Capable Creators

Preparing students to produce digital content.

GUEST COLUMN | by Joseph Sanfilippo

CREDIT TeqWith technology becoming more prevalent in schools and the need to prepare students for the 21st century workplace becoming more pressing, understanding how to prepare students to create digital content is now more important than ever. Whenever I speak with educators about digital content creation, I always refer to a Common Core Anchor Standard that calls for students to produce writing in a digital format:


Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Here are some things to consider when shifting your classroom into the digital age, and preparing your students to become capable digital content creators.

The classroom is an important place for students to learn the skills they’ll need to communicate and thrive in today’s digital world.

Distinguish Between Digital Content Consumption and Digital Content Creation

Do you know the difference between using devices such as iPads and other tablets as consumption devices, versus leveraging them as creation devices? While simply giving a student access to an app or an educational game does expose students to technology, it may not lead to the higher-level thinking that should be the goal of incorporating technology into the classroom.

While there are plenty of great applications that are useful to students to consume content, using applications that allow them to create and share content can completely change what a student’s end product is. This can be as simple as using an online storyboarding tool for students to collaborate, or as advanced as using video editing software to create a book report as a digital story.

Student Ownership of Content

A student-centered activity that ends with the creation of a final project engages the student because of the sense of ownership to the final piece. This is common practice and has not changed today, where students are surrounded by digital content and rich media. Think about the level of engagement you can achieve with your students when the projects they produce are digital and can compete with the digital world they live in every day. Tools like iMovie, Windows MovieMaker, or collaborative tools like SMART amp, can all be used to create exciting digital content.

Same Skills and Content, Different Medium

The process of research, planning, scripting, storyboarding and presenting information has not changed in the digital world. What has changed is the medium in which we have students create the projects. Building a diorama in a shoe box or creating a poster board, may have been something we all did in school, and the research that goes into these projects remains extremely valuable.

Today, we can replace these projects with online tools to create multi-media posters that can include interactive web links, videos and more. These tools are more engaging to students simply because they incorporate technology into the creation process. For example, when I was in high school (circa 1999) I wrote articles for the school newspaper, which was then printed and distributed. Today, I would most likely be writing articles for a classroom blog or website. The process I go through to write the article is the same—only the medium has changed.

Global Access

Now that the medium has changed, so has who can access it. My high school newspaper probably did not make it past the cafeteria, but with an online blog and social media, the range of people who can obtain access to student-created content can literally be global. While it was very unlikely that another student from Australia could have read my high school newspaper, today being able to comment back and forth on my article with a student from across the globe is a very real possibility. Giving students a louder voice with their creations allows them to see how small the world can be, thanks to the Internet.

Digital Citizenship

Along with the benefits that digital content creation brings, there are also new responsibilities. There are many facets to being an upstanding digital citizen, and one of the most important when it comes to digital content creation is proper sourcing and citations. Would you allow a student to write a research paper and not source or cite their research? Then why allow students to use an image or video without citing the source, just because they were able to find it through Google Images?

While a student may not be penalized for using a copyrighted image in your class, they would be in the workplace. Understanding the rules around using “creative commons” or rights -free media is just as important a skill as the project itself.

Preparing Students for the 21st Century Workplace

It is a safe assumption that technology and digital content will not just disappear once the student reaches the workforce. In fact, it will most likely be a prominent skill that is in high demand by employers. With many online creation tools lending themselves to collaboration between two people without ever needing to actually be together, putting students into this situation as early as possible will not only give them the technology skills to create digital content, but the interpersonal skills it takes to be able to collaborate through technology.

Keep these concepts in mind when teaching students how to approach creating digital content, from activities as simple as formatting a letter, to drafting an email, to creating multi-media projects and more. The sky is the limit when it comes to digital content creation—and the classroom is an important place for students to learn the skills they’ll need to communicate and thrive in today’s digital world.

Joseph Sanfilippo is Director of eLearning for Teq, a leading professional development and educational technology firm. During his three years at Teq, Joseph Sanfilippo has been instrumental in launching the Teq Online PD (professional development) platform. Before his promotion, Mr. Sanfilippo held several positions at Teq, including eLearning Specialist and Instructional Technologist. Prior to Teq, he was Vocation and Technology Coordinator for the Center for Developmental Disabilities. He holds a Masters in Special Education and Training and a B.A. from Wagner College, in Staten Island, NY.

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Deeper Learning with Technology

Three classroom tips to prepare high school students for the future.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kevin Zahner

CREDIT SmarterSchoolsWe hear it often. Employers want college graduates with critical thinking skills, and colleges want students to have developed these skills before they arrive on campus. High schools have a big responsibility to prepare students for success in college and beyond.
Technology can help.

Teachers in Denton, Texas, are using technology to help students explore the relationship between problems and the questions they raise – a process known as inquiry-based learning. Like teachers around the country, we have found that savvy use of readily available tech tools can help improve student engagement and ensure students are prepared for the future.

As a teacher, I’ve often wished that I had more opportunities to hear from my peers about what works in their classroom.

As a teacher, I’ve often wished that I had more opportunities to hear from my peers about what works in their classroom. It’s also important for parents and employers to understand how students are learning in schools today – so that they can help build these critical thinking skills at work and at home. So here’s my three-step approach to promote deeper learning in my classroom.

1. Get students to ask questions.

School-age kids need practice thinking about their thinking. They thrive when they receive a combination of validation and suggestion to guide them toward the kinds of thoughts that help find answers and solve problems.

To do this, I create a space where all students can access and work through an essay prompt on one shared document. To save time and ensure that every student’s voice is included, I use online collaboration tools such as Google Forms and Sheets.

As they attempt to understand the essay prompt, students have to ask basic questions to figure out what information they need. Technology allows all of my students to view and edit the same document, at the same time. They learn to work together and I’ve found it strengthens the bonds within our classroom

Getting students to write their own questions allows teachers to show them the importance of asking questions to learn. It also builds their confidence to know that if their questions are not going to point them in the right direction, they can trust their professors or professional leaders for guidance.

2. Help students evaluate questions.

During class discussion, we talk about the kinds of questions we value. This helps students gain the confidence they need to distinguish between questions that are helpful and those that could be changed to become more useful. Students work together in small groups on computers to assess the value of each question.

The first step is about thinking, this second step is about evaluation. It teaches students to make decisions while understanding that those decisions could change with new information or ideas. It’s the kind of ability that colleges and employers are looking for in the people they choose. In a professional setting, people might call someone with this skill “flexible” or “creative,” “a real team player.”

3. Encourage students to prioritize research.

The importance of prioritizing is understated in many high school classrooms. Anytime I have the opportunity to let students make a decision, I try to leave the room to let it play out. This often leads to students asking things like, “How will I know if it’s the right one?” I remind them that there’s only one way to find out: test it.

Each group is tasked with rating the questions based on which ones should be the start of preliminary research. This is when students put their questions to the test. Inquiry-based learning is about building and rebuilding our understanding based on new information. It’s as critical as thinking gets.

For my students, this inquiry-based approach to learning has meant an average achievement gain of about 20 percent on essay assessments, and a 10 percent increase on the College Board Advanced Placement exam.

In my history classes, students are becoming more aware of their thought process as they try to understand the demands of a problem–better preparing them for the rigors of college. The trick is creating a learning environment where students have control of the content–and that’s where technology plays a powerful role.

While it’s too soon to make definitive conclusions about the connection between this approach and achievement gains, we know that our students are reading more critically and beginning to better develop their own ideas when making arguments and writing essays. Instead of being handed a pattern to apply to a problem, the students are the ones coming up with the pattern and making decisions about how to respond – a lifelong lesson that will serve them in college, career, and beyond.

Kevin Zahner is a high school history teacher in Denton, Texas, and a contributor to the Smarter Schools Project ( He can be reached at

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Devouring Digital: The New Participation

Personal tech in the classroom doesn’t have to be a distraction.

GUEST COLUMN | by Shaunak Roy

CREDIT YellowdigPeek in on just about any university-level lecture and you’ll notice a student audience armed with a variety of technologies. Laptops. iPhones. Tablets. Probably even a few wearables. These are the tools that today’s (and most certainly tomorrow’s) students were born into. They shape their identity. They power productivity, social lives, problem solving (see: Siri, Google), scheduling, collaboration, influence, prioritization and most intrinsically, communication. Texting is gouging away at phone conversations. Ideas, articles, photos and videos are shared on countless social networks. Related discussions, comments and amplifications happen in the same place. Amongst this demographic, digital communication is simply devouring its analog predecessors. And regardless of whether or not you like it, this trend is here to stay and it isn’t satiated yet by any means.

Imagine if we said, “Okay, you’re digital kids in the digital age, so we’re going to facilitate participation in a digital way that you know.”

This behavior is showing up in the college classroom, too. Seemingly every professor has a “they’re just not raising their hands to participate much anymore” story. The knee-jerk reaction to that experience is that it’s a bad thing: “Digital first,” social network-based communication amongst students is creeping into the academic setting and it’s minimizing critical parts of education, specifically engagement, discussion and participation. This sounds valid, but it’s a limited view. The truth is that this very behavior is simultaneously creating real, potential-filled opportunities around engagement, collaboration and yes, participation in the college classroom.

Just as smart coaches build schemes around the existing skills and talents of their star players instead of force-feeding their own (which likely won’t fit well and thus may fail), faculty should take a step back and acknowledge that today’s student prefers a different set of communication and collaboration tools. You wouldn’t throw an iPad at yesterday’s student and say, “Go forth! Use this magical machine to discuss the course material!” Nor would you force an antiquated (and perhaps less preferred) mode upon today’s student. Neither will find real success, just frustration—which leads to disengagement.

We need to stop comparing which tools are better because frankly it’s a moot point. It’s the student that’s different now. Once this fact is recognized, the perspective can change. Instead of bemoaning why this difference is bad, progressive administrators and faculty should focus on the massive opportunity that resides in collaborative digital communication that can supplement the in-class experience.

So what exactly is that opportunity? In simplest terms, it’s the new participation. Over the last five to 10 years, particularly as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter have ascended, a small number of brave academics have recognized the impact digital tools can have on engagement and participation. They’ve implemented message boards or attempted to use an existing tool that, while perhaps not built specifically for an educational use, might be good enough to achieve some sort of moderate success. The results of these efforts have been admittedly modest, but they’re on the right track.

Now imagine if the tools were no longer the hindrance to participation. Imagine if we said, “Okay, you’re digital kids in the digital age, so we’re going to facilitate participation in a digital way that you know.” We see how conversation builds exponentially upon itself on the social platforms students are familiar with (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), so why not facilitate that behavior in an environment designed specifically for education?

Picture this scenario: After an anthropology lecture, the students spill out into the hallways and get on with their day. Browsing Twitter on their phone, they click through to a blog post that reminds them of a point made in class. They question that point. They wonder what the rest of the class (and the professor) might think of it. That right there is the new class participation moment. Call it digital, call it social, but at its core, that moment hits the proverbial bullseye of engagement and participation.

What’s more, embracing a digital participation model allows for measurement. Instead of trying to remember how often a student raised his or her hand in class throughout the whole semester, instructors could quantify digital activity.

For those picturing a flatlining of in-classroom participation, fear not. Participation powered by technology is a circuitous loop that comes back to the classroom. Everything happening online, after a class fuels the next one. So that blog post our anthro student came across on Twitter becomes part of tomorrow’s class discussion. That sort of supplemental education has limitless potential.

Digital collaborative platforms hold immense promise when it comes to extending and enriching higher education. They are going to be second nature to today’s students who had an iPhone before they could drive and were raised on Facebook and Snapchat. They are going to unleash a whole new mode of participation and engagement. And the institutions that recognize and embrace this shift will generate a deeper, more immersive educational experience.

Shaunak Roy is the CEO of Yellowdig, a social collaboration platform currently used by more than 30 institutions including The University of Pennsylvania, The University of Virginia, and Duke University. Learn more at

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Trends | Teachers Want More Tech Training

CREDIT SamsungA nationwide survey of K-12 teachers revealed that while schools are taking steps to bridge the digital divide by putting more technology into classrooms, more action must be taken to ensure that teachers know how to integrate it into their lessons. According to research conducted by Samsung Electronics America and GfK, while 90 percent of teachers believe that technology in the classroom is important to student success, 60 percent of teachers feel they are inadequately prepared. Other key findings include:

  • 91 percent of teachers believe that up-to-date training on using technology in the classroom is important to achieve success.
  • 37 percent of teachers say that they would “love” to use technology in the classroom, but they simply do not know how.
  • 32 percent are not satisfied with the support they receive from their schools in integrating technology into their classrooms.
  • 76 percent say they would like a professional development day dedicated to technology during the school year when students would not be present.

“With the increasing popularity of Chromebooks, tablets, interactive whiteboards and apps in classrooms today, it’s evident that technology is a critical tool for today’s learners,” says Ted Brodheim, VP of Vertical Business at Samsung Electronics America. “However, our new research highlights that teachers are not yet receiving full support to harness the power of technology and truly transform classroom learning into a 21st century experience,” he adds. Learn more.

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Education Technology is Nothing — without People

Putting purposeful tools in the hands of teachers we support and believe in.

GUEST COLUMN | by Renny Monaghan

CREDIT D2LThere are some teachers and administrators who are so smitten with education technology, they believe there’s a technological solution for every problem. And, if there isn’t a technological solution yet, there soon will be.

As someone who makes a living in the education technology industry, it’s a sentiment I’m very familiar with. When I run into well-meaning people who hold this view, I’m reminded of this quote:

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”

Now, while that sounds like something a back-to-basics, paper-and-pencils, blackboard-chalk-dust covered Luddite might say, bear in mind that’s a quote from Steve Jobs — who wasn’t exactly the enemy of technology.

We need to make sure that our teachers are adept at using the tools we give them – and have faith that they will do wonderful things with them.

The point here is that while the tools we give educators are important, it’s just as important that we make sure that educators are able to freely and properly use the tools they’ve been given.

In the last decade, the list and complexity of technological tools available to teachers has grown by leaps and bounds. Now, it’s not enough to have a single computer connected to the Internet at the back of the class. IT has permeated every aspect of the student journey — from the first day of school to the last, from student research to reporting to parents — technology is now ubiquitous in the learning experience.

More recently, teachers and administrators have begun to embrace the idea of creating a personalized learning experience for students. Instead of teaching a subject at one speed to an entire class, technology allows us to reach students individually at a speed and pace that’s right for them, and then scale that experience as required.

At the core of this new approach are Learning Management Systems (LMS), which are sophisticated pieces of software that let teachers deliver lessons based on mastery and self-paced learning to suit various learning styles. An LMS can do everything from deliver course content to assessment and reporting to resource management and skills gap analysis. To people who love technology, they seem like a one-size fits all solution to the challenges facing students in the classroom.

But while all of this enthusiasm is appreciated by those of us who create and sell these technological marvels, we can’t forget that at its heart, education is still about people. And if the people who deliver education simply provide an online learning tool, that’s not enough. Educators need insight into where learners are succeeding or struggling. They need to intervene to improve outcomes and degree attainment rates throughout the term. If teachers are using the new tools inefficiently — such as glorified record-keeping and report card writing software — they’re not maximizing their use. If teachers are still only providing feedback to students after a 13-week period when it could already be too late to make a positive impact, that’s a waste.

Instead, teachers should be using real-time analytics that aggregate student data from the full learning ecosystem — including several different LMS’, learning apps, online tools and content publishers — and use it to develop a complete view of each learner. Then, use that data to adjust and tweak the approach to each student to make sure they have the best-possible chance to master the material. This form of big data analytics has already been remarkably effective in boosting positive outcomes across a number of industries. Imagine what the result would be for student attainment if the same were true in our schools?

The bottom line is that it’s important to provide educators with the right tools to solve challenges in the classroom. And there’s no doubt that there are more technological tools at our disposal than ever before.

At the same time, even the best tool is only as good as the builder or artist who uses it. We need to make sure that our teachers are adept at using the tools we give them – and have faith that they will do wonderful things with them.

Renny Monaghan is CMO and SVP for D2L, makers of Brightspace, an online platform that makes the learning experience better.

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