K–12 school administrators and teachers are often faced with challenges when it comes to fully incorporating the “four Cs” of education — collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking — into today’s classroom. An increasingly popular solution is to allow students to collaborate using digital devices.
The North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas has experienced success on this front using SMART amp collaborative learning software with mobile devices in pilot programs. Now, it’s buying licenses for SMART Technologies’ Smart Learning Suite so that the 4,250 teachers and 66,000 students in its elementary and secondary schools will all have access to the cloud-based software, which can be used in conjunction with a range of mobile devices, including Chromebooks and tablets.
According to Director of Instructional Technology Services James Baldoni, the district began using the software in early 2015 for its gifted and talented program. “It really demonstrated the things you want to see in the integration of technology into the classroom, [supporting] all the Cs you can think of,” he says. “The collaboration piece is very powerful.”
The district then made the technology available primarily for fifth-grade science teachers and classes across seven school sites. This summer, North East ISD will conduct an Amp Camp to acquaint more teachers from all content areas with the technology. Its 22 instructional technology specialists also will work with them to help develop lesson plans that use SMART amp effectively in the classroom.
Collaboration in Action
Teachers can use the SMART amp software for whole classroom collaborative instruction and projects, as well as for small groups or individual instruction. Instructors and students using the technology benefit from the fact that there’s no limit when it comes to collaboration partners. Close to 400 North East ISD fifth-graders, for example, used the application on mobile devices “to go outside of their four classroom walls,” says North East ISD Assistant Director Christi Robinson. Though physically housed in seven different schools, they collaborated with each other online in groups that included students outside of their own classrooms, using the application’s shared workspaces to complete a Sun-Earth-Moon learning project.
Other collaborative learning ventures have stretched even further, as North East ISD students connected with peers in France, Russia and Spain on projects about the weather. They were able to share research, ideas, feedback and multimedia content in workspaces across time zones.
As teachers work with students in the application, they typically provide less direct instruction, favoring instead learning facilitation and guidance, workflow management and monitoring. Lessons are still teacher-controlled but learning can be student-led, as pupils gather together in groups in workspaces to contribute to discussions, teach each other concepts and even constructively critique one another. In the 21st century, “you have to be able to work with groups and share ideas freely,” and this technology encourages students to do that, says Baldoni.
“When students are engaged with a technology that gives them ownership over their own learning, the conversations are very different than what you hear when you walk into a class where lessons are taught the ‘normal’ way,” says Baldoni. “There’s more excitement, less disruption, and greater interactivity,” he says.
This engagement leads to students “thinking critically about the subject and explaining to one another in back and forth conversations about why an answer is right,” says Robinson. “It has been very enlightening to see them all working together.”
A Seamless Mobile Learning Experience
The school currently has about 30,000 mobile devices, some 14,000 of which are Chromebooks that are used with SMART amp. Mobile technology is “very cooperative for classroom use,” according to Baldoni. For example, teachers like that Chromebooks can last the whole school day on one battery charge. “They can repeat lessons during the day with different classes and know they can rely on having those Chromebooks available for them that whole day,” he says. “That’s a huge advantage.”
As Chromebooks continue to advance in capabilities, and with the cloud hosting the SMART amp application and files, “[there is less need] for something like Windows-based OS devices in the average classroom,” Baldoni says. “Chromebooks are very reasonable and easy to manage.” For instance, there’s no need to worry about manually updating the operating system. That’s all done in the background every time the devices turn on. The updates happen without any impact to start-up time; the devices start in seconds, so that teachers can get SMART amp-aided lessons going without delay.
Baldoni does advise that school districts moving in this direction ensure that they’ll have enough bandwidth to support digital collaborative learning as it becomes a bigger part of the everyday classroom experience. “You need the bandwidth for anything close to one-to-one computing,” he says. “Think about where you want to be in the future.”
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