Technology and Teaching by Bob Henderson, Head of School
When I tell my students that I went to college before the existence of the personal computer, they can hardly believe it. Most years, at some point in my AP European history class, we have a discussion about the late 20th-century pace of technological change, and I have my moment to come off as really old! I explain that when I was in college there were no cell phones, and that the only telephones in my college dormitory were payphones on each hallway. Notes between students and about various events were exchanged on a message board where we pinned up pieces of paper. My students are amazed at this, wondering how one can function without instant digital access to friends and information. Indeed, I find it hard to recall how I actually got by without having an iPhone, iPad and laptop computer within easy reach. Despite the technological revolution, there certainly are aspects of what teachers do every day in their classrooms that have changed very little over the last generation. However, while there is wisdom in retaining many of the core aspects of teaching that are timeless, it is also true that good teachers must struggle to figure out technologies that enhance instruction and that are best suited to students living in the digital age. Nobles has always offered leadership in this regard, yet there are significant challenges in this process.
The guiding principle of technological advance at Nobles could be summarized by using the analogy of the thrill of walking out onto a frozen pond—we want to get as close as possible to the edge of the ice without it breaking under us, sending us to our demise in the water. In other words, for as long as I have been at Nobles, the school has sought to encourage faculty pioneers to experiment with new technologies, providing incentives and support. Those pioneers then proselytize, demonstrating to peers both tools and methods that are actually effective. We have not, however, ever taken the approach of adopting a new technology on a mandatory school-wide basis. This is because technology advances exponentially faster year after year, and broad commitments to a single technology are too vastly expensive for the school to stay ahead of the game with this approach. So, for instance, we have not installed “smart-boards” in every classroom. Rather, a group of teachers have made interesting use of them, articulating to colleagues what works and what has been limiting about these machines. We did not become a “laptop school” when that was the rage in education, instead adopting a more limited “laptop cart” approach, with large numbers of machines prepared and readily available here at school, a method that ultimately proved more effective and equitable. We took a similar approach when iPods appeared on the market, as well as with a wide variety of software innovations for teaching, making the tools accessible and useful without spending excessively. We are now at the same juncture with iPads and other tablet computers, deciding how to facilitate their use, providing wider and equitable accessible to students, while making prudent investments with the knowledge that new and enticing innovations will be arriving soon.
All the information students could want is now right at their fingertips, accessed through the devices they carry with them all the time. The classroom, therefore, has to be less about providing the facts and more about encouraging critical analysis and making connections. The challenge for teachers is to utilize new technologies in the classroom to adapt to this fundamental reality of the digital information age. The function of our technology department (ISS, for Information Systems and Support) is to provide tools, instruction, incentives and support to aggressively facilitate this process.
The most discussed new tool for classroom instruction is the iPad. We have a number of initiatives underway to learn more about this device and its value to teachers and students. While many teachers are now using iPads in lieu of laptops on a daily basis for their own work, including for projecting materials in class and for course organization, several teachers have taken the step of using the iPad regularly with students, distributing them in class for daily purposes. Jenny Carlson has been particularly foresighted in this endeavor in her Class IV history classes, and in May she will initiate a new experiment by having her students take school iPads home to complete assignments and projects that complement their use of the iPad in the classroom. Jenny’s leadership in this area will result in the entire Class IV history program using this tool quite extensively next year.
There are other notable experiments. Jamileh Jemison has been using an electronic textbook to supplement her classroom material. David Strasburger has been experimenting with “flipping” his classroom, which means using class time exclusively for application of ideas while requiring students to view lectures and do reading for homework that presents information via technology. Michael Hoe regularly creates podcasts of his classes. A number of teachers use class web sites on a daily basis for activities, or use the “Nobles Cloud” to publish materials on class web sites. There are many other examples, in every academic department and in both the upper and middle schools.
A number of efforts are coming together to advance technology initiatives for next year. ISS will provide professional development seminars this summer, incentivized by professional development stipends from the school, for teachers who have proposals for technological progress. The criteria we have established is for ideas that will significantly advance curriculum, enhance teacher collaboration, or use technology in significantly new ways. There are three general areas of technical exploration for ISS and the faculty. The first is rapid expansion of the use of mobile devices such as the iPad in the classroom and by students at home. The second is the future expanded and improved use of digitized reading materials and the development of digital texts with sophisticated links to other resources. Finally, there is the expansion by teachers of their organization, storage, distribution and classroom utilization of course materials by digital means, and especially via mobile devices. The goal of the school is to retain leadership and inspire innovation in technology and teaching, while staying firmly on the “solid ice.”