July 16, 2013 2:59 pm
Updated: July 17, 2013 3:36 pm

Educators learning to evolve as technology, social media changes teaching

Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

TORONTO – Wayne Leavey describes today’s students as “digital natives” – a clan of young learners who have grown up on Facebook; smartphones all but physically adhered to their hands.

The principal at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) labels his adult generation as “digital immigrants,” and has to remind himself that these students are not aware of the old-school style of education – the one where 20-page essays were written with pencil and paper.

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He also believes that this is why educators need to evolve as technology and social media change the way students learn.

A study released Tuesday by U.S.-based Internet trends surveyor Pew Internet found that while teachers say digital tools are positively affecting students writing by encouraging collaboration and creativity, the informal writing found on social media sites has crept in to written work.

The study found that 68 per cent of teachers felt that digital tools make students more likely to take short cuts and not put effort into their writing.

Teachers also expressed concerns that lax grammar and abbreviations like ‘BTW’ (by the way), commonly used on social networking sites, were appearing in school work.

But, Leavey believes that while proper grammar and punctuation should be used in formal essays and written work, it’s important for educators to evolve their teaching styles to include tech-speech due to its prevalence in today’s society.

“When I see data like this I like to remind people that we are the digital immigrants – we are the ones who are basically transforming our lives to deal with social media; whereas these students don’t know anything different,” Leavey told Global News.

“We need to teach students digital citizenship; we need to teach them when it’s appropriate to use those abbreviations. Just like when we teach children differences in conversation style – like when you are speaking to your friend, versus speaking to a doctor.”

The Pew Internet survey noted that English teachers are more likely to embrace online platforms and tools with their students over teachers in other subject areas including math and science.

Half of teachers said that digital tools make it easier to teach writing.

“It’s a true partnership between teachers and students. Our kids know an awful lot about technology and I think we need to embrace them in teaching by learning from them,” said Leavey.

“As educators we are responsible to keep up with the changing technology times.”

In late fall, Leavey will open a new school within the TDSB, built around 24/7 digital learning.

Along with hiring teachers based on their technological knowledge, Leavey said the school will have a collection of iPads for students to use in their daily learning and will feature an infrared board technology that allows images to be projected on any surface, allowing students to better interact with the materials.

The TDSB already uses a variety of smart board technologies within their schools. Similarly, the Pew Internet survey noted that 53 per cent of teachers surveyed used interactive whiteboards in the classroom.

“Technology has given students with exceptionalities and special needs a level playing field, because it provides them with the ability to access the learning that the other kids have always been able to do with pencil and paper,” said Leavey.

Leavey noted that even students dealing with difficulties in reading are being aided by tech-based learning tools; for example, programs that allow the child to read along with a predictive pronunciation guide.

As for the concerns surrounding a lack of formal writing skills, Leavey believes that institutions that rely heavily on formal writing – like universities – will soon experience the same digital shift that elementary schools are witnessing.

“We are in a pivotal time – I’ve been in education for nearly 16 years now and I see myself now using [abbreviations] in my professional communication over email. There is a bit of a culture shift and I think some of the universities haven’t seen that enter into their schools yet – for them, maybe it’s an ah-ha moment,” said Leavey.

Leavey is also seeing a major shift in young teachers coming out of teacher’s college.

“I do see a shift in the teachers that are coming out of the universities now with their comfort in technology,” said Leavey.

“With their expertise they are helping students become better digital immigrants and teaching them better uses for technology.”

Digital tools encouraging student collaboration

According to Pew Internet’s study, 79 per cent of teachers surveyed agreed that digital tools encouraged greater collaboration among students.

The study noted that teachers felt students’ exposure to a larger audience for their work, in addition to peer feedback, encouraged them to make a greater effort in their written work.

Collaboration through tech-based learning tools is something that the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) has been experimenting with for years. Student and staff at the EPSB were some of the first Canadians to get their hands on Google’s Chromebook laptops and have long used Google Docs for teachers and students to collaborate on shared documents.

Terry Godwaldt has found great success in collaborative learning through his work with the Centre for Global Education – a program associated with Edmonton Public Schools that uses technology to bring together students from around the globe to address some of the world’s greatest problems, like child soldiers in Africa.

Last year, the group was asked by the Senate to collaborate with youth on Canada’s future on energy and the environment.

“Using Google Docs, YouTube and other forms of software we brought together 6 groups of students from schools across the country – from coast to coast – and they wrote, together, the document that they presented to the Senate,” said Godwaldt.

“These kids were never, ever, in the same room and yet they put together this paper – over 2,500 hours collectively – and submitted it to the Senate on behalf of Canadian youths. That’s not something you can do with a typewriter.”

Godwaldt said the students use Google Docs, as well as YouTube to brainstorm ideas and collaborate together.

“What we can do with technology now is incredible – and yes, we have to adapt but the opportunities that it opens to how students address real issues is exceptional,” said Godwaldt.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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