Sunday, April 8, 2007

My take on teaching technology applications.

Anyone for a think aloud? A lot of discussion, as much as I could glean from the limited access I have had over the last few weeks, has centered on the question that David Warlick originally asked:
Are computer applications something that should be taught in a
class, or something that should be learned by the students, independent
of a class curriculum?
This couldn't come at a more appropriate time for me because I recently began meeting with our computer applications teacher and with the curriculum director for our district There is a push to redesign the class from both sides. But where do we go? I responded on David's blog with the following:
Speaking from a personal standpoint, I would like to see a computer
applications class taught, but not from a Microsoft Office standpoint.
…Why not use the Comp Apps class to introduce the students to some of
the great data mashups out there, or some of the online office suites
that this generation might see in their work experiences? Instead of
doing away with it, we should use it as a vehicle for change, to teach
problem solving skills as they pertain to choosing the best application
for a specific endeavor. In this era of unknown problems and uncertain
solutions, demonstrating how to find the right app will be a useful

And this point was echoed on Chris Lehman's blog a few days later:

But I’ll take it one step further. We have to be careful about teaching
applications, because applications change. Let’s teach tech literacy,
and teach kids to do graphic manipulation where Photoshop is a tool,
not an end… we need to teach kids to use these tools, yes, but we need
to make sure the kids understand that the specific tool is merely a
means to an end, and merely one means to that end.

From my perspective, we look at this class as part of the business department, where the focus is on giving students the necessary skills to perform successfully in a business environment. For the last decade or so, the requisite skills barely deviated from the Microsoft Office suite. I can see this radically changing over the course of our students careers, from a desktop suite to an online, moveable, scaleable, and customizable platform in the form of OpenOffice, Zoho, Zimbra, or Coventi. In looking at these few examples over the last couple of days, what strikes me immediately is the Read/Write aspect of them that is missing currently from our Computer Applications curriculum.

My incomplete reading of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat has fortunately given me some insight into the nature of what we may see emerging as the future of work flow in the 21st Century: a project started in San Luis Obispo may be edited by a worker in San Antonio, signed off by a manager from his living room in San Sebastian and sent to printing in Macau. This idea is better stated by David Williamson Shaffer, via Padraig Nash at Epistemic Games
The United States is outsourcing standardized jobs, and will continue
to send them overseas until, in the very near future, the only good
jobs left will be for people who can do innovative and creative work.
Yet in the face of this dramatic economic change, our schools have been
spending more time on basic skills for standardized tests and less time
teaching children to solve challenging problems and think in innovative

What about giving the students the ability to see many applications then be given a problem, or series of problems and ask them to choose their application to solve the problem? At Science Leadership Academy, they attack the problem by coordinating their computer applications class with their subject area needs, so if the English department needs the students to know certain applications by a certain date, the computer applications teacher takes care of that. This could be my answer.

Lastly, I stumbled upon this "Unknown Quote" recently and I can't reconcile it. Does this fit our schools?
"School is the place where kids come to watch teachers work."

Not if I can help it.

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Sylvia said...

Hi Patrick,
Interesting post!

From my experience, you are on the right track to think about the project first, and then have the students help figure out (and learn) the appropriate tool. Many teachers feel that applications are hard and create false complexity in their lessons about applications. This reflects their own fears more than student needs.

On the SLA solution, that's a unique school. Most schools don't have such a strong leader and culture of cross-department cooperation. You could end up spending a ton of time trying to coax project ideas out of other teachers. Unless you've got those relationships already established, I'd just go with some "project starters" that allow students some leeway to find connections to their own interests. They'll learn the applications along the way. Maybe start a student technology mentor group and develop some in house experts.

Patrick Higgins said...

Thanks Sylvia. Your point about collaboration between departments is well-taken. Getting various department teachers to communicate, let along in the same room, is a daunting task. In your model, do you have the students then bring the applications with them to their other classes? If so, what kind of traction do you think it has with those teachers who witness students using the newer technologies?

I would be interested to see how that played out. Looking at Kim Cofino's pages (, I need to start pulling more teachers into projects and then aggregating those projects together for others to access. That might help foster some cross-department work.

Sylvia said...

We have it pretty structured so that the teachers are partners with the students very early on. The student they work with is specifically modifying an existing lesson for that teacher (not trying to bring in something new).

We find that teachers need to see THEIR curricullum working in their classroom with their own students. Then they start to believe.

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