K-12 Digital Learning Institute helps teachers embrace technology

K-12 digital learning institute

A high school English class is studying The Great Gatsby. But instead of reading the classic novel, memorizing vocabulary and writing a literary analysis, the students are forming independent groups and using iPads to create a movie trailer for the upcoming remake of the film version that will star Leonardo DiCaprio, due out in 2012. 

In an ever-changing world, school is no longer about a set core of information you need to know, because it's going to be different by the time you get out," he explains. "So what we want are independent self-directed learners who can think, who can collaborative, who can be creative and innovative. Technology is a support to that. - Dr. Billie McConnell, assistant professor of teacher education

Along the way, the students will learn the same lessons they would have while writing a research paper, but they'll become more engaged, exercise more creativity and, best of all, see how skills used in their English class can translate into a real-world setting.

Learning by doing

This is called Project-Based Learning (PBL), and was the focus of Abilene Christian University's first K-12 Digital Learning Institute this summer, sponsored by the Department of Teacher Education.

Sixty-four secondary teachers and 56 elementary teachers attended one of the three sessions held in June, facilitated by ACU faculty and guest presenters from several PBL schools in Texas.

Julie Garner, English teacher at Jim Ned High School in Tuscola, Texas, is eager to take PBL to her classroom using her Great Gatsby idea to teach classic themes in a new way.

"It's pretty exciting," Garner says of what she's learned from ACU. "It's not the content that's different; it's the delivery of the content. It is allowing students to have more control over their own learning and pushing them in that direction."

Keeping up with the times

Dr. Billie McConnell, assistant professor of teacher education, says this is the whole idea behind ACU's K-12 Digital Learning Institute.

"In an ever-changing world, school is no longer about a set core of information you need to know, because it's going to be different by the time you get out," he explains. "So what we want are independent self-directed learners who can think, who can collaborative, who can be creative and innovative. Technology is a support to that. So that’s what this week is all about."

The Project-Based Learning concept has been around since the 1990s, says McConnell. What's new to teachers at ACU's institute is the way technology is integrated into the PBL lessons, with emphasis on iPads in the classroom.  

Garner, who is in her 11th year of teaching, says her students often struggle with why they have to learn subjects like English and math. "Me telling them these communication skills are crucial is the not the same as showing them how they can use them in the real world," she says. So she has high hopes that using the PBL model will provide a more "authentic" learning experience.

A paradigm shift

Though a small rural school district, Jim Ned stepped into the world of mobile learning in 2009 by issuing iPod touches to all high school students.

"ACU has been a huge resource for us in using the iPod touches," says Kay Whitton ('77), Jim Ned business teacher. "But for some of us older dogs, it's been kind of hard trying to find the time to learn that new technology."

For Whitton, the institute has represented a paradigm shift. "Everything we were taught in our education classes, especially those of us who went through school a couple of decades ago, the whole manner of teaching has changed so much," she says. "A lot of this week has been showing us ways to integrate technology more in our classroom. The workshop has been great."

Jeff Montgomery, English teacher at Austin Westlake, a 5A school, likens PBL to "guerrilla education - you're in, you're out and they don't even know what hit them." After attending ACU's institute, he is ready to wrap his entire lessons around PBL, noting that all juniors and seniors at his high school will receive iPad 2s this year.

He is excited about the future of digital learning. "I think we are probably just knocking on the door of bigger and better things," he says. "If we’re afraid of technology or intimidated, we'll just be stagnant. If we keep embracing technology that comes our way, the sky's the limit."

By Robin Saylor, from ACU Today Magazine, Summer 2011

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