A Digital Diet

A teacher’s perspective on how edtech is leading to more effective instruction time.

GUEST COLUMN | by Steve Beard

CREDIT NOVAIncorporating digital resources and various forms of edtech into classrooms is expanding education and inspiring minds. In my own experience, edtech has expanded my ability to engage with students and enrich their learning experience. With more than 10 years of teaching experience in a variety of settings, one of the best ways I’ve found to introduce concepts and engage students is through the resources on PBS LearningMedia. The content I find there is not only reliable and entertaining; it can be used at different points in my instruction. One clip may help springboard a discussion at the beginning of a class, while another clip may help explain a key concept or summarize a section we’ve discussed.

My goal is to lead students to a proactive use of technology, where they obtain information and then apply it.

My job would be much more difficult without educational technology. I use a variety of tools to help my students understand different concepts about the world around them, many of which are abstract, such as the atomic nature of matter. Students need some sort of visual explanation to help them understand how the world works. Educational technology encourages curiosity and engages students; this is particularly true with resources from PBS. One of my favorites is NOVA’s Hunting the Elements video and app, which I use to help my students understand how atoms combine to form everything they interact with.

Once students have an opportunity to engage with concepts through videos or interactives, I provide them with tools to extend their learning beyond the walls of the classroom. We’ve used sensors attached to our iPads to gather data from a local stream, allowing students to investigate the contents and contaminants beyond what their eyes can see in our streams and drinking water. This activity led to discussions about water treatment, as well as the health of the stream, living organisms and the surrounding community. I’ve been able to follow up our classroom investigations with clips from Frontline’s program about drinking water called “Poisoned Waters.” This gives students a regional and national context for their research and data collection.

The use of technology and digital media has in many ways made me a more effective teacher. Students frequently clamor for more digital media; this is in part because the videos are entertaining and eye-catching. The fact that the resources are full of excellent educational content means that classtime is both captivating and impactful.

My goal is to lead students to a proactive use of technology, where they obtain information and then apply it. For example, exploring the NOVA Sun Lab allows students to watch several short videos with basic information about the sun. During this process they are actively involved in answering review questions about what they just watched. Occasionally the questions move up Bloom’s taxonomy to apply what they’ve learned. Finally, the online lab offers access to current data about conditions on the sun and students are able to analyze this data and suggest causes and various outcomes of the changes in our sun.

In addition to using technology and digital media as effective tools in the classroom, I want to have an open and constructive conversation about the limitations of technology. My goal is to help students and myself to become more effective users of media so that we all can employ these tools to improve our world.

In light of this, I wondered how much my students were using technology, so I assigned them the task of tracking their daily consumption of media, specifically any screen they are using (tablet, computer, phone, TV, etc.) in school or at home. They then created a Google form on their iPads to graphically present the data.

One striking result that we discovered is that sleep is a category that is often neglected. After charting their own use, students were given time to reflect on their choices. Some students were shocked that they spent 16-18 hours per day in front of a screen. Others were content that they spent about 6 hours with screens.

I remind them that the goal of the activity is not to punish or condemn them for screen use, but to encourage health.

We then compared our use to the data collected since 1999 by an ongoing report on media consumption in the lives of 8 to 18 year olds. I find that guiding students to take a personal assessment of their use of screen time and digital media empowers them to seek out the best media and technology for their educational and personal success.

Educational technology offers many benefits, but I don’t believe it is a replacement for the dynamic interactions between educators and students. My hope is that students use many resources, such as those available through PBS LearningMedia, so that they become more effective citizens and can contribute to improving our world. Here’s to a balanced diet of edtech and digital media in the classroom.

Steve Beard works at Thomas Edison High School in Portland, Oregon. His school serves high school students in grades 9-12. Steve currently teaches Conceptual Physics and Earth Science; he also teaches electives such as Ultimate Frisbee, Latin American Studies and Indigenous Instruments. Steve was recently selected as one of the 2014 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators for his outstanding use of digital media in the classroom.

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