Using Online Collaborative Tools to Foster Middle School Students’ “Public Voices”: Payoffs, Perils and Possibilities

Using Online Collaborative Tools to Foster Middle School Students’ “Public Voices”: Payoffs, Perils and Possibilities

Nick Lawrence (East Bronx Academy, USA) and Joe O’Brien (University of Kansas, USA)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 30
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-492-5.ch023
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Digital participatory media offer urban social studies teachers a unique opportunity to foster students’ civic skills and public voice while enhancing their understanding of social justice within a democratic society. This case study addresses how an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in a New York urban school, when using wikis and online discussion with his students, came to realize that “what [technology] users need in order to take charge of their own online decision making is at best an art and, more often than not, a series of trial-and-error solutions” (Lankes, 2008, p. 103), while operating within two constraints identified by Bull et al (2008): “Teachers have limited models for effective integration of media in their teaching; and, only limited research is available to guide best practice” (p. 2). While using digital collaborative tools enabled students to develop collaborative and communication skills and begin to learn social justice oriented content, the teacher faced challenges related to technology integration, curricular alignment, selection of appropriate digital tools, and fostering online academic norms among students. This chapter focuses on a teacher’s three-year journey from his first day of teaching to his connecting the use of technology to relevant curricular content to promote his students’ use of online public voices for social justice.
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Organization Background

The students attend a Title I new small school with grades 6-12 in a large city in New York where more than 90% of them receive free or reduced lunch. The school is working toward a 1:1 student to laptop ratio. Grants support much of the school’s technology, which are used both to sustain current technology and to invest in new forms of technology. The hardware in the school consists mostly of over a dozen carts that contain full class sets of laptops and netbooks. The administration’s vision for the school centers on an online, mostly-paperless school where technology drives instruction. In addition to establishing the technology infrastructure, achieving this vision depends upon professional development, teacher interest and skill level, and a curriculum conducive to technology use.

Since the school’s teachers lack adequate, formal preparation in the use of technology, the administration does not expect teachers to use the technology in a specific way, but simply that they use it as best they can. This allows for a lot of flexibility for the teachers, but also provides for a lack of direction. Professional development opportunities are given periodically within the school and many are offered by the city outside of the school, but a lack of regularity and follow up mean their impacts are really only felt in a handful of classrooms. A few teachers utilize the technology on a daily basis and put their entire curricula online, while others rarely use it. For many teachers their use, such as replacing an overhead projector and television with an LCD projector, simply reinforces old pedagogical methods where they are the focal point of teaching and learning. The technology represents but an instructional tool, rather than an opportunity to redefine how students learn. Given this, the administration formed a committee in the fall of 2009 and provided the members with three charges:

  • to explore the use of technology in the school;

  • to design a specific technology curriculum; and,

  • to investigate how technology can play a larger role in each content area.

During the 2009-10 academic year the committee designed a vertically aligned set of skills for grades 6-12. The school will start implementing this curriculum during the 2010-11 academic year, the teacher’s third year of teaching. The curriculum should provide teachers more guidance on how to incorporate technology into their instruction. Individual teachers are tasked with determining how to integrate those skills into their respective content area, which creates a unique opportunity to build upon prior work on how to foster students’ civic skills and public voices.

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