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Flipsnacking: Nourishing Food for Thought or Junk Food for the Brain?

By Dr. Heather Harwood, Classics Department Head

Let me begin with a disclaimer:  I am not a Luddite. I genuinely like technology. I own a smart phone, a laptop, and an ipad. I have both a Twitter and a Facebook account.  I read the New York Times online and love that I can watch the videos that sometimes accompany the stories. I have a Netflix account and I’d be lost without my GPS (literally); I even sometimes Skype with my parents. As an educator, I was an early proponent of using technology to facilitate student learning.  In fact, despite its stuffy, antiquated reputation, Classics was one of the first of the Humanities’ disciplines to jump on the technology train, and I have been using it effectively in my classroom for over ten years. When Perseus, the first database of classical materials, first went online, I quickly made it available to my students and as soon as it was possible, I asked that my blackboards be replaced with white boards and began projecting these hypertexts onto the walls of my room.  As someone who learned how to read Greek and Latin  “the old-fashioned way” ( i.e. spending long, laborious hours looking up every word I didn’t know in a dictionary, making a long, laborious list of said words only to fail to recognize them later because they appeared in a different form in the text and so collapsing into a blushing, embarrassed silence in class when stumbling upon them again and asked to translate), I saw the educative value of this technology, and was eager to share it with my students, hopeful that their first reading experiences would be more efficient, productive and pleasant than mine had been. And for the most part they are. Perseus and databases like it have made referencing and reading and translating classical texts a more immediate and more widely available experience.

But since those early days of Perseus, technology has become a huge industry, and schools are increasingly becoming one of its most lucrative markets. Two recent articles, one in the New York Times and the other in the Atlantic Monthly discuss this controversial new relationship between the driving force of the techno-industry and the real  “business” of education. Both articles point to an aspect of education that lies at the heart of successful learning that online experiences and technological tools can not replicate, namely, the student-teacher interaction.

And so, let me add a second disclaimer : I am a bit of a cynic. Not in the modern sense of the word, but after the fashion of that first cynic, the ancient philosopher and cultural critic Diogenes, who, so they say, wandered around the market place with a lantern in his hand shining it in everyone’s face, claiming he was looking for an honest man. Like him, I find myself wary of this latest market-driven trend in education reform and innovation, and so have gone out into the marketplace of education in search of some honest technology. For the past two summers I have used professional development funds to look for authentic, useful and successful ways to integrate technology into my teaching and into my students’ learning. Last June, I attended an EdTech Workshop on how to harness the very modern tools of the internet to better teach ancient history, and this summer, as a member of the St. Mark’s Patterson Grant Consortium on Blended Learning, Ms. Liz McColloch and I attended two workshops at the November Learning Conference in Boston. In addition, I began to research theories and practices of  innovative teaching and learning in and out of the classroom and to consider ways we as a faculty might begin to integrate blended teaching and learning into the St. Mark’s community.

Blended, or hybrid learning, is a relatively new term for a method of teaching that combines online learning environments and content delivery with “bricks and mortar” classroom experiences. Its not exactly like attending Kahn Academy or taking a class on Coursera, nor is it at all like sitting in a classroom or lecture hall and listening to a teacher’s dusty lecture notes or even like sitting around a Harkness table having a deep philosophical discussion. Instead,  blended learning attempts to combine the best of all of these learning environments and, at its best, it claims to create more meaningful, interactive and individualized learning experiences for more students. Basically, its a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll.

In my research this summer I learned that the concept of blended learning was born out of a larger movement called “disruptive innovation,”  the brainchild of Harvard Business School graduate and professor Clayton M. Christensen, whose latest book was reviewed somewhat disfavorably in a recent New Yorker article. It turns out it is actually a theory that, before it was applied to education, was first used to describe innovations in industry. Businesses that applied disruptive methods of innovation replaced older methods or practices or technologies for new ones and thus altered the value of the product over time. Disruptive innovations improve or change a product or a practice, creating a new market and then, once they have secured the consumer interest or loyalty, they lower the cost in order to offer it to a larger number. The opposite of disruptive is called “sustaining innovation.”  In this model, a practice’s or product’s value improves inherently. No new market is created and the result increases competition with other businesses. To put this in very stark, lay educator’s terms as I understand it: in a disruptive model of education innovation, a new technology is introduced and a new market of online learners is created. The “value network” is disrupted and people no longer look to teachers and schools, but to technology for education.  Online schools and degrees eventually take the place of brick and mortar schools and over time the cost is reduced so that more consumers can afford it and traditional schools go out of business.  In a sustaining model of innovation, schools continue to improve upon the way they educate and the value of the education and the quality of teaching and learning increases. Schools continue to exist, but also continue to advance and improve and innovate in competition with other innovative schools.

In the EdTech and November Learning workshops I attended ( both of which are incidentally for- profit businesses), I was introduced to a variety of disruptive innovative technologies that could be used in and out of the classroom. The facilitators were extremely tech-savvy and presented a myriad of fun and flashy ways to present material to students online. They taught us how to embed things in blogs, how to use multiple media to introduce topics, how to make Flipsnack books, Fotobabble  images and Socrative surveys. The presentations were polished and persuasive and they made everything we did seem vital and exciting and engaging. But I began to notice that after each presenter introduced each new tech- tool, they were quick to remind us that all of this technology was “ only as good as the questions you as the teacher ask to get the students thinking about the material.” This got me thinking. If good teaching and learning really comes down to the questions my students and I ask of the material and of each other, what value added does technology per se actually provide education and, more importantly, what aspects of technology are best suited to support the kind of teaching and learning that I want to  happen in my classroom?

One very useful and I think sustaining innovation that both Ms. Cook and I have found especially effective in our upper level literature courses, is the free and (only a few years into its introduction into the tech world) now somewhat outdated Google doc.  Google docs allow us to put text into an online format that students can access together outside of class. We are able to offer customized questions and prompts for specific elements of the text ( Monday I may focus on imperfect verb constructions and Wednesday on uses of hyperbole), and students are able to work collaboratively or on their own in analyzing the text. Voicethread is another innovative technology I find extremely well-suited to language and literature instruction. In this platform I can record my voice  pronouncing Greek or Latin and the students can do the same, practicing as many times as they wish before they save it. This year for the first time I will be using Voicethread as a way to support and assess students’ language acquisition, pronunciation  and comprehension.

In addition to the EDTech and November Learning workshop, for the past two summers  I also attended the Cambridge Latin Workshop, a not-for-profit educational organization where I was introduced to a number of teaching techniques and technological resources and innovations. These tech-tools were substantive, useful and demonstrated a very intentional educational purpose linked to improved student learning and understanding. The Cambridge Latin website supports a blended model of instruction and so while it still publishes textbooks, it is expanding its online resources to include more web books and interactive material. The authors are involved in ongoing research and development to expand the variety of teaching and learning tools available and each example of a new technology they presented at the workshop revealed that the minds at work behind these programs had learning outcomes and new discoveries in educational research at their center. Vocabulary is studied in context, tools for parsing words allow teachers to control and track how many are being used, each unit provides an entryway through a variety of media (visual auditory, text-based). The new applications that Apple has made of the Cambridge texts for the iPad were also presented. Again, while they have a certain sexy, entertaining allure, I actually found them less substantive and useful than the web books on the site.

On the whole, comparing our Google doc annotated texts, Voicethread pronunciation and comprehension practices and the Cambridge online resources to some of  the kinds of “flipsnack” tech-tools out there feels a bit  like comparing a nutritious three-course meal to a bag of potato chips. As Ms. Cook and I continue to look for ways to incorporate technology into our curriculum, my goal will be to try to balance the imperative need to teach 21st century technology skills with the equally important goal of deepening student understanding and providing for self-directed, collaborative and transformative environments that are specific to the learning needs of our students.

As a side note, it was interesting for me to observe that the majority of educators at all of these workshops were middle school teachers at public schools with very large classes whose schools were transitioning to more tech-based learning and online delivery. Much of the technology they were interested in was time saving or allowed for them to differentiate instruction and reach a larger number of students at once. This made sense, when I reflected that one of the main goals of disruptive innovation is to offer the same or better product to a larger number at a lower cost.  But it also made me consider what a great advantage and perhaps what a great obligation to the future of education schools like St. Mark’s have.  I realized what a luxury it is to have such a small class size that I can effectively check in and give feedback or assistance to each student during class in person, and what an even greater boon it is to work at a boarding school where that feedback or check-in or help might also happen outside of class, not on a computer, but on the field or in the dorm or over a meal. It made me wonder if eventually the appeal of “high touch” independent schools like ours will someday be that they don’t rely as much on technology to teach, but discover how to achieve the same results with more teacher-student interaction. Whatever types of innovation we chose to embrace going forward, it is important to consider the ways in which boarding schools are already succeeding as blended learning environments. I feel strongly that as leaders in independent school education we need to ensure that our technological  innovations support and enrich these already valuable human interactions; that they are sustaining and relevant, and that they reflect the already inherently blended nature of our learning communities.

For my son’s graduation present this summer,  I had my grandfather’s old Royal 10 typewriter restored for him. His comment after an afternoon spent typing letters to friends and composing some poems was: “It’s so much harder–it forces you to think before you write.” It made me wonder  how many of the devices we now take for granted as innovations that improve education actually improve our students’ capacity to think? As St. Mark’s moves towards fulfilling its 2020 Strategic Plan Goals, we will have to reflect on the impact that technological innovation has on  teaching and learning in our community. Next year we plan to become a BYOD ( bring your own device ) school and as a member of the Patterson consortium, I look forward to continuing to share ideas and practices with my colleagues that will help us prepare for this transformative change–to discover ways to ask better questions and help our students to probe for answers more deeply, to think more critically, hypothesize more intelligently, to empathize more readily, express themselves more accurately, and engage with the material more deliberately.

Dr. Heather Harwood is the Classics Department Chair. She received her B.A. in Classics from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from Yale University. Dr. Harwood advises the St. Marker, teaches Ashtanga Yoga, and lives in Elm House.

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[1]http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/opinion/sunday/teaching-is-not-a-business.html?src=me&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Most+Emailed&pgtype=article

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