Effective Technology Tools for Student Centered Learning in Science
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
The summer is winding down.
This week I was traveling to pick up my two boys from another successful sleepover at my parents’ house two and a half hours away. I never much minded that trip. I soooo wanted out of my small, rural town as a high school senior but did very much also love “home”. All those years ago, I accepted and promised that wherever I ended up would not be too far away, and I’d visit often. Long drives – especially without my family in tow – are so great for brainstorming!
During that long trip with the sunroof open and the tunes turned WAY up, I thought about those of you who have connected with me throughout the summer. Some of you have purchased items from my store. Others of you have sent me emails and completed surveys on my website to let me know more about their teaching experience and how I might be able to support them through this challenging year that will forever live in infamy (2020) and beyond. Not surprisingly, each and every one of you has sought some guidance, support, ideas, and/or resources for teaching in the virtual space. I imagine you thinking to yourselves, “What should this look like?! What will this look like?! Does anyone have a better way to do this than I’ve already tried?!”.
When I returned home from my long car trip, I received a call from my sister-in-law, a secondary music teacher with two 3-year-old twins and a 1st grader at home, who was beside herself. Her district had just announced that the teachers would report to the building and teach for five and half hours each day, but students would all remain at home. Her daughter’s school, however, is still planning to invite students in all five days a week. Beyond navigating how to integrate her family life with her responsibilities at work – a problem so many parents are facing in every industry across the country right now – she was frustrated with what she feels is a very tangible truth: Brick-and-mortar teachers have not been properly trained or practiced at delivering quality education virtually.
As a cyber school teacher by trade and training, you may think she was just floating my boat and inflating my ego. Perhaps. 😊 But, I know that she’s extremely concerned for the learning loss that occurred in the spring and that she foresees continuing throughout this school year, not only for her students but for her own children.
Don’t ask me why it’s taken me so long, but shortly after I hung up the phone, it dawned on me that most teachers are not being provided the tools I use to effectively lead virtual classrooms to coach their students through the learning they need and deserve. Zoom and Google Meet might be the recommended software for you to virtually connect with your students daily this year. Or, maybe you are in the compromising position of supporting students in a hybrid learning model, one in which students report live to the physical classroom on select days while they remain home on others. Perhaps you plan to accomplish learning on the virtual days by recording and posting videos to YouTube. All of these technologies undoubtedly facilitate learning. They allow you to dispense information. I haven’t worked with Zoom or Google Meet as a host or leader, but from what I can tell of my own children’s activity, it provides largely one-way communication. Teachers deliver instruction.
What do the students do?
Are administrators really surprised at the lack of participation and learning loss that occurred during the Spring 2020 semester?! Superintendents, directors of curriculum, and principals are supposed to be well-versed in best practices. Does students sitting idly by, listening to a talking head constitute a best practice?
I launched this blog to help all science teachers at any level convert their practice from a teacher-centered or teacher-led style to a student centered learning approach, because I’ve had great success doing so in the virtual model. I believe the virtual model is one of the most challenging in which to work because of the inherent obstacles to using body language and other nonverbal cues that allow us to develop and nurture student relationships. However, the virtual model in which I work would be made much more challenging if my administrators took away the virtual classroom software on which I rely.
In some adjunct roles I’ve held in the past, I’ve used Adobe Connect. I think the software, GoToMeeting, shares the same functionality. For the last ten years, we’ve used Blackboard Collaborate in my cyber charter school. All of these solutions support use of a webcam to project the teacher's image, a participant list for attendance purposes, chat functionality, and polling buttons which are akin to physical classroom clickers. Zoom and Google Meet can easily accomplish most of those same tasks. However, the ability to separate my students into “breakout rooms” so they can utilize virtual whiteboards to document engage with the lessons is critical! It is only with this feature that I’ve been able to use existing resources to transform my classroom from teacher centered to student centered learning. It’s been truly difficult to imagine attempting it otherwise!
**UPDATE 7/9/21** Well, they say all good things must come to an end, right?! Next year I will not be relying on my trusted web meeting program to facilitate the student centered learning I've come to know and love. The new meeting software will have limited breakout room access. So, I'll be relying heavily on my Digital Interactive Notebooks to view student work in real time using their LIVE feature and collect student work for future review. Stay tuned to my blog for details on how I am able to accomplish that!
Each of the interactive science lessons I use and sell include a “Review & Preview” activity in the beginning of the slide deck and at least one “Learning Experience” -- these are only two of the five elements I've found to be especially effective in interactive science lessons for student centered learning. With student centered delivery in mind, these activities are best administered to individuals or small groups. (In my school, where few students know one another, small group work has been near impossible for me to successfully implement. However, I’ve seen high participation and engagement when I assign activities for individual completion.) A few weeks into the first semester, my students know that when they enter the virtual workspace until five minutes after the official start of class they will move themselves to a breakout room where they will find a copy of my PowerPoint slide on which they can annotate (i.e. type, draw, or paste images). During this time, I’m able to move throughout the breakout rooms to view student work and praise or redirect accordingly. The same routine ensues once I introduce and assign the “Learning Experience”.
In student centered learning, teachers function in the classroom in the same way coaches function on the basketball court or soccer/football field. We meet students where they are, make recommendations for improvement, provide emotional support in the form of encouragement, and, ultimately, support their growth to a new, more informed or capable state. It is only through the doing that students practice and work toward mastery. In this way, we also increase the rigor and raise our expectations for their performance.
So, let's revisit the obstacle so many of you will face this fall: “Is my technology platform or software to which I have access capable of supporting me in this endeavor?”
A quick search produces some results that suggest Zoom has some of this functionality. Use the links, below, as a starting point to further investigate whether or not and to what extent you’ll be able to lead student centered learning activities:
It seems possible to copy your PowerPoint slide onto the whiteboard for the group to annotate, but it’s not immediately clear to me whether you are able to copy that PowerPoint slide to the whiteboards of all the breakout rooms in a session.
It is also possible, it seems (Remember, I have never used Zoom as a meeting leader!), to bring back the whiteboards of various participants to showcase in the main meeting area. Sharing the student observations and analysis is a best practice and, where small group cooperative learning is not supported, can mimic strategies like reciprocal teaching. I, personally, rely on this heavily in lieu of direct collaboration.
The Zoom support page seems comprehensive and detailed in its attempt to educate users. I’d further investigate how to pre-assign participants to breakout rooms . The more prepared you are before your session, the more time you can spend supporting students and instruction!
You can leverage other, non-video or conferencing technology tools to support students' live work on activities during your meetings in a way that allows you to review their work in real-time. Google Apps are probably going to provide the most versatility and enable you to prepare completely before delivering the lesson.
In the scenario where you have provided live instructions for completing a “Learning Experience” and displayed them on a screen, you can create a Google Slide or Google Doc onto which you expect students to enter their observations, data, or analysis. I’m not very familiar with the inner workings of Google Classroom since I have never used it to collect student work, but in working with my colleagues I know access and permissions can be shared on documents. So, while it may be true that you can’t view student work in Google Classroom until they have clicked “submit”, you should be able to see their work in real-time if you create multiple copies of the slide you want them to complete during the activity portion of your interactive science lesson. Then, share each of the copies with a different student, allowing them to edit the document. While students are completing the activity, your eyes would not be in the Zoom or Google Meet window. Rather, they would be in your Google Drive. You would be clicking through the files to view student responses and then return to your meeting software to provide detailed feedback to your students, privately whenever possible.
Have I mentioned how much I love the BookWidgets software?! 😊
I use this software exclusively for sharing standalone lessons to my asynchronous students in my virtual cyber school who have been awarded permission to never attend live class. They do all the same work as a live student, but sometimes we never connect [even via email]. Some watch recorded meetings, while others don't.
Just this year, though, BookWidgets launched their “live” functionality. Select widgets for which “live activity tracking” has been enabled must be shared through an LMS by the teacher and students must have accessed it within the last 24 hours for teachers to view responses. The feature was designed to support best practices; teachers correct and redirect or praise in real-time and students don’t need to wait for feedback until their misconceptions have been carried through an entire work. The premium digital interactive notebooks I prepare to support my own students can be tracked live with this function. Teachers must have a BookWidgets account to use the full functionality of the premium digital interactive notebooks which are self-grading and editable.
It is my sincere hope that your district has equipped you with all this knowledge and opportunities for practice with these technology tools over the summer in anticipation of a less-than-ideal return to school in the fall. Sadly, I don’t think that’s been the case in many public school districts.
I will continue to share with you how I prepare and deliver my virtual, interactive science lessons. Please consider sharing your experiences and knowledge with the larger community of like-minded science teachers who seek to provide their students with not only exemplary instruction, but, also, a positive, engaging experience. (Also, I'm just so curious how different districts are planning in the wake of this apparent disaster. This afternoon I asked a customer service agent from Texas about how her kids will be returning! So, indulge me!)