Technology Won’t Make You a Better Teacher! and other professional development insights

Few teachers want to spend their much deserved summer breaks in a professional development workshop. But the faculty at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences are hardcore. Their team invited me to lead a session on using third screen (or mobile devices) in the college classroom.

And we had a blast!

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You might recall that I gave a version of this workshop a few months ago at the Lancaster Learns teaching and technology conference. But since my workshops are interactive, each event brings out new insights that just can’t be scripted. Below is a sort of post-game handout with insights we gathered.

(1) Technology Won’t Make You a Better Teacher.

No amount of gadgetry can make up for poor pedagogy. Technology can facilitate what you want to manifest in the classroom. When you’re (re)creating a course, use some backward design. Think about the content and experiences that will be the hallmark of your class. Then ask yourself what tools you need to make them happen.

I started using mobile devices because I wanted students to spend more time contributing to what was on the board (or projector screen) than copying from it. Poll Everywhere enabled me to deputize students’ cell phones as instant response devices.

I know a number of people who’ve been unsuccessful with using third screens, but usually it’s because they didn’t give any thought to the teaching philosophy behind the technology and were just trying to be cool. Or they forgot that …

(2) You Have to Teach the Technology to Students.

Don’t get on the “digital native” hype train. Yes, many of your students have phones with more computational power than Apollo-era space craft, but that doesn’t make them rocket scientists. For every new technological tool you bring into the classroom, you’ll have to budget time to help students come up to speed with use.

While my students use mobile phones to take reading quizzes, “live tweet” in-class videos, and photograph examples of theory in action, I’ve made an effort to a) do activities that students have done before and b) scaffold more complicated or high-stakes activities across multiple class periods. If you don’t help students learn the technology, they’ll see your tool as a gimmick.

(3) You’ve got to define your boundaries.

Technology is not synonymous with inclusion. In fact, it’s an easy way to erect walls in the brick and mortar classroom. What are you going to do if a student can’t afford a cell phone or whatever device you are requiring? I’ve gotten in the habit of collecting old iPod Touches and other wi-fi devices that I can lend students without difficulty. The important thing is to have a plan.

On another note, I like that I can create boundaries in the classroom. A lot of teachers are integrating Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms into their courses. But how much access do you want the world to have to your students’ work? So as you think about technologies, consider whether you want to have an open or closed classroom.

I love it when a presentation comes together. I look forward to seeing what the teachers of Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences come up with as they enhance their classes with the third screen.

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Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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