How can students support the smart adoption of tech tools in the classroom? And how can they help teachers be more comfortable with--and rethink--the role of technology in teaching?
Angela Estrella is working on a solution. As the media teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, her job is to ensure that students and teachers are on the same page when it comes to classroom technologies. She finds herself at the crossroads between two groups that can be literally decades apart when it comes to tech savviness. “Technology has changed what it means to be a librarian,” Estrella says. “It’s not just dealing with books and inventory. Now the librarian is expected to be on top of media and technology, and help others be comfortable with it.”
But providing tech support in a school with only one dedicated IT person for over 1,800 students, 800 computers, 20 smartboards, and countless personal devices used by teachers is a daunting task--let alone trying to keep up with all the latest and shiniest tools put forth by edtech companies these days.
So at the beginning of the 2012 school year, Estrella raised a mini army of those who are most likely and willing to help: a group she dubbed “the Virtual Vikings.” Technically, it’s an elective class for upperclassmen with a free period; the Vikings work as Estrella’s TAs. The subject, however, is a serious matter. Their mission, according to the recruitment flyer: to “research, advance and aid in the development and use of technology at Lynbrook.” Or, as this promo video shows, to save the day when technology is literally falling apart in the classroom.
Currently six strong, the Virtual Vikings is made up of five guys and a gal, who just happens bring a healthy dose of skepticism toward technology. (“She provides a welcome balance,” says Estrella.) They’re headquartered in the school’s FlexLab, a state-of-the-art, reconfigurable classroom with multiple large displays, a future video recording studio, and--most importantly--wide desks on wheels. It serves as a sandbox where teachers can experiment with layout setups for collaborative or tech-rich class activities, and where the Vikings set up shop as they experiment with the latest gadgets.
First and foremost, the Virtual Vikings are first responders to teachers in IT distress. When I visited in November during fourth period, seniors Kevin Wu and Alex Tsai were on duty. The lab had just received a new Apple TV, which Kevin and Alex were eager to tinker with. Before that, though, they were sent to troubleshoot printer issues for the drama teacher a couple doors down--which ended up taking nearly the entire period. (It’s an ageless problem with no end in sight.)
At other times, Estrella assigns her Virtual Vikings specific research projects based around questions like “Can you find me an alternative to Nearpod that’s easier to use?” So far they’ve looked at Google Docs, Evernote, Quizlet, IFTTT, Prezi, Gradecam, and Wunderlist. Their reviews come in different formats, depending on the complexity of the tool in question. Some take the form of show-and-tell presentations with teachers present; others are written assignments.
The Vikings’ research are guided by a series of questions that Estrella asks students to answer, typically using a scale of 1 to 7:
- How difficult was it to learn how to use this tool?
- How would you rate the user friendliness of this tool?
- How would you rate the “Help” section for this tool?
- How often did you encounter technical difficulties using this tool?
- How would you rate this tool as a platform for allowing you to be creative during the learning process?
- How would you rate this tool as a platform for allowing you to collaborate with othesr?
- How would you rate this tool as an educational tool?
- What do you think are the biggest benefits and weaknesses of this tool?
Bridging the disconnect between teachers’ and students’ perspective of working with tech in the classroom is at the heart of the Vikings’ mission, Estrella says. “I might have an idea of how I would want to use a tool, but it’s always amazing that kids can see it a different way.”
And sometimes, the reactions from the two crowds differ. Recently, Estrella recently had the Vikings review a tool that was able to snap photos of a multiple-choice bubble sheet and instantly send the results into online gradebooks. To many teachers, it seems like a wonderful idea. But the Vikings didn’t like the larger bubbles on the company’s customized forms, finding that it took them longer to fill in their answers. In the end, the school decided against purchasing the program.
It’s a case in point in how students’ user experience matters. And the Vikings’ opinions on these tools have found a receptive audience of Lynbrook’s 85 teachers, many of whom will soon be receiving school-purchased iPads. Estrella also runs PD workshops through the semesters, and has organized “Tech Menu Days” where her colleagues share the latest tools they’re using. At a session in mid October, she put her Virtual Vikings in the spotlight: As part of a panel organized around the topic of Digital Natives, the Vikings shared what tools they liked for learning and fielded questions from teachers. “The teachers loved asking which tools were useful or cumbersome,” Estrella recalls. “The students were kind of surprised.”
At the next Tech Menu Day, Alex and Kevin want to show off Evernote and IFTTT to teachers, which they are eager to use. But Estrella is cautious about prematurely pushing new tools. A former history teacher herself, Estrella has encountered her fair share of near-disasters when working with technology. A botched technology implement can scar teachers, squashing their enthusiasm for trying new approaches. “One of the worst parts of teaching is when the technology doesn’t work. When teachers have a fear of failure, it can be a real barrier to trying new tools,” she says. “We want to be careful and ensure that the first experience a positive for the teacher.”
The Virtual Vikings program is similar to that of MOUSE, a non-profit organization founded in 1997 that has trained over 4,200 students across 377 sites to serve as “digital media and technology experts in their schools.” The MOUSE Squad, as they’re known, have reportedly saved their schools an estimated $7.2 million in tech support costs. Estrella learned about them at this year’s ISTE conference and considered implementing its programs at Lynbrook. But after some research, she decided to run her own program from scratch. MOUSE, which charges a $999 membership fee for its training materials and workshops, seemed to be geared more towards lower-income, at-risk students who weren't necessarily tech savvy. At Lynbrook, that wasn’t a problem.
Furthermore, Estrella is positioning her Virtual Vikings as more than reviewers and IT support. They want to build tools that change the classrooms, too. On the Nov. 16 and 17, the Vikings hosted on school grounds a community hackathon, #hackLynbrook, where developers, teachers and students gathered to build “hacks” to improve the learning experience. (Sponsors included Treehouse, Khan Academy, Evernote, and EdShelf.) The turnout was modest: 25 students from Lynbrook alongside neighboring Monta Vista HS and Palo Alto HS, and 20 designers and developers. Still, Estrella reported that “several of the teams came up with tools that I would use tomorrow.”
For 17-year-old Virtual Viking Quinn Winters, the event’s mastermind organizer, what mattered most was “building relationships, and I hope the people will continue to work together in the future. It’s really about uniting the education and technology community around a common goal to better education in general.”
Estrella has high hopes for what her Virtual Vikings are doing inside and outside the classroom. “I really believe they can become the linchpins to the future of education. Their perspective is important and their help is critical to support teachers in the change were are just beginning to experience.” And she expects the Viking ranks to grow--because it’s getting around that “this is the best TA job you can get.”