September 12, 2008

Education in the 21st century: of chalkboards & mimeographs…the digital classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I began something of a milestone in my life: my 20th year as an educator. In a lot of ways, not much has changed. The right still wrings its hands over “the state of our public schools” while the left institutes the “reform of the week,” and teachers are still underpaid for the job they do and the responsibility they have. Yet, there are many things that have changed.

My first classroom had a chalkboard and I usually used a mimeograph machine to make copies. Then came photocopiers and dry erase white boards. My current classroom is equipped with a laptop computer, LCD projector, and a Smart Board. I record my classes onto my laptop then upload the podcasts of them to the class website. As of last year, I began working with another teacher in my building to lead a green initiative leading our colleagues toward paperless classrooms. I do not accept hard copies of any student work. Essays are either emailed to me, given to me on a flash drive, or shared with me via Google Docs. My students no longer write weekly journals, they write weekly blogs. A student that is absent is able to go to the class website to download the notes and listen to that day’s podcast. I’ve only actually used the white board in my room three times this year and usually only if I hadn’t set up my Smart Board for whatever reason. From a budgetary standpoint, the district’s gotta love me: there are teachers who’ve made more photocopies in one day than I’ve made so far this year. The principal has stated that when we move to the new high school building next year, the expectation of a paperless classroom will be placed on every teacher.

And yet, for as cool as this all is, there are a good many of my colleagues who are reluctant to consider doing even half of what I am doing with my students. For some, it’s technology itself. They don’t understand it, so they don’t want anything to do it. For others, the idea of recording class and putting it on the web where anyone, including parents, can hear it scares the bejeebus out of them. Yeah, sure, it’s a little scary putting myself out there like that: for all intents and purposes, the walls of my classroom have begun to vanish; before long, they’ll be completely gone.

The use of all of this technology in my classroom isn’t actually all that unique, though it may be so at the secondary level. More and more colleges have actually headed this way already, taking advantage of the technological savvy that the current generation of college students possesses. A recent graduate came home from CSU last weekend, and over a cup of coffee at the Laughing Goat, he talked with me about how his professors require him to blog and to hand in their work electronically. The instructor of his composition class actually told the students that if they had bought the book for the class that they should take it back: all of the readings for his class were available online.

Yet, I get a sense that this is just the beginning. I still have yet to hook up the webcam to my computer, which will give me the ability to capture my class on video, giving my students the chance to watch the video of the class that they missed, and “distance learning” classes online via video are already a reality on many college campuses.

What does this mean for education? I have no idea. But I do have hopes. With all of this technology, with all of the global connections now available to my students, I maintain the hope that in the long run we can use this technology to bring us to a greater understanding of who we are as a species, as human beings. I maintain the hope that through increased contact with young people from other cultures, the goal of a world where warfare really is outdated is just over the horizon.

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