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This summer, Abilene Christian University in Texas hosted its first K-12 Digital Learning Institute for teachers. And this school year, the university will observe teachers' lessons as they apply what they learned about mobile technology to their classes.
At the week-long institute in July, 150 teachers learned how to incorporate mobile tools into their curriculum. The university started the institute with grant funding from AT&T after K-12 educators expressed interest in the university's mobile initiatives.
While many people talk about the latest apps and gadgets at education conferences, Abilene Christian wanted to keep the focus where it should be.
"It's about learning with technology as a support, whereas what we've been doing for 30 years in education is simply buying technology and trying to change the classroom to fit the technology," said Billie McConnell, director of the K-12 Digital Learning Institute. "And that's backwards."
Project-based learning provides a great framework for integrating technology and teaching skills, including problem-solving. And at the institute, teacher education professors and teachers from schools that the university works with helped participants learn how to design projects that technology can support.
A week before the institute, science teacher Bob Murphy from Westlake High School in Austin received an iPad. And next week, every student in the school will have an iPad.
Based on what he learned, he's already planning a few projects this year for his AP environmental science class. Students have many different things to learn, including geology, evolution and toxicology. If he taught them a different subject each week, they wouldn't necessarily connect them.
But with a project, they can. In Texas, companies have been extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, which has been a debated topic in the Lone Star State. Through this current issue, students will examine the economic, ecological, legal and conservation implications of extracting natural gas this way.
"By wrapping it all around that one project, they're going to learn all of these different disciplines without having to sit through lectures about those disciplines," Murphy said.
Instead of memorizing facts, they'll tackle a real-world problem. And they'll figure out how to solve a problem, analyze data and share what they find in a more thorough way than just memorizing facts.
With their iPads, they'll look up journal and news articles online about hydraulic fracturing, read reports, including one from a Department of Energy panel and present what they learn. And they're studying these current events instead of reading from a two- or 10-year-old textbook.
At the institute, he bounced ideas off experts and asked questions. And he planned projects and learned about technology tools that he could use in the projects at the same time.
The university set up a Ning network for the participants and facilitators. And already, teachers from different schools are working together in the learning community and sharing lesson plans with facilitators.
Now that schools are starting up again, facilitators from Abilene Christian will observe teachers throughout the year, give them feedback and help them design lesson plans. That's a key piece to the institute.
McConnell used what he calls the 80-10-10 rule to illustrate what happens, particularly when schools start integrating technology. Ten percent of teachers get excited and want to start right away. Another 10 percent of teachers hold back, resist and won't start using technology.
"It's that 80 percent in between that's the tough group," McConnell said. "They want to do it, they see the vision, they understand why they're doing it, but they really struggle with, 'How do I transfer that into my classroom, what does that look like?"
And that's why this group needs constant support and encouragement to keep trying even when the lesson doesn't always go right.
Teachers aren't the only ones who need support, students do too. And the struggle that teachers like Murphy face is showing them how to use technology to help them learn.
"People seem to think students today are automatically or intuitively tech-oriented and 21st century thinkers and all that, but they really need the guidance of how to use that for learning purposes," Murphy said. "And the challenge is for all of us to stay away from the distractions of the technology and focus on the benefits of it."
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