21st Century Classroom

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It’s about Facebook, Twitter, blogs, glogs, texting, wikis

By John Pawlak

It’s a new school year and students are excited and enthusiastic as always!  Well, okay, maybe not.

In preparation for this school year, I’ve reviewed my lesson plans, looked over new material, new techniques, new educational psychology theories, and I’ve pretty much decided that I’m a dinosaur. I learned math the hard way. I studied. I studied a lot.  I opened my book in the evenings and worked on problems until I “got it”, until something clicked and it made sense to me. It took a lot of my free time, a lot of paper, and a lot of band-aids from all those paper cuts.

But pencils and paper and open books laid out on the floor in one’s bedroom is now passé.  Technology is at the front lines of the learning battlefield and schools are looking to apply technology whenever and however possible. Networked collaborative learning environments are paving the educational highways to the future.

The question is; where is that highway taking us?  And are there any Starbucks in the rest areas?

I recently attended a week-long conference on “The 21st Century Classroom” held at UNM-LA campus.  It was very informative and we all walked away with dozens of great ideas for our classrooms.  My problem is, I’m       not sure how much of it I can use.  The key to leveraging technology in an educational environment is to engage the students, to allow them to collaborate, to exchange thoughts and ideas and opinions.  Are we really ready for this type of learning environment?  Should I be texting assignments to my students?

Whether or not you use Twitter, blogs, glogs, texting, Facebook or wikis, your kids almost certainly do.  We grew up with LAN phones, encyclopedia sets, mail and television. Our kids grew up with cell phones, computers, wikis, and video apps.  Their world is a collage of meshed information networks, one in which knowledge is accessed effortlessly and immediately.

If I wanted to know the capital of Portugal, I went to the library, opened the “M” edition from the encyclopedia set, and looked up Portugal.  If my nephew wants to know the average rainfall in Bolivia over the past fifteen years, he googles his question and finds himself immersed with data sheets and analysis.

It’s a new world, sometimes a bit scary, but certainly one in which opportunities abound for education.  These opportunities are not going unnoticed and institutions across the nation are embracing them with unbridled zeal.  Schools are setting up wikis and blogs.  Some classes use Twitter. Technology is a force of nature, but like Vader’s force, there is a dark side and we need to understand the scope of this changing landscape.

The true advantage of technology is networking, engaging students’ thinking in a real world context.  But integrating “the world” into the classroom is not without risk.

Networking presents very real problems.  We have to deal with sexual predators, cyber-bullying, and pornography.  Internet access to ubiquitous knowledge opens many doors that we don’t want our students going through, even inadvertently.  Given these and other dangers, what are the legal issues that might face us by using the internet in our classes?

These issues are very real and can incur serious consequences if not managed properly.  Students have been arrested for making cyber-threats.  Peer pressure from Facebook hecklers have driven students to suicide.  The growing usage of texting quickly instantiated sexting.  Access to internet sites can bring racist propaganda into the classroom.  And networked environments can lend themselves to academic dishonesty.

It’s 2010 and so we’re a little behind the times in establishing the 21st Century Classroom.  UNM-LA deserves real applause for bringing together several school districts to address this need.  

Technology can’t just be a better piece of chalk.  

We’re going to be looking at this carefully and working hard to connect our students with the world out there.

Now class, I want you to google Emperor Commodus, determine the name of his parents, how many siblings he had, when did his twin brother die, what was the name of his oldest sister, and what relation to her was Appius Claudius Quintanus.

John Pawlak is a teacher at Los Alamos High School.