyond. Students can journal or blog about their day-to-day lives using their growing language skills. You don’t have to share them with the whole world if you don’t want to, as students can create digital journals or portfolios that are only shared with other students in their class or with their teacher, such as developing a dialog journal in which teachers provide formative assessment of language use. And digital journals can include audio and video files to build language use in other areas.

If you do want to use worksheets and handouts, which do provide a level of practice that can be important for building vocabulary and other foundational knowledge, consider new ways to incorporate them. The students I observed went through three pages of forced-choice or fill-in-the-blank responses in 45 minutes. It should have taken about five. Have students share their responses with others and identify the most common misconceptions, or put them in a dropbox so you can monitor them but spend your instructional time on actual language production. Expose them to foundational information, but use class time to apply that information as much as possible.

The Format is Not the Test

After visiting many classrooms, and not just language classrooms, one of the visiting administrators verbalized a common concern. Teachers feel pressured to prepare students for end-of-course tests that are usually presented in forced-choice formats. True, but the catch is that these assessments—at every grade- and content-level—still address higher levels of cognitive demand. They’re based on standards and the standards in all grades and content areas go beyond identification and recall tasks. Teachers who simply use the forced-choice format but who do not present instruction or even find or generate questions at the appropriate level of cognitive demand have not prepared their students for these assessments. The format is not the test. How well prepared were these students who filled out three worksheets but might get only one opportunity to speak during an entire class period?

Yes, these formats are easier to grade, but you have to mix it up. If language requires application, you have to find opportunities for students to apply language in authentic contexts. If you’re shooting beyond application to synthesis and creation, you need additional opportunities, and creating forced-choice assessments at these levels is difficult and time consuming. In these cases, teachers can apply different assessment methods.

One quick and easy way to guide and evaluate learning is the use of checklists or scoring guidelines. These are often based on the presence (or lack thereof) of critical attributes. Did your dialog use at least five of this week’s vocabulary words? Did you find three relevant news stories? What is the level of accuracy of your translation? These make great job aids or guides for students and can be posted on a class website, file server, or other shared space where students can access them both in and out of classroom.

Rubrics are also popular, especially in more open-ended activities supported by technology, but take more time to develop and can be difficult for novice teachers. It’s hard, sometimes, to know exactly what makes a response a 3 vs. a 4, or basic vs. proficient. Having students co-create rubrics can be a great learning opportunity, but can take away from limited instructional time. Sometimes you may want to include them, and sometimes not, depending on how much time you have available in your curriculum. I am a strong proponent of sharing the rubrics up front to guide student learning and for ongoing self-assessment and monitoring, but one teacher we visited last week says she has found it helpful to let the students get started on their projects first and then introduce the rubric in the early stages of work so they are better able to understand what are the most important aspects of the rubric. In a complex rubric, they may place inappropriate attention to some categories over another.

If you’re new to rubrics and want some help, the best resource I know is RubiStar (http://rubistar.4teachers.org/). It provides rubric samples or allows you to quickly create your own. RubiStar has rubrics in many categories, not specifically foreign language, but reading, writing, and other language-appropriate categories. You can also access RubiStar en Español (http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php?skin=es&lang=es&).

What Goes Around…

I want to conclude by giving some kudos to these teachers. They were doing what they thought was appropriate. They were using methods they were familiar with from their own days as students and perhaps from their language methods courses. And they all showed willingness to try new technologies in front of people they didn’t know! (Being observed always causes some anxiety.) I just felt like they were missing opportunities that the powerful resources they had access to could provide to their students. Given some guidance and support, though, and I think they’d all begin moving up that continuum.

If we’re going to move beyond 18th Century lessons with 21st Century tools, we need to provide our teachers with different examples. We need to engage them as we’d like them to engage their students. They need to see authentic instruction models and be given an opportunity to develop and practice them on their own. We can’t all get to the end of that continuum right away, but we can all move forward.

Please let me know if you’d like to explore any of these topics in greater detail. I’ve contacted a few exemplary teachers and some programs that incorporate technology in language instruction and hope to share some of their stories with you. I’d be glad to hear yours so we can all work together on determining what is the best way to use technologies to support instruction. As my good friend and colleague Joy Runyan says, “we’re all in this together.”

Getting More from What You Have: Making Powerful Points

I spent a good deal of my time this past month preparing for and presenting workshops for two different groups of educators I have been working with, one of which is a cadre of language coaches who work with teachers to address the needs of English language learners. We’ve been exploring different technologies to support teaching and learning, and I focused much of our work on the process of creating digital stories using presentation software as a means to learn about using multimedia in the classroom. In others words, we used Microsoft PowerPoint to support teaching and learning. Even though it wasn’t designed for educators, it’s a really powerful tool that has the potential to support a variety of teaching needs. It’s also an application most teachers and students have access to, so I thought I’d share some of those ideas with you as a continuation of my series on using what you have.

Before we get started, let me say that I use both Windows and Macintosh Operating Systems and am familiar with PowerPoint, Keynote, and OpenOffice. You can accomplish most of the tasks I’ll present here on any of these applications, but perhaps because PowerPoint is so widely accepted in the business world, there are a few additional things you can do with it that you can’t do with the others, yet. I’m a big believer in the idea that if a technology feature is popular in one application, you’ll soon find it on others. I am also not going to include step-by-step instructions, but will try to guide you towards key menu items or functions to look for. The steps can change, even over subsequent versions of the same software. When in doubt, try two things: 1) right-click on an object to see what options you have, or 2) search the help menu.

Learning from Stories

I use digital storytelling as a framework for helping teachers learn about multimedia because it’s easy for people to relate to. Teachers often use or tell stories in their teaching. As a young teacher, I had to learn to tell fewer stories, or so my students would probably tell you. But you don’t necessarily have to follow a formal digital storytelling process to use the techniques associated with it (Leah, perhaps you can link to my previous article on Digital Storytelling from March). You might consider keeping a journal, a digital portfolio, or even a lab journal in science as storytelling. Following are just a few ways you can use presentation software to support teaching and learning based on skills you can learn from creating digital stories.

Conduct research and organize information. When I’m wearing my instructional designer hat, I use presentation software to create storyboards that present and organize information. I can keep notes, including pertinent research, either on a slide or in the notes field with a more formal reference list on the last screen. And by displaying the slides in the “sorter” view, I can reorganize my information easily. For long projects, I will color-code the slide backgrounds so I know which slides correspond to which topics. I put major concepts on the slide and the detail in the notes. After my research is over, I finalize the text and images on my slides for my formal presentation.

Revision and reorganization are common to many research projects, and presentation software makes it very easy. You can provide templates to students to support a project, either a formal research project or a more personalized story, and they can keep all of their information in one place. Presentation software will support images they’ve found or have created with a camera or scanner, notes from primary resources, URLs for pertinent websites, and even audio and video clips.

Create or edit graphics and images to augment written or spoken text. There are several standalone photo and image editors and design tools available, but the learning curve for some of these can be steep. Most teachers and students are already familiar with presentation software, and can use it to quickly create custom graphics. You can insert an image or clip-art graphic to a slide usually through a simple Insert command. Graphics that support learning often include labels or guides to focus the learner. You can add arrows, highlighting, shapes, or text to a graphic easily. You can also usually change the style, color, or opacity of an image to make text or other information stand out. (See example 1)

URL image + Student at Computer +
Student at Computer 2 + MP3 Player =
Image edited in PowerPoint

Example 1. Images from MorgueFile.com combined and edited in PowerPoint

It’s easy to find images online, but make sure you are following copyright or licensing requirements. Two websites to visit for images you and your students are likely to be able to use for free are Wikimedia Commons and Compfight.com. You can search Wikimedia Commons and each picture on the site will include a statement about how it can be used, such as whether you need to provide attribution or whether you can edit it or not. Comfight.com searches all of Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site, for images based on keywords you enter. In your search, select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting to find images you are most likely to be able to use. No matter where you find your images, make sure you check the copyright or licensing rights.

Presentation software, like PowerPoint, often comes with several different clip-art galleries installed, but there are many others you can download for free from the Microsoft website. Clip art is actually a combination of drawn elements (lines, shapes, and fills) that you can actually ungroup and edit (this function can often be found in the Arrange or Grouping menus). You can delete sections of a clip art graphic, recolor it, or combine elements from one clip art graphic with another (see example 2). Clip art also usually resizes better than photos, including enlarging, with very little loss of fidelity. I won’t go into the reason here.

Clip Art Example 1 + Clip Art Example 2 =
Combined Clip Art Image

Example 2. Clip-Art from Microsoft edited and combined in PowerPoint

After you’re done designing your graphic, you can export your slides as images (either one at a time or all of them at once) that you can use in other applications, such as on a class website, a presentation on an interactive whiteboard, or inserted into a document. They can also be used for more “video-like” digital stories created in PhotoStory, MovieMaker, or iMovie. And the export process tends to reduce the file size of your image, making it more practical for use online. In PowerPoint, you can export a single slide by first grouping all of the elements on the slide, right-clicking on your slide, and select “Save as Picture.” Of course, you can also export your entire presentation as shows that cannot be edited, but these may not be able to be shown online, especially since they may be quite large files depending on how much media you’ve inserted.

Address multiple forms of language representation. Obviously, presentation software supports written language. You or your students can create text elements on the slide or in the notes area that can be read individually or in group settings. But you or your students can include audio to provide support for listening and speaking or to augment the written text onscreen.

Some presentation software allows you to record directly into a presentation, either on a slide-by-slide basis or as a narration across slides. Narrations are harder to pull off, as you usually have to go back to the beginning of a narration if you make a mistake. Inserting sound by slide is easier to control and edit. At the very least, you’ll have a shorter section to re-record if you make a mistake. You can have your recorded sounds play automatically or force the viewer to click on something (look for an “automatic” vs. “on-click” setting) to hear them.

You or your students can also record or edit pre-recorded audio clips in an external application, which gives you more flexibility in terms of editing and the quality of the recording. The free application Audacity by SoundForge is very easy to use and is cross-platform. You’ll want to export your Audacity files into something your presentation software can use, such as a .WAV or .MP3 file. GarageBand is a free application on the Mac OS that allows you to create sound files that you can import into iTunes and then can be pulled into KeyNote or exported for use in PowerPoint. The best advice I can offer is use a microphone you plug into your computer, not the internal microphone.

If you record your audio in an external program, you can actually insert multiple audio files on the same slide in a presentation that you can trigger by different actions. You can create multiple buttons (by adding a shape) and link a different sound file to each (the sound is usually considered an “animation”). That means you can record a soundtrack in multiple languages, or have audio clips from different people to demonstrate different dialects or accents, and your users can pick the most pertinent one. Students can even record themselves speaking and use different presentation files they’ve created over time as a digital portfolio of their growth in language development.

Differentiate learning by providing scaffolding. The idea of providing optional audio is one aspect of scaffolding learning for different levels of ability. You can record examples or create an audio glossary for critical vocabulary within a presentation that students can access only if they need to. Having audio tracks both in English and a student’s native language can support English language learners or those learning a foreign language.

Presentation software also supports hyperlinking of objects and text. You can embed a link to a URL of related website to a text or a picture in your presentation that will open on your computer’s browser. You can also link to other screens in the presentation, or even different documents, so that students have greater control over their learning. You can link students to an assessment after completing a presentation, or have supplementary or enrichment material for those students who need them. Students who have already mastered concepts in one part of a presentation can follow a link to a later part of the presentation, or others may want to return to previous information for additional practice. If you’re creating a set of linked information, make sure to keep them all in the same folder or relative location when you distribute them. Otherwise you might break the links and your presentation won’t be able to find the appropriate document.

And don’t discount the value of your students creating their own multimedia presentations to differentiate their learning needs, whether they create reports about a country of study, personal stories they create on their own, or support for oral presentations. Based on your students’ ability levels—both language and technology skills—you can allow them all to address the same content standards but to do so with great flexibility in terms of student products.

Focus on Your Outcomes

In closing, I need to offer you the same caveat you might want to share with your students. Playing with these features can be a lot of fun, but can become time consuming. You can really get caught up in the technology. Stay focused on your teaching or learning outcomes, and don’t let the technology take precedence. Only use what is necessary to get your point across, but do have some fun along the way.

I hope you try some of these ideas to support teaching and learning in your classroom. If you’d like to see a short digital story I put together for these workshops, you can view it at http://teachlearntech.com/blog/?page_id=87. The example was created in PowerPoint and Audacity first, imported into MovieMaker, and exported for display on the web. Please feel free to contact me and let me know if you’ve used these or other ideas with presentation software. I enjoy getting feedback from you and will try to respond to additional requests for information through e-mail or future editions of this TechTips article.

Resources for more information

Audacity by SoundForge
Free, cross-platform sound editor
http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

Compfight.com
Search tool for Flickr. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons: ON” setting.
http://compfight.com/

Morguefile.com
Free images.
http://morguefile.com/

Wikimedia Commons
Media in a variety of formats that you may be able to use. Files use Creative Commons licensing.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Microsoft Clip-Art Galleries
Free images for school use
http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/

Getting More from What You Have: Productivity Tools

We’ve All Got ‘Em

Productivity tools are those software applications developed for the business world and so called because they make us more productive. They are also very prevalent in schools today. They include applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and presentation software. Along with some Internet applications like e-mail and web browsers, these are the applications that most teachers and students will be familiar with outside of the classroom, but not necessarily to support teaching and learning beyond their basic functionality.

But these are the workhorse applications that many students use to create products and projects throughout their school career. Unless we help teachers understand otherwise, they may use them simply for document creation, classroom management, and record-keeping tasks rather than using them as powerful supports for learning.

While productivity tools were once designed primarily for a single task (i.e., word-processing software is used to create text-based documents, presentation software creates presentations that can be displayed to a group, databases store data that can be searched, etc.), commonalities exist across these applications. In fact, the extended functionality of many of these applications means that some of them can be used for multiple purposes. A document created with word-processing software, for example, can contain images or movies, links to web sites on the Internet, data tables and graphs drawn from spreadsheets, and many other functions. When used creatively, these tools support functions far beyond their original intention and can be powerful learning tools.

Supporting Learning

Obviously, productivity software can be used by students to create documents or presentations, but they can also scaffold learning for students, helping them to do more than had they tackled a task on their own. When used in this way, productivity software can be considered mindtools, tools that help document and scaffold thinking. Consider the following common functions in productivity software.

Supports for language. Unless students are required to demonstrate their knowledge of grammar or spelling, the spelling and grammar check functionality of most productivity tools can be implemented purposefully to scaffold student learning. I know this sounds like taboo—to have the computer suggest the correct spelling or identify errors—but many times the objectives teachers have to address are not focused on spelling or grammar. These tools can be turned on as students create documents in classes that require the use of academic language to learn subject-specific content (i.e., science, social studies, etc.) or students can evaluate their own documents after they are completed to determine correct spelling, punctuation, and even word choice. Debating the word choice options can also be a valuable learning exercise.

Reference tools. Many students are encouraged to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary or to use a thesaurus when writing or learning new vocabulary. These common reference tools are already built in to many productivity tools, are available online, and can even be found on phones and other handheld devices. I use the dictionary on my Kindle (digital book reader) often to look up words I’m unfamiliar with. No longer do I have to get up and go find a dictionary, which I rarely did, anyway. Now, with the click of a button, I’ve got the definition right there, and I know it increases my comprehension of whatever I’m reading.

Word processing software may also include dictionaries in multiple languages as well as translation tools. As long as students know when to use these tools and when they are not to be used, they can provide substantial support. This functionality can be added to applications, such as web browsers. One of my favorites is the powerful Hyperwords plug-in that conducts Google searches, provides access to reference tools, or translates text on a web page with the click of a button. I encourage you to try it out.

Text-to-speech. There are several applications you can download or purchase that read text aloud in a document or web page, but many productivity tools—including word processing software—have this functionality built-in. The quality of the voices, cadence, and pronunciation in these applications continues to improve. In writing this article using Microsoft Word, I had the application read this paragraph back to me as a reality check, and the quality of the reading was better than I remembered.

Struggling readers can have passages read to them that they can follow along or re-read. These tools may also include visual cues through the highlighting of the text as it is read or simply the display of each word. Text-to-speech is easy to use in Microsoft Word, Adobe PDF files, or may be used more comprehensively across multiple applications by accessing the Universal Access controls of your operating system. To access this feature on your computer, search the Help menu in your word-processing or PDF software for the term “text to speech.”

Commenting. If you’ve used the Reviewing Toolbar in Microsoft Word when editing documents with other people, you’ve used the commenting features. These functions include the ability to create notes or to track changes—each change being attributed to the individual (actually, the computer) that made them. Comments and changes are noted by color and name. I’ve experienced some resistance by people to use the commenting features. Some people choose to highlight or change the color of text, but comments and tracked changes can be found much more quickly through the use of the “Next” and “Previous” comment icons on the reviewing toolbar.

If you’re not ready to try out the reviewing features, simply highlighting text or changing the font color are strategies that students can use to organize their thinking, to indicate areas of confusion or that need further work, or to identify areas where help is needed. I was writing a book with a friend who taught me to color code text as it is generated. The color can help you keep strands of thoughts together, because sometimes, those thoughts just don’t come out in order.

Comments are not automated—meaning they are not suggested by the application as spelling and grammar are—but are input by peers or teachers. That means these comments can be used to track progress of drafts over time, to support peer review or a writer’s workshop forum, or for conversations between a student and teacher or between students. Toolbars that provide additional commenting functionality, such as a toolbar for indicating common errors in student compositions, are also available.

Incorporating These Features in Practice

We call these applications productivity tools because increasing productivity is central to business and industry. But as with most technologies, educators don’t always use technologies the way they were originally intended. Our productivity is measured in terms of student learning, and these tools can support powerful learning. Maybe “power tools” is a better term for them.

One of the best reasons to learn these features and how they can support learning is that productivity tools are ubiquitous. You can find them on just about any computer. There are also free, open-source versions of common productivity tools available that have some of these features. GoogleDocs are free, shared productivity tools online that offer additional supports for collaboration, such as through document sharing and group creation. Many of these tools are also available on common portable devices, such as smart phones or other handheld devices.

If you are considering using these functions in your own teaching, do acknowledge that many people know the basic functions of productivity tools, but most may require some explicit training to learn some of these more advanced features. Reluctance to use new things, as I mentioned, can also be a concern. Start slowly and have your students build their skills in using these features. Success breeds success. And, yes, students have to be taught when to use these functions and when they are not appropriate. But that knowledge and experience using them appropriately will go much farther than simply prohibiting their use at all times.

These are just a few of the features that exist on your computer right now that can significantly change the way you provide learning supports to students. There are other features that you may use that I didn’t address. I’d like to hear about how you use them to support learning, so please feel free to contact me about them. In the mean time, if you have not tried these, consider exploring one or two of these features and incorporating them into your own instruction. Design a lesson that incorporates one of them and get feedback from your students on how well it worked. After you’ve mastered a couple, move on to another one. Determine what works for you and your students and keep the best.

Resources for more information

Microsoft product and technology tutorials
If it’s from Microsoft, you can learn about it here, and this list is specific to educational uses.
www.microsoft.com/education/tutorials.mspx

Cyber-Grading Your Students’ Papers: Saving Trees & Much, Much More
Workshop from Randall Rightmire, UC Santa Barbara, with links to an ESL toolbar and an editing toolbar for English composition by Daniel Kies.
www.esl.ucsb.edu/people/rightmire/workshops/cybergrading/cybergrading.html

Hyperwords
Plug-in to the Firefox browser that gives students one-click access to references, Google searches, and translation on the page.
www.hyperwords.net

Annotate for Word
A toolbar that can be added to Word for easy editing of student compositions.
www.11trees.com/annotate-for-word.html

T.A. Toolbar
Toolbar plug-in that identifies common errors in student compositions through the use of one-click buttons.
http://tatoolbar.com/about-2/

Note: Cross-posted to the June issue of the newsletter for the National Capital Language Resource Center.

Digital Technologies: Friend or Foe for the World Language Teacher

[Please note: This is my inaugural article for the monthly newsletter of the National Capital Language Resource Center. Please look for my  Technology Tips article each month in the newsletter.]

I recently read about schools using a popular software program as the sole means of language instruction for their students. You may have, too. The language community is buzzing with the news. The idea that computers can replace teachers is an old one. One that routinely proves unfounded, at least with currently available technologies. But cash-strapped school administrators are often forced to make difficult decisions based on dollars rather than, well, sense. School budgeting is often a balancing act with too much pressure and too few dollars.

But in terms of dollars and cents, investments should yield some type of return. In the case of schools, that return should be measured by student learning. What are schools using computer instruction getting for about $100 a student? What would the return be if the class was taught by a highly effective teacher? Better yet, what would the return be if that teacher had adequate access to and training in these technologies and used them appropriately? These are questions we should be asking these schools, technology developers, and ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate for educational technology. Used well by highly skilled educators, digital technologies have the potential to yield higher learning returns for our students than when not using them. But like those technologies that came before them, the teacher plays a pivotal role in making sure they are used in the most effective way to benefit the students.

This article provides some background on the use of technology to support language instruction. Subsequent articles in the Tech for Teachers section of this newsletter will continue to explore the best uses of technology in language instruction so that we all benefit from the highest return possible on our learning investments.

Digital Technologies and the Flattening World

Educators are frequently reminded of the notion of the increasing “flatness” of our world and the need for our students to be better prepared to live, work, play, and thrive in a global society. Thomas Friedman shares compelling stories and experiences in his book, The World is Flat, that I find especially relevant for me as an educator who works in the field of educational technology. I hope you’ll oblige one more article that borrows his popular thesis.

As we chat on our smart phones, find our ways using global positioning systems, go home to play on our Wii interactive games, or catch up with the news from our friends and the world through online news services, e-mail, and blogs, we may not stop to realize the impact that digital technologies have had on our lives. These technologies have transformed how people across the globe interact. These technologies have helped to change the way we do business, which industries are successful, where they are located, and the reach they have to clients across the globe. New technologies account for much of this flattening of our world.

Schools: The Last Frontier?

I’d like to say that the digital revolution has also had tremendous impact on the ways we teach and the ways our students learn. In some places, it has. I’ve been able to visit some of those schools—schools with exemplary technology-using teachers and administrators—and I hope to hear more about others from you.

But too many schools have just barely stuck their toes into the tidal wave of change that digital technologies can offer. I visit too many schools where computers are never turned on, labs are locked, and high-priced interactive white boards are used as room dividers. In some of these schools, I do run across some reluctance to integrate technology, but more often I find a lack of awareness or understanding of how new and emerging technologies can help us meet the needs of students and prepare them to live and thrive in this ever-flattening world.

Computers in Schools: Looking Back

Education has seen many movements to use new tools to solve old problems. When the first personal computers began to appear in classrooms across the nation in the 1980’s, there was much speculation that teachers would become obsolete, that the computer was going to replace the teacher. The same learning problems were going to be solved by a high tech version of an old tool.

Early learning software was often glorified drill-and-practice games, many of which provided little more feedback to students than whether an answer was right or wrong. Feedback was rarely personalized or customized, and there was little scaffolding provided to students with different needs. In every classroom, the learning problems still existed. The rudimentary learning software available at the time didn’t go far towards moving the computer as teacher idea very far towards fruition. Luckily, these applications evolved.

It took decades to simply develop a critical mass of teachers who understand how to operate these new technologies. Indeed the first technology standards for students and teachers, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in the late 1990’s, emphasized basic skills so that we would learn how to use computers. While there are still some educators reluctant to use these technologies in their teaching, we have reached a point where we may be seeing a critical shift. Teachers have embraced a range of powerful new technologies and are using them to address what it means to teach and learn in a flat world.

Today: Language Skills for Flourishing in the Flat World

The world has very real and complex problems to solve that will take creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, and a good deal of critical thinking and decision-making. This means the problem of what our students have to learn has changed, as has the way we have to teach them. The tools and methods we once used are no longer the most efficient, effective, or successful.

The new standards created by ISTE nearly a decade after the first version no longer emphasize basic operations and skills. Instead, skills related to creativity, innovation, collaboration, higher-order thinking, and problem solving top the list. These skills, while always important, become ever more important in a global economy where the failure of banks in one part of the globe impacts economies the world over and where jobs and entire industries no longer take place down the street but across the globe. Now, schools are offering language instruction in Mandarin, Arabic, Kiswahili, and a host of other previously less commonly taught languages.

The National Standards for Foreign Language Learning published in 1999 raised the bar for teachers of world languages beyond building grammar and helping students listen to, read, and write languages. These standards encourage the use of higher-order skills in which students “provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.” They are required to “demonstrate an understanding” of cultural practices, perspectives, and products as they relate to their learning of a language. They require students to engage in their own and other cultures through language.

These standards go beyond even these complex skills by encouraging students to “connect with other disciplines” through their language of study. Using languages to acquire information, reason, and ultimately learn concepts and skills in other disciplines requires a significant level of proficiency. And, perhaps of great boon to the concept of living and thriving in a global society, these standards push students to “develop insight into the nature of language and culture.” Students who will be able to demonstrate these understandings about language and culture will certainly be better prepared to meet the demands of living in a global society.

To achieve these complex cognitive and social skills, students will require opportunities to interact with others and develop their language skills within learning contexts that utilize technology. The same technologies that have transformed business, government, entertainment, and the arts hold the potential to do this.

Embracing Change

This is why I am excited about teaching today. Most teachers have access to powerful technologies that can help address the complex skills and knowledge identified as being important in both national technology and language standards. Highly effective teachers outfitted with these technologies have the potential to yield higher learning returns than either on their own.

I’ve interviewed many exemplary technology-using teachers over the past 10 years and they often describe how using commonly available digital technologies changed their teaching. In classrooms where teachers master these technologies, where they understand that learning is bigger than memorizing discrete bits of information, the way they teach changes. Technology facilitates this change. They report their students learn more, too, developing deeper knowledge.

These technologies allow for greater communication and collaboration—both during and after the school day and within and outside the classroom. They are able to tap experts to enhance their students’ learning experiences. These experts may be in the homes or communities surrounding the schools or may come from museums, business and industry, or other agencies both near and far.

In the case of language instruction, networks of native speakers can be connected with learners in real-time communication, and many of these experts are students with similar interests. Teachers are able to bring in artifacts from cultures and countries where languages being studied are spoken. They are able to address real problems using real information that can encourage students to express feelings and emotions, to exchange opinions, and do so in a way that uses language to communicate information, ideas, and concepts and that develops insight into the nature of language and, perhaps most importantly, culture.

Teaching in the Flat World: Learning Together

To apply Friedman’s phrase, what it means to be a teacher in a “flat world” must be different than, well, when I was in school. One of the reasons our world appears flatter is because of the ways that digital technologies have connected us. Most of our students have already mastered them outside of school. They play games online—participating in gaming communities with others from across town or across the globe. They share pictures and send instant messages using devices more powerful than those personal computers that started the digital technology wave in education a couple of decades ago. What they already do outside of school, and what they will be required to do to live and thrive in a global economy is different too.

Together we can address the lack of awareness of how to use these and other digital technologies to address the different problem of what our students need to know and be able to do. Putting students in front of a drill-and-practice tutorial, no matter how engaging the graphics may be, is an attempt to solve an old conception of the problem of what it means to learn a language. Trying to automate language instruction by isolating students in a language lab is yet another.

Let’s stop using new tools in old ways and use them instead to generate new solutions. It’s not the technologies you use that matters, it’s how you use them. And we are close to seeing these powerful technologies being used in ways that address the needs of living in our ever-flattening world.

Over the next few months, I’ll explore the ways technology can support world language teaching and learning. Some of the technologies are common to most schools and some may be unique. I also hope to hear from you about the technologies you use, the challenges you face, and how we can overcome them.

I look forward to hearing from you and learning along with you.