Getting started in the digital class
Each new school year brings fresh challenges, though many teachers at both Primary and Secondary level may find themselves embracing new technology this term, as IWBs and netbooks play an increasing role in classroom life. The Macmillan Teacher Training team offer some tips for those embarking on the digital adventure.
Teaching and learning with technology can be both challenging and engaging for teachers and students alike. Integrating tools like Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) and netbooks into classroom life, combined with online applications such as Web 2.0 tools might, at first sight, seem a radical shift in the way we teach our classes and how our students learn. However, just like video, CDROMS and before them, they are simply developments in the field of technology which can help make our teaching easier if used wisely. It would therefore make little sense to abandon the techniques and strategies that have served us well until now. Just as before, we need to consider how we are going to organise our classes so that the time spent working with technology is efficiently used and brings pedagogical benefits to our teaching and our students’ learning.
Organising your digital class
When organising a digital class, there are two main areas that we should take into account as we would in our traditional classroom setting: how we manage our classes and how we plan our lessons.
Managing the class
As with normal boards, ensure that the IWB is visible and accessible to all your students. The most obvious place is at the front of the classroom at a height where all students can reach all areas of the board comfortably. Portable IWBs can be freestanding, though boards that are fixed to the wall are more stable and far less likely to decalibrate. It is equally important to try and eliminate barriers (such as cables and tables) between the students and the board, so that they can come forward and interact with it safely. A well-organised digital classroom will help to make a well-organised digital lesson!
It is always a good idea to label all electronic equipment. At the beginning and end of class, implement a routine to ensure that all ICT equipment is in its place and switched on or off. To do this, you could appoint students on a rota basis who are responsible for different tasks. Make sure you have a set of rules in place, such as the procedure students should follow plus a list of troubleshooting information suggesting solutions to the most likely problem areas. Students should refer to this list before alerting the teacher.
Although new technology should not entail sweeping changes in our teaching principles, it does of course imply a new way of working both in terms of the tools used and how the teacher and students interact with them. It is therefore essential that the instructions we give to our students are particularly clear so that everyone knows what they are doing and what is expected of them. Again, the rule of thumb is to apply the same strategies we already use. The starting point must be to ensure we have our students’ attention. Before giving the instructions for a task, blank the screen or switch off the ICT tools so that students are not distracted. Once the instructions have been given, students’ understanding of what’s expected of them can be checked by asking one member of the group to dictate the instructions to another who then writes them on the board. The main advantage of this is to focus the whole class’ attention on the instructions (and they are more likely to focus on a peer than on their teacher!). The rest of the class can prompt the student who is dictating. Students then have the written instructions to refer to at any time and you can draw their attention to them should the need arise. Of course, checking understanding of instructions in this way can be done equally well either on a normal board or on an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB).
However clear a set of instructions is and however simple a task may seem, there are always unforeseen difficulties which arise and require explanations in the middle of the task. If you find that many students are experiencing similar problems, interrupting the activity midstream and capturing the attention of thirty students may be difficult and giving individual explanations to half the class unfeasible. One alternative could be a technique commonly known as ‘cascade’, where you explain the solution to one (or two) students per row who then go back and ‘teach’ the students around them. This reduces the degree of interruption and the waiting time for students to receive help, as well as encouraging learner autonomy.
Teaching ‘from the front’ has always had its limitations but the digital class scenario brings an added obstacle: students’ screens will be hidden behind a lid. Unless you have some system in place to monitor and control what your students are actually doing, valuable classroom time may be lost. To this end, it is vitally important that you, as the teacher, circulate around the class to monitor students’ work. Many types of software exist (such as iTALC) which allow the teacher to monitor all of the students’ screens at once, reproducing them on the teacher’s own screen. Knowing that the teacher is in possession of this software also acts as an effective deterrent for students!
As always, strict deadlines and a procedure for submitting written work are essential. Word documents can be saved in a designated file in the school’s system. If you’re working with digital books, students can save the exercises they’ve completed online where the teacher has access to all their work. A class blog or wiki makes a great place to save and upload any work created by Web tools.
In all of the above cases, there is very little basic difference between the strategies and techniques typically employed in the traditional classroom and those in the digital classroom. However, of course there are technological problems which can arise specific to the digital scenario. By having a troubleshooting system in place you can reduce significantly the problems that may arise. Let’s look at some possible problems and solutions.
The Internet is down.
Have a plan B. Do you have an offline version of the digital book? Also, build up a bank of activities in Word that students can access without requiring a connection. Remember, there are many productive activities you can do that don’t require an Internet connection.
One or two of your students are having problems logging on.
Refer them to your (written) class checklist. If there isn't a technician available and no other student can help, put the students in pairs with other students.
There's a technical problem I don't know how to solve.
Is there a designated technician (or ICT teacher) in your school? If not, what could be done to fill this gap? A staff member could train up on using the IWB and act as an 'expert' and train up other staff. Can any of the students help? Remember your digital native students are a resource in a digital classroom. Don't be afraid to let them help out occasionally! But if all else fails, your Plan B is the only answer.
The IWB isn’t responding properly.
Is it properly calibrated? It’s essential to practise anything new beforehand to pre-empt any possible problems.
Familiarity with the technology is the best long-term solution; though meanwhile, take time to attend the numerous training sessions available. As well as offering the possibility to listen to speakers specialising in ICT and its practical use in the classroom, these events provide the best opportunity for getting together with colleagues from other schools and sharing experiences, problems and solutions. Technology will always carry its share of problems, but the more familiar we are with the causes (and the better equipped with alternative resources), the less we need fear it.
Planning your digital class
Two factors to take into account when planning lessons are the appropriacy of the medium for the activity type and the desired focus: individual or whole class.
The digital medium works very well for presenting language. The IWB allows you to focus the whole class’ attention on the language. It can be used whether or not you have a fully digital classroom with a netbook on every desk. Templates included in the gallery for Venn diagrams, tables and columned pages provide an excellent visual aids for presenting language. Features such as the locking tool (which allows you to lock into place any word on the board) can be used to involve students more actively and encourage them experiment with language. Can they drag a vocabulary or grammar item to its appropriate place (in a gapped sentence or graphic organiser)? Maybe not… maybe you’ve immobilised the incorrect options to allow only the correct ones to be dragged! If so, why is the student’s choice incorrect? The extra motivation factor means that students are barely aware of the deeper language analysis which results.
The practice stage will depend upon your teaching situation: students will either complete the activities on their netbooks or in their printed books. This will also be the case for the production stage which will be defined by the extension activities you choose. Speaking activities need not require either printed or digital material. There are some Web tools which provide a great vehicle for extension, in which case the digital materials (netbooks and an IWB) would be required. When used well, ICT can foment group work, as long as care is taken to ensure the groups are balanced with weak and strong students and that extra activities have been prepared for fast finishers.
In the twenty-first century classroom, technology should neither be ignored nor overused. We should always be clear about what we are using the ICT for and ask ourselves if what we are doing in class with ICT is actually more effective than with traditional methods. ICT is a tool that should enhance our teaching and your students’ learning, not an end in itself.
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