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By Caitlin Rosen, Upper Division Educational Technologist
From the beginning, technology has been integrated into the design of the upper school curriculum, not as an add on or afterthought, but integral to the way we teach. As the upper school has grown and evolved, so too has technology evolved. We are called on to continually examine and improve upon the ways we use technology.
As a high school for students with learning disabilities, we are charged with both educating our students in fundamental high school subject areas and preparing them to independently tackle the learning and living challenges that await them after graduation. So on an immediate level, we provide our students with a variety of tools to support their diverse learning needs. However, as the best tools today may not look like the tools that will be available in the future, it is imperative that our students learn to be proactive in seeking out and using tools that empower them to learn and work independently, to be creative in their uses of technology, and to be resilient in the face of imperfect technology. In learning to harness technology to bypass the various barriers our students face, they also learn to be resourceful, flexible, and creative problem solvers–successful members of any setting they may find themselves in down the road.
In many ways, our program looks very much as it did when we first began: each student travels from class to class with a laptop provided by the school; teachers present dynamic lessons on interactive whiteboards; and students use text-to-speech technology and audio books to support their access of course materials. This year, we are excited about a number of new and expanding initiatives that are underway, a few of which we have outlined below.
Managing homework with Google Classroom
For the last three years we have used Google’s Apps for Education for everything from word processing and document sharing, to email and homework distribution. This August, when Google released its new classroom management platform, we quickly trained our teachers and rolled it out when our students returned in September. Classroom, which interfaces with our familiar Google Apps tools such as Docs, Drive, Mail, and Calendar, provides a simple, unified structure for collaboration, organization, and the management of academic responsibilities in a clear interface which, had been lacking in every other tool we looked at. We are impressed by the growth, resourcefulness, and creativity demonstrated by students and teachers as they learn to quickly adapt and integrate the new (and at times imperfect) technology.
Supporting transitions with Freshman Workshop
In an effort to better support the transitions of our ninth graders into high school, this year we introduced a new class, Freshman Workshop, that provides students with focused time to explore issues of technology, both how it affects them as members of a larger society, and how it can change the course of their experiences and successes as students with diverse learning profiles. Building upon our middle school’s media literacy program, our freshmen focus on issues unique to upper school students while participating in hands-on activities that encourage class bonding, facilitate communication, and necessitate teamwork. It is also an opportunity for each incoming ninth grader to begin building a personal relationship with our Educational Technology Coordinator, who will continue to support them and their use of technology over their four years in the upper school, as they grow into independent learners.
Promoting independence with portable technologies
As portable technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, our students are learning to make the most of personal and school-loaned devices such as iPods and smartphones. It is not uncommon to see students snapping pictures of such things as class demonstrations, diagrams and notes, or their daily schedule as memory and study aids. Many students choose to get course texts as audio books installed to support reading comprehension and stamina. Likely due to the greatly improved dependability and convenience of speech-to-text technology, this year we have had a great increase in students dictating written work directly into their Google Docs using the native speech-recognition capabilities of these devices. Additional uses are varied and constantly evolving: students can access the new 7-day schedule on a calendar app, use alarms to set homework reminders, and scan barcodes on books to generate MLA citations for their papers. Our focus is on getting the right technology into the hands of our students.