The digital revolution has given us instant communication and easy global connectedness, with mobile technology in particular growing at warp speed: in 2013, there are almost as many mobile phone contracts as there are people in the world. This digital transformation has produced some extraordinary online tools for flexible education, which enhance students' learning and promise innovative pedagogy for teachers. However, they can also be daunting and challenging for educators.
It is clear that teachers cannot ignore these tools, which go far beyond just Facebook and Twitter. Educators are now dealing with Generation Z - students born after 1995 who have hardly known a world without social media and have lived a life measured in bits and bytes. Most have access to iPads and smartphones as well as textbooks and, therefore, the massive resource of the internet.
This has changed the way in which they search for and engage with information. It has provided access to a treasure trove of cultural and historical resources stored in libraries and museums. It has globalised information channels so that students are no longer restricted to their local resources. And, rather than just text, Generation Z students expect audio and video as well.
This shift in the way information is created, distributed and accessed is discussed by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. They explain that information is now a participatory medium and argue that traditional approaches to learning cannot cope with this constantly changing world. For example, teachers no longer need to scramble to provide the latest data for students, because the latter are able to take an active role in helping to create and mould information, particularly social information.
The conduits for all this information, and the means by which Generation Z children analyse, share and adapt it, are a vast number of disparate and creative online tools - everything from Pinterest to Diigo. As a teacher, selecting the right tools from among the huge number available, and using them productively in lessons, is not easy, yet it is essential for the engagement and learning of today's students.
As a starting point, it is helpful for teachers to realise that in using these tools, the aim is to educate children in a new set of skills. The US 21st Century Information Fluency Project has formulated a list of these skills, deemed essential to the development of "digital global citizens". They are as follows:
- Solution fluency - the ability to think creatively to solve problems by clearly defining the issue, designing and delivering an appropriate solution, then evaluating the process and outcome.
- Information fluency - the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats.
- Creativity fluency - the ability to look analytically at any communication to interpret the real message, to evaluate the efficacy of the chosen medium and to create original communications by aligning the message and audience through the most appropriate and effective medium.
- Collaboration fluency - the ability to work cooperatively with virtual and real partners in an online environment.
Once these aims are established, you can choose the right mix of online tools - alongside traditional teaching resources - to instil those skills in the students. The choice of online tools is extensive. Below is a list of some of them and how they are used:
- Microblogging tools for information sharing by teachers, students, classes and the school community, such as Edmodo, Yammer, Google+ and Twitter.
- Social bookmarking and tagged collections tools, such as Diigo, Delicious, Pearltrees and Flickr.
- Social connecting tools, such as Skype in the classroom and Google Hangouts.
- Collaborative writing, editing, mindmapping and presentation tools, such as Google Docs, Exploratree, VoiceThread, MindMeister and Wikispaces.
- Research tools for online reference management, such as Zotero, EndNote and EasyBib.
- Information capture and sharing in multiple platforms and on multiple devices, such as Evernote, Pinterest, Scoop.it and LiveBinders.
- Open-access repositories and creative commons collections, such as Europeana and Flickr's The Commons.
- Aggregators and news readers, such as Netvibes, Symbaloo and Feedly.
- Online storage, file sharing and content management, such as Dropbox, Box.net and SkyDrive.
If all this looks pretty confusing, rest assured that it does not seem that way to Generation Z. The majority of them easily adapt to multiple mobile social media approaches to learning. They are probably already using a number of the above.
Implementation of tools cannot be haphazard or scattergun: adaptation has to be structured and thought through. Fortunately, there are some excellent examples of teachers successfully using a number of online tools, and their experience has been documented on the web to guide others.
Kathleen Morris, a teacher at Leopold Primary School in Victoria, Australia, has been connecting with families and bringing global learning into her class for more than six years with blogs, global collaborative projects, interactive whiteboards, iPod Touches, iPads and a wide range of Web 2.0 tools. She blogs about what works and what doesn't at primarytech.global2.vic.edu.au.
Another teacher-cum-blogger is Bianca Hewes (biancahewes.wordpress.com), a secondary school teacher in New South Wales, Australia. Among other things, she has blogged extensively about her use of Edmodo, which she calls "a teacher and student friendly web-based tool that facilitates the sharing of resources", writing that she uses it "for six specific purposes: resource sharing, collaboration, lessons, communication, assessments and organisation".
Other examples include a teacher in Tasmania who is doing innovative work with the online game Minecraft (dbatty.wordpress.com), and Ivanhoe Grammar School in Victoria, which takes social media very seriously and provides the website iCyberSafe.com to help students and the school community understand the connected world.
These are just a few of the many examples in Australia alone - across the world teachers are using technology in innovative, creative and, most importantly, useful ways. These include Mark Anderson in the UK, who blogs at ictevangelist.com and Vicki Davis in the US, who blogs at coolcatteacher.blogspot.com.
So, clearly, online tools are as useful for teachers as they are for students. Through blogs, Twitter and other media, best practice in teaching with these tools can be ascertained. This sharing of knowledge is crucial in demystifying the digital world and making it more accessible. This in turn will enable teachers to properly use the opportunities, get excited by them and, in using them, ensure that the next generation is catered for and adequately prepared for the future.
Judy O'Connell is course director in the School of Information Studies at Charles Sturt University in Australia, and can be found online at judyoconnell.com
- The digital revolution has provided a plethora of flexible teaching tools for teachers, but using them can be challenging and intimidating.
- However, engaging with these tools is crucial to the learning of Generation Z - those who have never known a life without the internet.
- Teachers can choose from a number of tools covering everything from microblogging to collaborative writing. But they must always keep in mind the outcome - for example, enhancing new skills essential to the modern world such as solution and collaboration fluency.
- A wealth of teacher-curated information is available online to help teachers use the tools effectively. what else?
- Find out more about the 21st Century Fluency Project at fluency21.com.