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Leverage technology to give students a voice, choice in their learning

By Jennifer Scheffer
March 29, 2016
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The second students walk into my classroom, they know they’re about to embark on a unique  experience. First, they notice the unusual design of the classroom. There are no rows of desks. There is no teacher desk. In fact, the classroom doesn’t look like a classroom at all. Instead, students enter a sleek office environment. The focal point is two modern desks large enough to accommodate four people. Students sit in black leather, executive-style chairs and collaborate on group projects. 

Visitors make themselves comfortable in our soft-seating area that features two bright-red club chairs, a coffee table and two end tables, and can browse through technology-related publications. The far left wall features six computers for students pursuing individual projects. When students need to brainstorm, they map out their ideas on a large whiteboard in the center of the room or project their laptop or tablet through one of our two TVs.

This classroom is home to our student-run help desk at Burlington High School in Burlington, Massachusetts. It emulates Apple’s Genius Bar and provides technical support and ideas for integrating technology in our 1:1 iPad high school.

The course taught in this classroom is Student Technology Integration and Innovation and it provides students with meaningful, authentic learning opportunities. Help desk students never wonder, “When am I ever going to use this information again?” Instead, they recognize the connection between their learning and potential career paths, and they leave having developed the 21st century technical and soft skills employers seek. Students gain practical experience in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, goal setting and time management. They are taught the fundamentals of customer service and entrepreneurship. They take initiative and strategic risks and are encouraged to explore and experiment with technology.

Rather than practice their skills through simulations and case studies, students work with real people – peers, teachers and community members – and offer solutions to real problems, whether that be creating a digital workflow or selecting the best applications for instruction and assessment. Students publish to the globally recognized help desk blog, with readership across six continents and over 150 countries. They develop digital brands through their personal blogs and network with professionals through social media. The structure of the help desk program can and should be replicated across all disciplines.

Students succeed in learning environments like help desk because they are given freedom and flexibility to shape their own learning; failure is an opportunity to grow, and students emerge as confident leaders within their school. Teachers of all content areas can create authentic learning experiences similar to help desk. Becoming a facilitator of learning, versus sticking to a traditional approach to instruction, can create exciting, self-directed learning opportunities for students and transform classroom culture.

Technology can be leveraged to give students voice and choice in their learning. Students can go beyond the textbook by utilizing social media tools to learn from industry experts across the globe. They can connect course content to the real world by employing service- and community-based learning opportunities. Rather than deliver a presentation to their teacher and classmates, students can present to local business partners in person or virtually. Students can develop digital portfolios of their best work through blogs, websites and YouTube channels. They can showcase their understanding of social media through a professional presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+.

Adhering to the confines of a pre-packaged curriculum and blocking access to the global, digital world is a major disservice to our students. It’s time teachers rethink pedagogy and create a culture where students have a say in how and what they learn.

Jennifer L. Scheffer is the instructional technology specialist/mobile learning coach for Burlington Public Schools in Burlington, Massachusetts. She has been an ISTE member since 2013 and is a member of the Digital Citizenship and 1:1 PLNs.

(Photo by Christopher Coe)