Educating the Next Generation: Unconventional Teaching Methods Using Technology Applications

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By: Lenore Holditch

The traditional conception of a teacher leading a lesson with a piece of chalk, vigorously scratching formulas, themes or motifs across a chalkboard, is ingrained in most of our minds. We grew up in a classroom where knowledge came from two sources: the instructor and the textbook. Those may never change, but their ability to educate has been made easier with forward-thinking.

No longer is it a rite of passage for students in junior high school to pore over multiple books in the library, hours at a time, to pen a two-page research paper. Third graders are spending time learning advanced math on computer applications instead of practicing cursive. Special education students are communicating more effectively with iPads, enabling them to learn at a faster pace.

Unconventional teaching methods used to supplement traditional lesson plans have been made possible by the implementation of technology. What was once thought impossible in collaboration and research has become commonplace and education as a whole is better for it.

How Technology is Changing Teaching

A 2011 report from information technology industry non-profit CompTIA found that 78% of K-12 teachers and administrators "believe the proliferation of technology has had a net positive impact on overall education results, processes and performances." Among the positive developments that have factored into technology's role in improving education is increased student involvement. Sixty-five percent of teachers and administrators "said students are more productive today than they were three years ago due to the use of technology."

Converse with any good teacher and you'll discover they're never rigid in their methods and always keep an open mind. For them, the end isn't to make sure the current lesson plan works; it's to ensure students receive the best education possible and boast the necessary knowledge and skills to facilitate more complex learning. Teachers have long struggled to capture and maintain their students' attention to ensure they gain a thorough understanding of the material. Many of those who've been successful have employed unconventional methods, which have come in a variety of forms.

Inevitably, when you read a blurb about the most recent National Teacher of the Year, it will mention how he or she taught to the beat of a different drummer and was well-liked by their students. These characteristics often go hand-in-hand. Rebecca Mieliwocki, a seventh-grade English teacher from California, was this year's winner. An article in the Los Angeles Daily Breeze stated that she "is known for unconventional techniques developed during her 13-year teaching career." She has done simple things to foster a more comfortable learning environment, such as playing her iPod during assignments.

Another way Apple has found its way in the classroom is with the production of the iPad, to which teachers immediately warmed up when it was released. It can be used in a variety of ways for different levels of students. A 2011 Notre Dame study revealed that college students enjoyed using the device during the learning process. Assistant professor of management Corey Angst was the driving force behind the on-campus experiment.

"A statistically significant proportion of students felt the iPad made class more interesting, encouraged exploration of additional topics, provided functions and tools not possible with a textbook and helped them more effectively manage their time," Angst said in a Notre Dame press release.

The abundance of educational apps available ensures the iPad is a versatile tool for teachers. The Educreations app, for example, converts the device into a whiteboard, allowing teachers to work through problems with their students and record lessons to put on the web for later use. Biology teachers get a kick out of Project Noah, which enables their students to document wildlife and plants. They can record their findings, take pictures, and ask Noah to identify a plant. The app provides resources and teaching materials, including missions that prompt their students to conduct investigations in the classroom to explore essential concepts in life science.

As media in the classroom proliferates, teachers are increasingly able to utilize sites such as Facebook, Skype, and Twitter to supplement their lesson plans. Innovative teachers such as Rosie Miles, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Wolverhampton, have found ways to leverage these sites to their advantage through social learning, an effective teaching method that encourages learning through collaboration between students. In an article she wrote for The Guardian she describes an assignment that she created in which her students acted out characters in Charles Dickens' Bleak House on a Twitter discussion forum. The exercise helped them better understand the characters and their roles in the novel. Miles boasted "100% participation, much of it enthusiastic."

Many teachers have cited Skype as an excellent sidekick during the lecture portion of a lesson plan. To supplement their exploration of the Civil War, a high school history teacher may Skype in a professor friend who has spent years studying 19th century American politics. If they try hard enough, a teacher could conceivably have any expert in their classroom, from anywhere in the world, sharing knowledge with their students.

Realizing its importance in the evolution of learning, Skype launched "Skype in the classroom" in 2011, connecting teachers from around the world. It recently expanded its resources to include a network of expert speakers from organizations such as Science Museum London, Penguin Group, and New York Philharmonic. Similarly, Facebook has provided a resource that provides "information about how educators can best use Facebook."

Because the implementation of technology reconfigures teachers' roles in the classroom, there has been opposition from those who dislike change. Older teachers point out that studies have been mixed in showing whether or not technology improves grades. However, the technology has to be used the right way to produce results.

The primary fear is that it will become a crutch and that teachers who are increasingly reliant on technology will suffer diminished teaching skills. This is based on the assumption that they use technology to mask their weaknesses instead of using it to build their strengths. Rosie Miles certainly did the latter, facilitating collaboration between her students in an unorthodox way that carried on inside and outside the classroom. She employed a methodology that developed her students' critical thinking skills, the very purpose of her class.

The Future of Technology in the Classroom

In CompTIA's press release, director of industry analysis Carolyn April expressed a positive outlook on the future of education. "With emerging technologies such as tablets and netbooks, interactive whiteboards and wireless solutions gaining ground in the classroom, the reliance on IT by the education market will only grow in the years ahead."

As school administrators see the success of technology in the classroom, they will be more inclined to support it financially. Its increased use will make methods previously considered unconventional more conventional, and the debate as to whether or not it belongs in the classroom will cease. The only question that remains for forward-thinking teachers is what new technologies will emerge and how will they be utilized. Broad concepts that have been discussed include personal learning environments that cater to the needs of each student.

You might say that speculating about the future of technology is pointless because we simply don't know what we're capable of creating. However, with the knowledge we have of what's being developed, we can come up with reasonable predictions. Nick Grantham from Edutopia named "Five Future Technologies That Will Shape Our Classrooms," including biometric technology that will enable teachers to shape coursework based on their students' behavioral traits, and multi-touch surfaces that provide virtual objects for students to touch and move alongside their peers from all over the world.

Augmented reality is new technology that's in its infancy but holds big possibilities. A small handful of classrooms in the U.S. have recently adopted it, contextualizing lessons by giving students the ability to see, through a viewing device, virtual objects that mimic reality. In other words, lessons are brought to life, replacing stale traditional methods of conveying information. As with other forms of technology in the classroom, it encourages student engagement and improves knowledge retention.

It's a cliché, but the possibilities are limitless for both the types of technologies that can be created and the lengths at which they can improve the educational process. The teachers who adopt those technologies will be the conceptual innovators who put them to use, laying the groundwork for future generations of teachers, who in turn will continue the cycle.

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