Web pulls world into classroom

Blogs, video-sharing websites, and social-networking sites give students the opportunity to tune their thinking and writing to a larger audience.

As students of all ages return to the classroom this fall, the wireless world is changing the nature and possibilities of their education.

My own evolution from Luddite to digital Lazarus has transformed the way I teach in my English class. I used to think that a blog was a large clog in my kitchen sink. Then last year, I took the plunge and required my students to create and maintain their own blogs, where they showcase their essays, stories, images, podcasts, and videos.

Teachers who are using blogs, social-networking sites, and video-sharing sites in school settings are giving young people the opportunity to tune their thinking and writing to a larger audience. When students know that anyone in the school with an Internet connection – or around the world, for that matter – can read what they have written or created, it is remarkable how quickly their thinking improves, not to mention the final product.

One of my students recently commented that her blog is like a MySpace site dressed up and ready for its first job interview. Another student praised YouTube as the best invention since the mobile text-message, which, incidentally, just turned 15 this year.

If you don't understand the techno-jargon here, don't worry. The first dinosaurs into the tar pits of tomorrow will be teachers who refuse to adapt to new technology.

Today, most pedagogical tasks and tests in high school and college can be successfully navigated by an Internet-savvy student. Super-empowered students will make out quite well in the digital future. So will great teachers.

The tools that are available on the Web right now make it possible to extend the classroom instruction far beyond the class period or school day. Blogs, for example – in addition to being presentation "studios" for student work – also bring people from novice to expert into the conversation in a way that would've been unheard of even five years ago.

Want to have a conversation with an author, a professor, a critic, or a journalist? Want to utilize the "oral histories" or expertise of your classmates' families, relatives, and friends? Want to talk to someone in Boston or Baghdad about something that is going on under their boots or in their brains? If they have an Internet connection, send them a link and invite them to join your online classroom discussion.

In several profound ways, the classroom is no longer a pedagogical "black box." The powerful features of the Internet are even starting to enrich conversations in real time.

When Michael Richardson and Don Imus slip up, the following day there are teachers around the country ready to pounce. Imagine an English teacher leading a discussion on race relations and racial-identity development in the context of Ralph Ellison's classic novel "Invisible Man." Imagine the same teacher in a room with an Internet connection. There is nothing like the Web and a video-sharing site, such as YouTube, to make the invisible visible and immediately relevant.

The possibilities are endless.

During discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" last year, I took my class to the computer lab and sent them on a scavenger hunt. Twenty minutes later, we were all watching video clips of Model T Fords bumping across dusty roads, a couple engaged in a dance called the Charleston, and a ruddy modern-day man giving a tour of a speakeasy that he had found in his basement.

Some of my teaching peers in the foreign-language department are using YouTube to locate advertisements and music videos in the target language, thereby fostering language acquisition. Another teacher – in concert with teachers in Canada and France – has even led her students to produce a video (in French) about our school and post it on YouTube.

PowerPoint presentations will never look the same. Matt Domenick, an 11th grader from Philadelphia, explains: "On my 'elections project' in history I used YouTube to show a recent political debate, furthering my peers' understanding of the electoral race. Most students love to watch movie clips instead of the primitive listening we do in class. I would rather use new technology. Wouldn't you?"

I didn't know that "primitive listening" was what I sometimes perpetuate as a teacher, but I get the picture – literally.

What will my students be able to do next year with the help of new technology? How about five years from now? Who wants to be the brontosaurus of the classroom? Not this T-rex!

Mark Franek is the outgoing dean of students and an English teacher at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. He is currently teaching composition at Philadelphia University.

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