Monday, 17 August 2015

Science teachers integrating digital technologies in lessons

Two science classes and digital learning tools: a snapshot

I have the privilege of working with a local secondary school, and I've made some blog posts in the past based on observations of music and languages. Science is in the spotlight today, specifically a Level 2 NCEA Physics class and a Year 10 Science class.

What's really interesting is not only the different tools the teachers included, but also the ways in which students got to problem-solve using them. It is quite clear to me that these teachers thought deeply about the learning goals first and then appropriated tools to help that happen.

Level 2 Physics

This class was all about understanding the symbols relevant to components of electrical circuits and the theory related to each named item - eg resistor, battery, voltmeter, ammeter, charge, current... She began the lesson, once students had grabbed a Chromebook from the COW (Computers on Wheels), by reviewing information about key words. She then made available a document that contained two links - one to a set of Slides and the other to an interactive site where students could problem-solve how to create specific circuits and answer specific questions. What struck me as most interesting in observing student behaviours, included:
  • adaptive help-seeking: comparing ideas and ways of solving the circuit problems, or connectivity issues
  • playing with the site: creating different kinds of circuits, wondering what would happen if.. and trying it out
  • asking the teacher for help if they were unsure: the teacher could then spend time with individuals on a just-in-time and just-in-need basis
  • a studied silence - the talk was low and mostly focused on the task ahead - and a lot of concentration. Talk centred on seeking and responding to queries from each other. The climate was definitely purposeful and directed at task completion
  • sharing the tasks: some students open different screens to facilitate the task completing as a pair. 
Working together on building an electrical circuit
At the end of the lesson, the teacher reviewed the results students posted in the online table. This provided a great opportunity for students to see how their results measured up with others', while the teacher explained why certain results were correct, while also exploring what might have led to incorrect results.

So what do I make of this lesson? Firstly, the task engendered a high degree of on-task behaviour for a considerably long time. Second, the teacher was able to concentrate her efforts on those who had the most trouble making sense of the task. This meant her support happened where it was most needed, while other students used each other to trouble-shoot. Third, because these circuits were made using an online tool, it was easy to chop and change what students tried out, without having to manipulate physical materials that might take some time to do. The digital version was quick, responsive and simple. Pedagogically speaking, the teacher was able to focus on the most need while engaging all students in a useful and purposeful learning activity, leveraging the affordances of the online tools.  Had the teacher been using the physical versions of circuit boards that schools have tended to use in the past, there would have been a greater shuffling of space, more time working in pairs or threes manipulating and moving parts to make circuits (and how many can be in charge of making the circuits at a time?), and less time collating results to examine and compare. The digital tools streamlined the task by having only one tool that everyone had access to and made it easier for much more time to be digitally hands-on. 

Year 10 Science

This was about acids and bases. In an earlier lesson, students had been introduced to Voki and had signed up for a free account. The day I observed, they were using that tool to create a short explanation of the difference between a litmus and universal indicator, using talking head avatar. This required students to read the information first, then write a version of it for the avatar to speak, listen to it, adjust and edit the text then share it. This means they went over the definitions several times before they undertook an actual experiment with the two indicators and various liquids. This iterative, recursive process is one way to reinforce and cement knowledge that might have not been possible with only pen and paper available. 

Creating a Voki voice message
As with the Level 2 Physics class, students exhibited a range of help-seeking behaviours, especially when some students needed technological help, which they tended to get from their peers. And again, as with the Level 2 Physics class, students were focused, on task and committed to completing it. Lastly, the teacher also reviewed the table of results of students posted, using the terms acids, bases, litmus and universal indicators, reinforcing the technical language necessary for the lesson.  

Comments: So what? 

What might these lessons mean? I think what I have witnessed is two separate occasions where teachers have used two sets of digital tools for specific learning purposes that streamlined learning opportunities. Students were in charge of the learning and tools, and deeply engaged in the assigned tasks. Through the organisation and structure of the lessons, students also got repeated exposure to understanding specific concepts, technical terms and definitions. At the end of both lessons, there was a full class review of results to compare and discuss, bookending the lesson in a satisfying way. On both occasions, students were on task, focused, and committed. Perhaps this suggests that these digital tools offer opportunities for students to both share and work individually while deeply focusing on learning tasks with accessible, easily manipulated tools that work seamlessly with the content of the lesson.

Using digital tools that can support students to deepen their knowledge and understanding while offering opportunities to review and reshape ideas is valuable in school contexts. When schools also don't need to house equipment or replace worn out materials is also sensible. The manipulation of physical tools and materials might mean learning happens differently from when the tools are digital. However,  the same content knowledge might be learned less arduously when the tools are digital. That is certainly the message students convey.

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