Learning to Tech: A Teacher Candidate’s Introduction to 21st Century Learning

By Emily Vance
As a teacher candidate in the Education Program at UBC I had no idea what kind of environment I would be stepping into when my practicum began just twelve short weeks ago. Of course I knew that I would be teaching English in some way, but to whom and how was a mystery to me. It wasn’t until I showed up that Monday morning, bright-eyed and eager to impress, did I find out the subjects of my classes along with their composition. It was also then that I was told of the school’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy and their subscription to Google Apps. This meant that every student in the entire school came to class equipped with a laptop and little else in their backpacks. This also meant that all tasks these students were assigned had to be created and turned in using a shared Google Doc; all resources or handouts necessary for students were to be posted to each Classroom’s blog; any assessments had to be scheduled (without conflict) by teachers using Google Calendar; and all online communications between students and teachers were done using Gmail. For someone who still carries a pencil and notebook with them at all times, this was all news to me.
You can probably guess that, upon being informed of these details, I immediately began to question myself. I knew that I would be fully capable of teaching students but was I going to be able to teach students that seemingly had all of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips? I’ve heard a lot of teachers say that allowing students to use devices in the classroom creates a barrier, a wall, between the student and the teacher or the student and  his peers. This was not the kind of environment that I wanted to establish. I began to think of the laptops my students were bringing to class as obstacles that were going to get in the way of both my teaching and their learning. Would they be able to learn from me with a laptop of endless distractions in front of them? Would they know how to communicate face-to-face with myself or their colleagues? I had no idea.

Before I start to sound like a dinosaur, you should probably know that I am 24 years young. I grew up with technology. And yet, I had never seen technology in the classroom. In the schools that I went to the computers were kept in the computer labs, and cell phones were confiscated if seen - I don’t even think we had Wi-Fi. And now, as a teacher candidate, the learning curve I was faced with was one that I had taken for granted for most of my life - the use of technology - and it intimidated me.

Fast-forward twelve weeks. After having spent ten weeks teaching these students in and outside of the classroom and interacting with them one-on-one, I can say with complete confidence that having access to technology not only enhanced the quality of education these students were receiving, but it also enhanced the quality of relationships that they were developing with each other, with their teachers, and with the world outside of their school. 

During Mental Health Awareness week at the school, our class scrolled through Twitter feeds in order to join in on conversations with scientists, activists, and other students around the world talking about and collaborating on this important social issue. After writing exams, our class housed a Book Talk in which students were able to talk about the literature they were reading and record their suggestions for other students to see using a Google Doc. This lead to new friendships and emerging book clubs based on commonalities in literature choice. In an attempt to better integrate home life with school life, our classroom combined the two typically separate worlds by inviting parents to sit in on family history presentations via Skype, allowing parents to become a bigger part of their child’s educational journey. On weekends I would receive emails from students with suggestions for class readings for the following week, letting me know what they were interested in and ensuring an engaging lesson for the whole class.
I know that I am no expert, but after having spent ten weeks teaching these students I can see that they are using technology, not as a wall, but as a window to discover their interests and explore the world around them. I can no longer see these devices as obstacles. Instead, these devices have become tools that we use to make connections to other people sitting right next to us or across the world from us. And, with the potential of making endless connections, we can use them to share information, knowledge, beliefs, stories and opinions in order to enrich our learning experience and gain a more holistic view of the world. 
This inherent skill of sharing is probably one of the most significant values that teachers wish their students felt more comfortable exercising in the classroom – I’m sure we’ve all experienced the pain of having asked a really stimulating question only to be met with a room full of silence and blank stares. It sucks. Well, all of these students have this ability to share, and I have a strong feeling that this stems from their personal use of tech devices. Because they are comfortable using technology as a medium to share their interests, ideas, stories, and opinions online, doing it in the classroom has become second nature. And not only do they share these things with each other, but they share them with me as well. This means that, as a class, we can have meaningful conversations about what they are looking at online; we can analyze, summarize, interpret, predict, compare, and apply what we are seeing to what we know or are currently learning about. These are the skills I want my students to learn, and it is through technology that I hope to teach them. How are you teaching your students?
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Emily Vance is a Teacher Candidate (TC) from the University of British Columbia who is in the process of completing her community practicum at the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education. She grew up in Surrey, British Columbia and currently lives in Vancouver.


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