Saturday, May 21, 2011

Put the Directions to the Side, Make the Learning Central

We’ve all heard about and experienced the Digital Natives’ ability to navigate the world of technology, and I am not going to contradict Marc Prensky’s enormously influential thesis in any way, but I do have an observation to make, as well as a suggestion (skip to the end if you just want the tip)! This generation’s skills in navigating hypertext, inhabiting virtual and all other kinds of technological realms, all while multitasking- these do not necessarily translate to easily picking up tech skills that relate to, well, “work.” So, we sometimes see students of all learning styles struggling to make sense of sequential steps needed to complete a project using technology. Such skills continue to be emphasized in district and state technology standards. Let’s take these expectations from my good old state of Massachusetts (well, Commonwealth) for what students in Grade 6-8 will be able to do:

G6-8: 1.15 Produce simple charts and graphs from a spreadsheet.
G6-8: 1.16 Distinguish among different types of charts and graphs, and choose the most appropriate type to represent given data.
G6-8: 1.17 Apply advanced formatting features to customize tables, charts, and graphs.

Quite ambitious, in my opinion, to expect EVERY student to be able to demonstrate these skills at these grade levels, but I am also not here to rail against the standards-based movement.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been pleased to be in a district where these skills are not taught in isolation but in the context of meaningful curriculum-based projects. What’s tough is that the technology, and all the steps involved in “learning it,” can sometimes get in the way of the curriculum, which is pretty much the opposite of what teachers and technology specialists would like to happen.

Let’s take an example, purely hypothetical. A teacher and technology specialist are implementing a project where 8th grade students are creating a nonlinear PowerPoint presentation (trust me, I know there are other options). The project involves a “home slide” and hyperlinks to various slides illustrating topics and subtopics, about which the project is meant to demonstrate a higher level of critical thinking. The steps to organizing the home slide are demoed to the class, along with the specific settings of transitions and such that will make the presentations work well. However, these steps are complicated enough (even though they also align with those technology expectations) that both the teacher and technology specialist can end up spending the bulk of the time repeating steps to students individually. As a result, the teacher’s scaffolding of students’ understanding and demonstration of content knowledge can suffer. As the Digital Natives would say: Fail.

One obvious accommodation that can be made is to provide written directions in the form of steps on the whiteboard, a projection of the steps on the LCD, or a handout (which we actually did in the above case, so it wasn’t really a Fail). These are a step in the right direction, but in my observation it’s difficult for students to alternate their attention between the screen they are working on and whatever other medium you have used to restate the steps. Thus, the directions are still somewhat “in the way.”

Now, I’ll come to the suggestion I teased at the beginning of this post. We just rolled out Google Apps for Education at my middle school, in the process incorporating a meaningful curriculum-based assignment (where possible) when each cluster came into the lab for an orientation. While planning these activities and showing teachers how the comment feature in Google Docs could be used to provide students with feedback (once their doc is shared with the teacher), we thought of another use for comments! When creating an assignment template for students, comments that highlight directions and tech skills can be inserted right next to specific parts of the assignment (for example, how to insert and site an image). Doing so is really simple:

1. Create a new document to be used as a template for students’ work.
2. Highlight specific points of the assignment where you feel the language load of the directions will be challenging for any/all of your students. From the Google Docs menu, select Insert>Comment.
3. Write step-by-step those areas of the assignment for which you anticipate students may need clarification (remember later the docs you have done this with, so that you can copy and paste procedures that are repeated across assignments)
4. Share the document with your students as “View Only” with the anticipation that they will need to make their own editable copy. Like this!


This strategy was also helpful for a science spreadsheet project, not only to help students process the steps for inserting a graph, but also to ensure that they included the teacher’s target concepts when making a prediction:



Though using Google Docs comments in this way was a simple modification to the assignment, it had a number of results. First of all, the comments served as assistive technology that brought the assignment in compliance for the number of students with IEP accommodations in the classroom (i.e. “Provide directions visually as well as verbally”). By applying the accomomdation universally, it also helped all those other Digital Natives that benefit from having directions available for reference, right in the same screen in which they were working. Finally, because there was less necessity for repeating directions constantly, the teacher was able to focus on getting the best content understanding, output and critical thinking out of his students. I thought he put it really well when he said it “elevated the assignment.” That’s something that is always nice to hear about technology!

Sean J. Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and instructional technology specialist working in the public school setting. He is the author of the blog SpeechTechie: Looking at Technology Through a Language Lens and one of the editors of TherapyApp411.

Popular Posts