I always cringe when educational pundits talk about evaluating teachers according to “value-added” assessment models, as if the value that teachers offer their students could be easily quantified or evaluated according to any standardized metric.
Conversely, I am not averse at all to interrogating the value that digital tools bring to teaching and learning in classrooms; in fact, I think the connected learning community needs to speak up and encourage this conversation, considering the mad rush among many school districts to acquire technological resources without sufficient discussion about or planning for how these tools will enrich teaching and learning.
I was lucky enough to be a part of such a conversation recently through an Educator Innovator webinar that featured Dr. Richard Beach, professor emeritus of English education at the University of Minnesota. The webinar also included Dr. Antero Garcia, assistant professor at Colorado State University and fellow DML Central blogger, and Lara Trale, English and journalism teacher at Oakland High School. It explored the timely topic of “Understanding and Creating Digital Texts,” which also is the title of Dr. Beach’s new book.
While many school districts appear to be more concerned with acquiring laptops or tablets so that students can take Common Core standardized assessments rather than with how digital tools on these devices might contribute to powerful instructional practice, this webinar focused on exploring the educational possibilities of digital tools (specifically in the areas of reading and writing).
During our conversation, Dr. Beach identified what I consider to be one of the most important educational innovations that digital texts bring to the classroom, namely their dialogic nature. While print texts may inspire dialogue, they exist as static, fixed entities offering one-way communication. Digital texts, on the other hand, can exist in a state of collaboration and change as users create, remix, mash up, or annotate.
More than any other aspect of digital texts, this sense of malleability is what I find most exciting as an educator because it helps us expand the definition of what constitutes writing and it reminds us that writing, just like all forms of creation, is a social practice in conversation with others in the world around us.
While all of us webinar participants were happy to recommend digital tools that we’ve used with students, Dr. Beach offered the crucial reminder that the tools are not the keys to sparking innovative teaching and learning; instead, the activities that teachers create using these tools represent the place where value is added and enrichment occurs.
And, some of the most exciting opportunities for learning that digital tools are perfectly positioned to offer due to their inherently dialogic nature are those that encourage young people to engage with current social issues in ways that spark civic identity development and engagement. Social media platforms offer a unique public sphere in which young people can consider who they are (and who they want to be) as citizens and offer narratives (or counter-narratives) illuminating their knowledge and perspectives on the most important issues of the day.
Granted, there are still many issues that we need to wrestle with in order to fulfill the potential for digital reading and writing tools in the classroom. Access to technological resources remains a challenge in many urban and rural schools, and this inequity is compounded by a participation gap that gives some students the skills to create digital media while others are relegated to the ranks of consumers. Furthermore, teachers are not given sufficient opportunities to experiment with digital learning tools and engage in professional learning and inquiry to determine the best ways to integrate these tools into their classrooms.
Nevertheless, a crucial first step is to identify what these tools can offer us that we can’t easily achieve through paper and pencil alone. Only by highlighting and analyzing the dialogic and social power of digital tools to connect people and ideas can we move beyond using laptops and tablets as glorified word processors in the classroom.
Watch the webinar and access resources related to understanding and creating digital texts, at http://educatorinnovator.org/webinars/understanding-and-creating-digital-texts.