When it comes to incorporating educational technologies into the high school, we tend to be conservative to the point of doing a disservice to the students’ education.  Schools appear to adopt a conservative attitude for many reasons, but chief among them must be push back from teacher who are reluctant to add anything to their repertoire, a fear of exposing the school to possible lawsuits because the law has not caught up the technology, and the school trying to maintain the many demands that No Child Left Behind has already placed on it.  While there are valid rationales behind each of these reasons, the chief complaint that I have is that they do not address the central work that schools have, preparing students for productive citizenship.  Today’s students will be graduating into a world that is experiencing a paradigm shift due to the incorporation of new technologies.  Nobody is quite certain how this world will shift, but one thing that appears pretty certain… technology isn’t going away.

Therefore, schools need to thoughtfully consider what challenges confront this and future years’ graduates, and then plan for instructional techniques that help support students to be competitive in their field of work or for college admissions.  My contention is that school policies that encourage the use of web 2.0 tools/content can increase students’ ability to be critical thinkers, become life-long learners, and foster appropriate practices that will serve them in the 21st century classroom and work place.

Before I really delve into this piece let me first off say that I don’t have all the answers, just a hint of a suggestion.  I have not yet fully figured out how Facebook can truly help support learning in the classroom, for instance.  This one is still a conundrum for me.  I am much more clear as to how Picasa or Flickr, Google Reader, Google Docs, gmail, delicious, twitter, and blogs, can be used to help students gain insight into their world and help further their education.

The other preface that I must offer is that new tools being used to support outmoded ways of learning and teaching become just new toys.  There was a BBC study (and I’m sorry that I do not know the citation) on the use of smartboards.  They found that students in classes with smartboards showed only a slightly higher affinity to their math class than students in classrooms without smartboards.  What does this mean?  Smartboards do not make students love math more.  Sure the students loved the smartboards, but that didn’t correlate to changes in behaviors and mentalities.  The more skeptical among us (probably me) will say, “Who loves math anyways?”  Well, here’s the thing, when students believe that they can do well in a subject, when they know that their teacher believes in them, and that they belong in the school, they will do better in their studies.  That is how a student comes to love math, or any other subject matter.  So, what do you think will happen if this kind of classroom is combined with excellent educational technology? I chose the pictures at the top of this blog for this very reason.  The sage on the stage (right picture at top) mentality can have all of the fanciest toys that they would ever desire and all it does is adds bells and whistles.  The guide on the side (left picture at top) where students are asked to tackle challenging topics using educational technology and working with their peers will take those students much further.

There are many ways that school policies might discourage teachers from using new internet-based technologies in the classroom.  The one that has been prevalent in Columbus, Ohio for a few years is that teachers in the big urban district are actively discouraged from having their own Facebook page.  This isn’t the only school district to enact such a policy, but bear this in mind, they are saying that they do not want their teachers to have a Facebook account, at all!  Now here I am, an employee in good standing with my school district and not only do I have a Facebook page, but so do many of my colleagues and we are all seeking new ways to incorporate these new technologies into our classroom.  I don’t know where an employer cites the law that allows them to even make a suggestion about what an employee does on their own time, but that’s for another time.  At any rate, these types of policies shut dialogue and opportunity down.   Why would you ever want to do that?  Facebook and similar technologies can be used to encourage students to be good, productive citizens in the digital environment, and actively discouraging faculty from this technology only puts them further from the places that students are having a dialogue with one another.

Further, encouraging students to exist in the digital realm virtually assures that they will not only not lose material, but will keep it for in-depth reflection and comparison points.  Our students all have electronic portfolioes (ePortfolios) that they update on a semi-annual basis (see mine below to the right).  This activity is time-consuming, but it causes them to pause in the midst of their active academic work to consider what they have done and how far they have come.  This pause and reflection time allows them to critically analyze what they have done and then we ask them to write out what changes they have noticed in their growth.  It is an authentic and purposeful writing assignment.  The truly brilliant thing?  We’ve noticed a change in their writing and critical thinking skills after completing just one round of ePortfolio submissions!

Finally, the fostering of appropriate workplace/collegiate practices is one of the foundational and ever-lasting hallmarks of a good high school.  We seek to engage our students in a practice and mind-set that will enable them to be life-long learners, but that certainly means that they take good thinking, critical analysis, and expression skills with them after they leave our school.  We know for certain that our students will be asked to engage in these new technologies in their future work places, to interact with friends and family, and to contribute to their community as productive citizens.  Why not help them learn it?!  What benefit does it bring to our students if we do not address this need for them?  We should be trying out Toonlet.com, xtranormal.com, Picasa, gmail, YouTube, and yes maybe even Facebook with our students be discouraged if we expect them to know how to use these tools to better address their future career needs and goals?  It will absolutely be messy and maybe obnoxious at times as well, but that’s the joy of teaching in high school!

The policies that high schools seek to implement in the coming years should strongly consider future technology changes that cannot yet be envisioned.  They should, as a default, seek to open up the doors of the classroom and allow students to learn these broader technology skills and to seek ways to authentically implement these technologies into the teaching, learning, and assessment in the future.  Schools must never forget their first mission, to further the educational needs of the students who will be future citizens in our communities.  Schools should seek to send students out of their buildings with the best skills possible and as prepared as they can be for a competitive marketplace.  Our students should not leave fearful of these technologies, but with a deep, ingrained understanding as to how these technologies can further their quality of life and the quality of the community.