This February, thanks to the support of Drs. Angela Elkordy and Ayn Keneman, classmates Tori Alland, Mia Gutsell, and I had the privilege to co-present at ICE 2018 — the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Our workshop was nearly two hours and entitled, “In Real Life: Designing Digital Learning Experiences”. In planning the workshop, we felt it was important that our session not present pie-in-the-sky ideals designed for no classroom that ever existed anywhere. We also agreed that in 2018 “in real life” digital learning should be student-centered. Thus, we developed a session that addressed school and classroom realities most teachers face day-to-day. Tori’s presentation focused on the nuts and bolts of instituting Genius Hour as a means of recruiting students’ interests. Mia modeled ways for students to demonstrate their learning through collaborative creation of digital media presentations using Google Slides. My interpretation of “in real life” and student-centeredness focused on the importance of connected learning as a framework for infusing information and communication technologies (ICT) throughout the curriculum by refining extant unit and lesson plans. In addition, we wanted attendees to recognize that Genius Hour and collaborative digital projects are examples of connected learning. It was our intention, too, that attendees take the ideas we presented back to their schools and implement them with confidence knowing that they already had everything they needed to do so without having to reinvent the wheel. In essence, the session was two parts practical application and one part theory. Or, two parts how and one part why.
As attendees were participating in our warm-up and context-setting activity, one educator asked, “Is it your assumption that we know nothing about your topic?” In the moment, it was difficult not to be defensive. It felt like an immediate challenge to the legitimacy of our presentation. The irony was that we had been planning under a considerable assumption that at a conference for computing educators our audience would indeed be highly versed in Connected Learning concepts and deeply experienced in the collaborative, student-centered content we were presenting. However, at a point in the planning, we realized we could not make such an assumption. Thus, we built in ways to tailor our presentations for the audience in front of us. This included a poll designed to assess attendees’ knowledge and experience level with Connected Learning, the results of which would determine which of three presentations I would use.
Despite the above attendee seeming to imply that the room was full of educators possessing considerable knowledge about our topic, it turned out not to be the case. This was evident not only in the poll results, but in attendees’ intense focus, participation, and the nature of the questions they asked about Genius Hour, collaborative document editing, and incorporating Connected Learning elements into instructional plans. Their desire to know more also showed when nearly all attendees stayed well past the official session end time to continue conversation and ask more clarifying and probing questions of we three presenters and our professors.
Why It Matters
In a previous post, I wrote about ICT use and Connected Learning as an equity issue. Teachers set curricular priorities and make instructional choices based more often on their belief systems than their knowledge systems. These priorities and choices are based, in turn, not on what they know, but on what they believe they know and are able to do. Their decisions are also based on their beliefs about what their students are capable of learning. (More in Navigating Teacher Beliefs, Connected Learning, and Practice-Based Inquiry for Equitable ICT Integration, Part 1.) Therefore, the kinds of learning students experience are not solely determined by what teachers know, but in part by what they believe they and their students are capable of when using ICT as methods for teaching and learning.
Consider the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics which shows that the access gap has narrowed nearly to the point of disappearing. However, where the gaps persist race, income, and education levels correlate. When looking at how teachers use ICT, all of the numbers are troubling given how few students use ICT for learning beyond basic skills and research — whether looking at urban or suburban contexts. However, more urban teachers report they “rarely” use ICT for learning tasks that involve tenets of Connected Learning such as corresponding with others for learning, blogging or using social media to engage with authentic audiences, or collaborating to create digital resources such as wikis than do their suburban, town, and rural colleagues. At the other end of the scale, urban teachers report they are more likely to use ICT “sometimes or often” for word processing and learning or practicing basic skills than their suburban, town, and rural colleague. These survey results would indicate urban and high poverty students have fewer opportunities to learn using ICT, than do students in suburban, town and rural schools. And when they do, teachers more often provide opportunities for students to use ICT for word processing, basic skills practice, and research (i.e: low-level cognition, substitution and augmentation levels of SAMR). Urban students are less likely to experience learning using digital, networked technology to create, collaborate, and work with authentic audiences and feedback (i.e: high-level cognition, modification and redefinition levels of SAMR, and the 4C’s [PDF]) than their counterparts in suburban, town, and rural school.
One way to interpret these data is as indicative of a pattern illustrating a dynamic prevalent to urban schools where many teachers are reluctant to create the open, freeform conditions often needed for learning to occur. Instead of allowing for the sometimes chaotic atmosphere conducive to learning, many urban teachers engage in “‘defensive teaching’…that is concerned with maintaining control” (Mouza, 2011). When controlling student behaviors is the primary concern for some urban teachers, teacher-centered instruction is more often the norm than student-centered learning. Under these conditions, the uses of ICT will be limited to low-level learning tasks with little to no Connected Learning taking place.
When viewed this way, teachers’ choices about ICT use can be interpreted as widening the achievement gap even at a time when the access gap is all but closed. The choice to use ICT and how to use it is a matter of equity where students in urban and socio-economically disadvantaged schools are less likely to use digital, networked devices in ways that prepare them for the 21st Century world of work than do their counterparts in other non-urban settings.
Whether the underlying cause is teachers’ beliefs about their students’ capabilities, beliefs about their own instructional capabilities, or some other factor, most students regardless of socio-economic class are not receiving the range of learning types digital, networked technologies can facilitate. However, the range of ICT-based learning poor, urban students experience is even more restricted. To address such inequities, teachers’ use of ICT needs to be intentional, explicit, and pan-curricular. Otherwise, our most vulnerable students will continue to be at a disadvantage when it comes to acquiring the growth mindsets and digital skills they will need to survive and thrive in the adult world.
ICE As a Forum For Theory & Equity
ICE 2018 was an exciting and professionally invigorating experience. In every session I attended over the full length of the conference, it was clear that the organization’s membership indeed consists of computing educators, not just computer educators. This is not a mere grammatical distinction. It is a sign that the organization is successfully meeting its constitutional purpose to “[p]romote the development, growth, and use of computers and technology in all facets of the educational process” (Constitution Illinois Computing Educators). It is not an organization whose memberships consists exclusively of teachers of computer courses. In every session there were administrators, teachers from every grade-level and every subject area, even some post-secondary counsellors.
Many, if not most of the sessions were “how to” sessions that focused on products and processes: Ways for students to produce particular learning artifacts or to use a particular app or set of apps to facilitate learning. These types of sessions are important in that they seek to model the nearly endless ways teachers can creatively use ICT to facilitate learning across the curriculum. In addition to such sessions, there are opportunities for ICE to be a forum for the necessary theoretical understandings needed to influence teacher belief sets and “[f]acilitate the dissemination of information concerning computing and technology” (Constitution Illinois Computing Educators). For example, individual chapters as well as the state organization could gain a deeper understanding of the continuum of knowledge about ICT-based learning that undergirds the belief sets and instructional decision of ICE members. Chapters could explore members’ internal anxieties regarding ICT use that impact their instructional decisions and student learning. Such an understandings open the possibility of theoretical offerings at conferences and professional learning sessions that explicate and support the sessions focusing on practical applications.
Many of our session attendees were unfamiliar with Connected Learning, Genius Hour, or how to incorporate student-centered learning using networked collaboration tools. This would suggest another opportunity to examine how member teachers use ICT in their classrooms. Even though “many teachers are aware of the potential of integrating ICTs, a considerable number of them do so in a traditional, teacher-centered manner with no significant change in their teaching methods” (Barak, 2014). As discussed in part 1, teachers’ beliefs and attitudes influence curricular and instructional choices more than any other factor. Additionally, they are more likely to teach in the same ways they were taught and employ “techno-centric and tokenistic use of ICTs” (2014) where “only a few conceptualize ICTs as means for promoting progressive education and social-constructivist learning” (2014). The ICE conference may have revealed these dynamics even among its membership, arguably a set of more “highly functioning” ICT users than the average teacher.
Since most k-12 teachers do not read a sufficient quantity of professional literature, they do not tend to link their practice to wider theoretical underpinnings. “This is not surprising , as teachers were not required to read relevant literature on teaching with technology…. [I]integrating relevant literature … is crucial to helping teachers connect their experiences to a larger body of knowledge” (Mouza, 2011). As a professional organization for teachers who use technology, ICE is well-positioned to provide the kinds of research, literature and theoretical underpinnings most K-12 teachers lack.
For Teachers of Disadvantaged Children of Color
ICE represents an exciting space to explore the perspectives and experiences of educators of socio-economically disadvantaged students of color. Urban students — adolescents in particular, are no different than their suburban peers. They are tethered to their phones, which represents considerable potential to leverage their devices for learning even in the face of very specific district- or school-wide structural, attitudinal, and technological challenges. Looking at the attitudinal challenges specifically, they include the kinds of subtle (and not subtle) deficit thinking some educators hold about urban students’ abilities, such as the defensive teaching mentioned earlier. Teacher beliefs and attitudes about what urban students can and cannot learn often impedes students’ developing necessary technological fluencies. Often, teachers plan in such ways out of the belief that students “can’t handle” innovative practices (Mouza, 2011). Nevertheless, ICE chapters and members represent a dynamic constituency to influence such associated personal efficacy and social factors that impact teacher choices. ICE and its chapters are the energetic sites where, “perceived social influence from referent others has a significant positive influence on individual beliefs about the usefulness of technology … [and] social influence positively and significantly affects IT utilization” (Gu et al, 2011). ICE represents a potentially powerful lever in moving the ICT and Connected Learning bars in urban education where ICE members are the “referent others” who, in their “post-ICE learnings” return to their schools and interact with their colleagues exert the social influence to change the beliefs and practices of technologically reluctant teachers. ICE could be an exciting and perhaps even unexpected vector from which to advocate for the ICT learning needs of some of our most vulnerable students and thus have a positive effect on equity in urban learning communities.
As an organization that supports real life digital learning, Illinois Computing Educators is a remarkable professional body. ICE 2018 was an invigorating three days of learning and interacting with several thousand enthusiastic, like-minded colleagues. As any successful conference should, this one engendered many more wonderings than answers. These wonderings suggest exciting opportunities for nuanced understanding of the needs, knowledge bases, and beliefs of computing educators, as well as adding theoretical learning to the organization’s already strong emphasis on practical applications. And significantly, there is room for added interpretations of the ICE constitution where members, chapters, and the state organization as a whole become sites of educational equity as expressed through their use of learning technologies.