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Ed Tech Tools and Teacher Collaboration: Finding the Time and Reaping the Benefits

Ed Tech Tools Teacher Collaboration Time Benefits
Working together is an old idea of course, but when collaboration is coupled with ed tech, it creates new possibilities for teachers and students.

Collaboration between teachers, collaboration between students, and collaboration between teachers and students is making this an important time for building the craft of teaching, says Dr. Margaret Riel, co-chair of the online master of arts in learning technologies at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University in California.

“We’re moving past the lock-step notion of what education is,” she says. “Controlling kids’ learning is an idea that grew out of the industrial revolution, but now it’s our job to incite curiosity, to let kids learn. It’s not hard to do – they’re natural learners.”

Knowing the Important Questions

Part of the teacher’s role in guiding students to learn is helping them equip themselves to pursue answers to the important questions.

Riel says “social and cognitive learning theory suggests we learn best in multi-sensory situations where questions or challenges are posed that we want to solve. It is said that ‘what fires together wires together,’ so that when you have a lot of things tying together, you learn better.”

But when teachers only lecture – if they don't use other, more experiential modes – the “firing” is more limited. It's likely the facts conveyed will fail to tie to previous learning, making them less likely to be remembered or integrated into the student’s thinking.

On the other hand, Riel says, “if you have a puzzle and you can’t figure it out, and you talk to your friend about it and he tries to figure it out too, but can’t, and if the two of you start working on it together, asking others what they think, and eventually you figure it out… and then maybe you win an award for figuring it out – this is learning that sparks multiple fires.”

Collaborating to Improve Student Writing Skills

Ed tech makes it easier for teachers to foster the collaboration that fires those multi-level sensory experiences at the core of learning.

Riel suggests Etherpad for teachers of young learners embarking on their first writings. A free tool that allows you to edit documents collaboratively in real-time, Etherpad allows students to work together simultaneously on the same document. Each student’s contribution is highlighted in a different color, allowing teachers to track participation and guide the writing process.

“Etherpad is great because teachers can watch a whole group of kids learning to write at the same time,” she says. “And it doesn’t have to be a dogmatic process. It’s more about helping students see what they’ve got and putting ideas in their heads: ‘Jamie’s got a good idea here,’ and ‘Carole’s working on the intro…’ It lets you shape their collective learning.”

So Many Ed Tech Tools, So Little Time

Riel acknowledges the sheer number of possibilities with ed tech collaboration tools can be overwhelming, “but try just one thing,” she suggests. [See “Finding Time for Collaboration”  for more ideas.]

Making the effort creates benefits for students as well as the teacher. Collaborating teachers are able to give voice to their students in the same way they have voice in their communities.

“At least one study [Riel and Becker 2000] shows a strong correlation between teachers who have a lot of contact with one another and a higher level of professional engagement,” she says. “As it turns out, everything that’s good for teachers is also good for kids - and vice versa.”

About Dr. Margaret Riel: Co-chair of the online master of arts in learning technologies at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University, Dr. Riel’s early work involved the design of a model of cross-classroom communication -- Online Learning Circles -- in the K-12 context. The Learning Circle model has become the structural design of her online teaching of Action Research at Pepperdine for which she received an award from the prestigious United States Distance Learning Association. She serves as a fellow for the George Lucas Education Foundation and as the director of Center for Collaborative Action Research.

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