Software Tools in Content Areas

on Sunday, February 25, 2007

Today's students think, learn, and create differently than their teachers did. Called "digital natives," these students have grown up in a digital world, often spending more time on online than watching TV. They IM, listen to podcasts, view streamed video, and blog on a daily basis. Dr. Barry Bruce of the Baylor College of Medicine stated that, "Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures." As a result, these students require a different learning environment from their predecessors in order to achieve. (See for more information on digital natives and their teachers, "digital immigrants.") Thankfully, there is a vast amount of software available to help teachers create a learning environment suited for these unique learners.

For example, PowerPoint can be used for student publishing. In the past, this piece of software was used for basic slideshow presentations. Today, students have the capability to use it for so much more. In my classroom, students created animated picture books using PowerPoint. In groups of two, they drafted a creative fictional story. Then, they analyzed how picture books use both words and illustrations to convey the author's message. Using Paint and PowerPoint, they illustrated their stories. They then added animation in PowerPoint, allowing their characters to run, talk, dance, and so much more. Finally, they recorded narration. They created a dynamic story and learned valuable problem solving skills along the way.

One of the successes of this project was that the students learned valuable problem solving skills with minimal teacher facilitation. In fact, they often discovered how to add a unique animation and had to teach me how it was done! They were highly motivated and engaged, all while developing their writing, editing, revising, and fluency skills!

Screen shot from students' animated picture book

Another great software tool I use in my class is the SmartBoard software. SmartNotebook works in conjunction with the SmartBoard and allows learning to become interactive. Learning the 13 colonies, a new math concept, or correcting the "everyday edit" becomes more hands on when the SmartBoard is used. Additionally, students use the SmartRecorder to created videos about math problem solving.

Screen shot of student created eGuide
(movie made with SmartRecorder)

Perhaps my favorite piece of software is an online one. eSchool Building is a learning management tool which gives my students opportunity to discuss literature, current events, and social studies topics online. The discussion board levels the playing field so that shy students can voice their opinions just as much as the more vocal ones. It gives students time to reflect on others' comments before responding. They also take quizzes and surveys on eSchool Builder and access class content through the website.

There are so many software programs than can transform education to meet the needs of today's students. Moreover, there are often numerous ways each piece of software can be used in the classroom. The demands of education today require that students and teachers must learn side-by-side. Wise teachers will allow their students to explore the potential of different programs without feeling threatened by the students' expertise. After all, these digital natives have grown up in a unique, rapid-paced world, and probably know more certain technologies than their teachers, the “digital immigrants.”

"Relative Advantage" and Technology Implementation

on Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Technology has the potential to make learning more engaging, hands-on, and accessible, but teachers are not likely to implement new technology unless they can clearly see the benefits (also known as "relative advantage"). Moreover, the relative advantage must be significant, especially for techno-phobic teachers. It's uncomfortable and scary to stand in front of 27 pairs of questioning, critical eyes when the technology fails to work as planned--a situation which seems inevitable. However, if teachers receive the necessary training and support, understand technology's ability to solve learning problems, and see immediate, measurable growth in student achievement, they are more willing to take the technology risk.

First, the average teacher needs training in order to implement technology into their daily instruction. Without the training, most teachers cannot see any relative advantage. In fact, a fellow teacher once said "It's pointless to teach technology. It's always changing and I can't keep up. By the time these kids graduate, there will be completely new devices and software, and we'll have wasted years teaching them out-dated technology." This teacher saw the use technology as the outcome, instead of viewing it as a process or tool to solve learning problems. Honestly, who can blame him, when software and standards are dropped into our laps, with little or no training or support? Rarely are we shown how to solve the problems the software might encounter (freezing screens, sound card troubles, etc). Only once in a while are the benefits of integrating technology into the classroom clearly explained to the entire faculty. If we are lucky, we receive a sporadic thirty-minute overview of the newest software subscription.

However, if training needs are accurately meet, then teachers still need time to systematically evaluate the relative advantage of technology integration. First, they must consider student learning problems, which may include struggles with motivation, complexity of concepts, or differing learning styles. For example, in my classroom the students need to write in response to literature. Unfortunately, the average 5th grader is not excited to write in a structured manner. Additionally, many students are battling OT issues, which make the idea of writing in response to reading overwhelming. When I identified this problem, I began to seek technology solutions.

Most teachers will not independently seek these solutions to learning problems; instead technology integrators must help teachers find them. With the wide variety of technology available, teachers need somebody to point them in the right direction. In my situation, I was lucky enough to be sent to a technology conference by my district. At the conference, I was introduced to discussion boards, blogs, and chat rooms for the elementary classroom. This fall, I implemented online book discussions for my students. To measure the success of the new strategy, I created a discussion board/thoughtful response rubric.

From the beginning, my students were excited to write online. They anxiously waited to read the comments posted by their classmates and were eager to respond. I noticed that quantity and quality of their literature-related writing drastically improved. With this evidence in hand, I approached my teammates. They were able to immediately see the relative advantage of online discussion boards (by looking at student authentic examples and student scores) and quickly embraced the concept in their classrooms.

This example is just a small portion of the problems technology can solve. From simulations to web videos ( or, from online teacher-created assessments to creative desktop publishing, and from "drill" math practice to assistive technology (writers, recorders, SmartBoards, etc), the possibilities are endless! Still, the key to practical integration lies in helping teachers see the relative advantage.