How Technology Supports Inquiry

8 Jul

Former Hunterdon Central Information Systems Supervisor, and current BrightBytes CEO and Co-Founder, Rob Mancabelli once said that the only piece of technology that is 100% reliable is a chalkboard. It doesn’t have a blue screen of death, connectivity issues, or other glitches. But, Rob reminded us, it also doesn’t permit students to share their learning with an audience, connect with resources, and communicate with each other outside of their classroom. Using technology requires a lot of flexibility and daring on the parts of both teachers and students. Although the first class to ever use the ILP did so via handwritten plans, a few other early iterations of our ILP work occurred in classes that were a part of a 1:1 computing pilot, and initiative that really opened the doors for us as educators. Teachers involved in the initial pilot received training in the summer prior to students receiving netbooks.  During the training sessions, the small cohort of teachers met to discuss ways to rethink our teaching practices to make the most of the technology that was now available. As Heather pointed out in a blog post written after these sessions, simply providing a means for students to collaborate or share their learning doesn’t mean that it’s easily done:

During our 1:1 sessions, [the facilitators] focused on two significant things: changing the way we teach and, more importantly, giving us the freedom from fear to make these changes. They realized that the 1:1 program wasn’t about the netbooks and that it couldn’t start with lesson reform. It had to start with psychology. It took quite a long time, a visit from our superintendent, and a lot of support, but they did indeed allow our small group to break through the walls that so many of us construct around ourselves.

Students and teachers alike need coaching, reassurance, freedom, and confidence in order to get past the vulnerability that a connected classroom experiences. It requires willingness to share work beyond the immediate learning community, and that can open the possibility or the perceived possibility for judgment–a scary notion for many students and teachers. At the same time, we know that standing in front of the classroom and dispensing information was not going to work anymore either. With information at their fingertips, it seemed a waste of our precious time with students to spend it giving them content that they could easily look up. And so, we focused a lot of our instruction reform on inquiry as a means to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the technology offered. Web 2.0 tools and the netbooks were supplementary to turning over responsibility to students; we saw technology as means through which our students could achieve their best, often times with more efficiency and collaboration.

Although for financial reasons we have since abandoned the 1:1 model at Hunterdon Central, we have moved to a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy in which students can use their personal computing devices in classes. We are fortunate to have about 50% of our students participating, and we have several laptop carts and computer labs to support those who are not participating. However, we want to be clear that this is not required for the ILP. Remember, Meg’s first use of the ILP was done without computers. And since then, Meg and I have taught classes with only an occasional trip to the library for students to use the desktops to find resources. Despite technology’s growing pervasiveness, it remains a luxury for many schools and unreliable equipment in others. All of the strategies and pedagogy associated with the ILP can be done without technology, but, if available, web-based tools, computers, and reliable internet connections can enhance the experience by allowing for collaboration, communication, accountability, creativity, and accessibility beyond the classroom setting. In upcoming posts, we will highlight a few tools that we have used to heighten students’ learning experiences with the ILP.

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