Published Online: January 25, 2012

Redefining Instruction With Technology: Five Essential Steps

In the fall of 2010, I was awarded a grant that brought 32 iPads to my classroom. I had high hopes that this would revolutionize teaching and learning in my class. These devices would help me to create a magical, collaborative learning environment that met all my students’ individual needs. These seemed like lofty goals—but they all came true. Eventually. First, I had to learn a hard lesson: Just bringing new technology in your classroom and working it into day-to-day routines isn’t enough.

The iPads arrived two days before my students, and I quickly made plans to integrate them into our curriculum. Despite my high hopes, the next two months were less than successful. A casual observer would have witnessed a sea of students glued to glistening tablets, but the effects were superficial. The iPads were not helping my students make substantial progress toward self-efficacy, academic achievement, or social-emotional growth. Around the end of September, I took a step back—it was time to evaluate and reflect on what was happening.

I asked myself: "What have we been doing so far with this technology?" Students used math apps instead of math card games. They’d made slideshow presentations for isolated units. They’d done some research on the Internet. In short, things were going ... OK. Nothing to write home about. Not what I would consider "worthy" of a $20,000 grant. Clearly it was time for a change.

The problem, I began to realize, was my own understanding of how the iPads should be utilized in the classroom. I had seen them as a supplement to my pre-existing curriculum, trying to fit them into the structure of what I’d always done. This was the wrong approach: To truly change how my classroom worked, I needed a technology-based redefinition of my practice.

A year and a half later, I know a little more about what that really means. Here are five lessons I’ve learned about redefining classroom instruction with technology—whether iPads or other tools.

Break down to rebuild. As terrifying as it may sound, the first step is to take a proverbial sledgehammer to your existing classroom framework. This realization was a turning point for me. I would have to be willing to depart from what I had "always done" or "always taught." I needed to review my program with the power of my new tools in mind. By setting aside my pre-conceived notions of how my classroom "should" look, sound, and feel, I was able to transform my practice from the ground up.

Redefine with a goal in mind. When rethinking your curriculum and classroom, identify the goals you have for yourself and your students. I focused on two important goals: increased differentiation and robust, efficient assessment. Next, I asked myself, "Can the iPads help me reach those goals?" Realizing that they could, I redesigned my classroom practice around the goals, with iPads as the infrastructure. Here are a few examples:

• I created interactive video mini-lessons to increase differentiation.

• I used online student surveys and audio/visual apps such as Toontastic to allow my students to voice their emotions, curiosities, and academic goals in private.

• To redefine assessment and differentiation, I employed websites such as Google Docs and Edmodo to create a faster feedback loop. These sites utilize color coding, instantaneous feedback, and automatic student grouping to allow me to immediately analyze data. I can enact same-day differentiation—no need to spend an evening reviewing paper-and-pencil exit tickets.

Get more app for your money. I also asked myself the question: "What can I do with these devices that would be impossible to do without them?" In other words, I was hoping to create new teaching methods rather than just replacing old ones.

I moved away from content apps, such as Rocket Math or Math Ninja, which are very engaging but only address a handful of standards. Once a student has mastered the relevant standard(s), such apps only serve as practice—and the data I can collect from them is limited.

Instead, I focused on student-creation apps. Moving beyond replacing paper math games with flashy math apps, students are now creating their own math videos, writing math blogs, and conducting challenge-based-learning math projects.

For example, the app Educreations allows students to record notations on a virtual whiteboard along with their narration, generating a multimedia lesson or problem explanation. This app can be used to address standards in all subjects and engages students at the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy: creation. Other versatile creation apps and programs include Toontastic, iMovie, Garage Band, PaperPort Notes, Kabaam, Popplet, and Aurasma Lite.

Embrace failure. Last year gave me an invaluable lesson in celebrating failure. When the iPad integration didn’t go as I’d initially hoped, I had the rich experience of reflecting and restarting. I teach my students to evaluate their own incorrect math strategies to better appreciate the beauty of one that works. Similarly, I had to fail—and take a good long look at that failure—to truly understand why what I'm doing now works. To be honest, I know that I still have a lot of room for improvement. I'm sure I have more failure in my near future and I can’t wait.

So if you begin to implement a new app in your classroom and it falls flat, react by asking yourself what you’ve learned. Welcome your students into this culture of learning from adversity. By creating a safe, open environment and by being clear that this endeavor is as foreign to you as it is to them, you encourage risk taking—and greater achievements.

Enjoy the results, reflect towards the future. After redefining my classroom, the iPads were out all day, every day. They were being pushed to their limit so that my students could be pushed to theirs. This effort paid off: 10 times as many of my students scored at the 90th percentile or above on the 2011 state test as compared to the 2010 state test. I saw students become active agents in their own learning—because they now had choices about the methods that worked best for them. Kids who’d professed to hate school were now eager to engage in the classroom. One student wrote in her daily reflection, "[iPads] make me want to come to school every day because I know that Ms. Magiera has a lesson just for me."

These "wins" were a source of euphoria for me as an educator, but I also know that there is more to do, more to learn, more to try. Our classrooms must grow and evolve to meet the fluctuating needs of our students and take advantage of the ever-changing array of technological tools.

Someone recently asked me, "What do you predict the classroom of the future will look like?" I had to say, if I could predict what's in the future classroom, I’d be sorely disappointed. I love being surprised by new developments in technology and pedagogy. Classroom redefinition is an ongoing process, and I can’t wait to discover what tomorrow brings.

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