An education prof. goes back to high school, finds technology is no longer a tool but a context

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Every student arrived with a smartphone. Ask a question, and instantly, thumbs began to effortlessly search for a digital answer. High school history had changed during my 21 year absence from teaching it. Now a professor of education at Baylor University, I returned to a local area public high school last fall on a research sabbatical, teaching tenth grade world history to more than 160 students.

I left my comfortable and sometimes isolating position as a university professor because I wanted to better prepare my own university students, who are studying to become teachers, for the challenges of teaching and leading in a 21st century public school environment. I knew that the only way to do this was to update my own perspective.

Tony L. Talbert

Tony L. Talbert

Although the university students I had been teaching for the last twenty years were deeply engaged in the application of digital technology as part of their learning context, it was the volume and frequency of exposure to the high school students who were perpetually digitally connected that caused me to realize that a new teaching and learning paradigm had to be embraced.

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My return to high school allowed me to encounter students who considered digital technology not simply a tool for a specific task but instead a context for living and engaging in the world around them. It quickly became clear to me that the high school students I was teaching in 2013 ordered and perceived their world in a significantly different manner than the high school students I once taught more than two decades past.

The old teaching and learning paradigm where technology is a tool to be used for a singular purpose and then put away until it is needed again had made way for a new paradigm where technology is a context without a beginning and without an end. Simply put, in the lives of my high school students digital technology was an extension of themselves. Therefore, it was with this reality that I as teacher had to find a way to incorporate this new paradigm into my lesson planning and teaching method in order to more meaningfully inform and transform the minds and lives of my students.

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In our personal and professional lives, many of us have come to accept the reality that technology is indeed an integral influence in our daily work and play as we are perpetually “living on the grid.”.

This reality isn’t necessarily transferred to the lived experience at school among many teachers. Ms. Jessica Webb, Instructional Technology and Media Services Director for Lorena ISD asserts that, “For them [veteran teachers] technology is still something that must be utilized consciously.” Webb explains that many veteran teachers work within the technology as tool paradigm and it takes a concerted effort to move in a direction where their teaching is more relevant to the tech-minded students of today.

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Jason Trumble

Jason Trumble

These teachers are comfortable hooking up a projector or filmstrip and displaying information far separated from the 24/7 connected, multitasking lives of the students, but they need motivation and support to incorporate technology into their classroom. Veteran teachers can find it difficult to mirror the context of students’ lives in the classroom because, to the teacher, digital technology is not a natural occurrence. Modern students are digital natives; they were born with and have grown up with devices connected. Lorena ISD is an example where the process of school is becoming more relevant to today’s student. In other places, the shift has already occurred.

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Another example where technology is innovatively integrated as a context for living and learning among students and teachers can be found at the Belton New Tech High School@Waskow

Located in Central Texas, this innovative public high school sets the context of education in project-based learning with technology as the medium for content delivery and student expression. At Belton New Tech, learning environments break the traditional school mold looking more like the Google home office, with colorful décor, circular couches and collaboration tables that fill a large open space, than a traditional school.

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An expansive video board loops the creations of students, while learners gather together typing on school provided laptops, discussing content and problem solving. Each classroom or is lined with glass illuminating the open learning areas, and Teachers facilitate learning as students feverishly attend to digital content delivered through computers and media.

There are no tools here, but there are ways to inquire, experiment, and express understanding as students navigate through school.

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As I moved from the old paradigm tool to the new paradigm context one of the most influential resources that contributed to my practice as a teacher was the work of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the creator of the SAMR Model (Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition).

The SAMR model offered me a way of thinking about and organizing my teaching so that my students and I collaborated on the planning and implementation on the use of digital technology in ways that provided a depth of exposure to the world history content and a breadth of engagement that fostered critical thinking and problem solving skills.

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For example, both the traditional structure of teaching and learning and the types of products generated by students were changed. Core world history content knowledge that students needed to encounter were delivered outside of the classroom through digital technology such as online videos, webpages, discussion boards, and Twitter.

Face-to-face classroom time was then dedicated to the integration of digital technology through hands-on engagement activities such as simulations, inquiry learning stations, cooperative problem-solving projects, and primary source material investigation that reinforced a deeper understanding of world history content as it relates to contemporary culture and experiences.

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In essence, teaching, learning, curriculum, and digital technology were an infused context not restricted to the traditional two covers of a book, the four walls of a classroom, the six periods of a school schedule, or the eight hours of the school day.

By embracing the teaching and learning paradigm shift where digital technology is a context and not simply a tool my students and I formed a learning community unencumbered by the traditional structures and schedules of a classroom. Our classroom became dynamic and meaningful to all stakeholders who redefined the notion of a community of learners through active engagement enhanced by digital technology.

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As I moved along the continuum, my students validated my contention that when teachers embrace the notion that technology is a context and not simply a tool, the results are that education is not simply for information but for transformation.

In this case I proudly admit, I the teacher became the learner as my students embraced the opportunity to introduce me to a new vision of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

In a phrase, this old dog learned a new paradigm. Thanks kids!

Dr. Tony L. Talbert is a Professor of Social/Cultural Studies Education and Qualitative Research in the School of Education at Baylor University. His 29 years as an educator has included service to and consulting for public schools, universities, governmental and corporate institutions.

Jason Trumble is a Graduate Assistant and PhD Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in instructional technology at Baylor University. He is currently researching the impact of technology on curriculum and pedagogy for teaching interns in various environments.

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