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Two Functions for Technology in the Classroom

One thing that struck me today was that there seem to be two very distinct ways that you can use technology in the classroom. Put simply: you can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach (without the tech), or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology. But that's oversimplification. That statement is worth unpacking.

You can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach...

One of the really cool things I saw today was a tablet PC used with a projector to allow the teacher to stay at the table while still 'writing on the board'. The unobtrusive tablet PC, no bigger than a textbook, sat on the table with 'journal' software pulled up, and as the class talked the teacher was jotting notes, or highlighting things in the text the class was discussing, or pulling up posts on a class forum. The whole time the teacher remained at the table-- no turned back, no throne at the head of the room, no darkened room and noisy overhead. Students with laptops, too, could be given control of the projector to share their work. At the end of the class, a student saves their notes and posts them to a server. Weeks can pass without paper being passed if the teacher planned for it.

That's pretty cool. Students' different modes of learning are more easily accommodated. Students too shy to speak up in class find their voice once it's easy to share online. More real work happens more quickly when the drudgery of xeroxing and sorting and carrying folders and handing things out and transcribing is taken away.

But that's still just an improvement of what teachers and students are already doing. The tablet-and-projector is a glorified overhead projector. The forum is an email list, or a set of summarized and handed-in responses. The posted notes. It's so much more efficient that it lets new and wonderful things happen, but fundamentally the technology is just facilitating what we already do.

...or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology.

If you have students building a hypertext together, be it through wiki or Tinderbox or Blackboard or FrontPage, you are likely developing skills which cannot practically be taught without the technology. Students will practice line-by-line comparisons of texts, they'll examine and manipulate the structure of texts, they'll cite their work and link it directly back to source material in its original context in ways that can't be done without so much work as to make them all but impossible without the technology. They might as well be new skills.

As awesome as it was, and it was, everything that I saw today was 'just' an improvement on what's already being done. I think that good teaching with hypertext and digital text can do things that we really can't do otherwise.