The True Benefit of Technology to Education

"You should have an invitation to our Great Gatsby webquest in your inbox. Click on the link and begin your research," I said, watching my students dive into the digital world for a 45-minute lesson. Thanks to steep tuition and a talented technology team, students at this, my first school, enjoyed community email, online file banks for each class, and participation in late-night assignment-related “chats” on our network. They ordered smoothies from the Student Government home page and listened to their friends’ chapel talks at the school website. Our computer labs were well-equipped with scanners, Photoshop, and the latest yearbook technology. Every classroom sported the “Porsche” of educational software — the Smart Board. Students dabbled in audio recording, iMovies, PowerPoint, and web design, like toddlers dabble in finger paint. It was wonderful.

That was then; this is now. At my current school in Bulgaria, there are no Smart Boards and no grading programs, but we do have moody labs and video equipment, and a nascent school email system; however, I would argue that technology’s impact on school life is undiminished. Whatever you might think about students’ obsession with Wikipedia, their tendency to waste time on Facebook or Twitter or Flickr, and their love of (uncited) Google Images and Sparknotes, the digital world has something else to offer these kids, something that requires just one computer and not a classroom full of laptops. The most fundamental contribution of modern technology to the classroom is the creation of an online community of educators, free and accessible to all who can find the Internet — whether they are teaching in Bel Air, the Bronx, or (yes) Bulgaria.

As I approach a new book in my curriculum, I have a palette of resources from which to choose. Though the English library here is limited, I simply sign online to tap an international database of lesson plans, activities, and articles. Before introducing Dubliners, for example, I can read up on James Joyce at the Irish Writer’s Museum website (http://www.writersmuseum.com/museum.asp), download discussion questions from Penguin’s free teaching guides, purchase the audio book at http://www.audible.com/ to play for my students on Fridays, browse through related short stories linked at http://www.webenglishteacher.com/, and consider the well-designed projects contributed by fellow teachers at http://www.readwritethink.com/. I can find grammar podcasts on iTunes to support the writing lessons I will give in conjunction with the book, and I can make a review crossword with a free online puzzle-maker tool. The BBC offers articles on Irish history, The New York Times produces a book review and an author obituary. My curriculum swells richly as I mix all these elements with my own thoughts and ideas.

What if every doctor had to learn for herself how to reset a broken bone? Would there be advances in medicine if every practitioner had to figure out everything without help from his professional community? For our bright young teachers who may or may not have majored in education, online resources make it possible to avoid burnout and produce polished lessons and projects in the limited time available for planning. For experienced teachers, online resources can prevent stagnation and provide inspiration, filling in the gaps that are bound to reveal themselves from time to time. For those veterans with a lifetime of brilliant teaching behind them, online resources, if nothing else, provide a forum to share their life’s work.

But what of the argument that a teacher finding ideas online is like a student plagiarizing from http://www.echeat.com/? Online curriculum content is shared by teachers around the world because they want to help other teachers. Why should our best-developed curricula be seen only by 30 young people, if it might help thousands more to understand and enjoy the material? When I sent my favorite differentiated assignment for How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents to the Canadian lesson share site “Outta Ray’s Head” (http://home.cogeco.ca/~rayser3/), I was thrilled to hear back soon from a teacher who had used and enjoyed my ideas in her classroom thousands of miles away.

As teachers, we must seek out ideas that will keep our work fresh. To be sure, I have “discovered” many a lesson by listening to National Public Radio on my way out to dinner, by asking my best friend what she remembers about The Canterbury Tales from high school, or even by staring into space until inspiration hits. More and more, however, I find these “discoveries” by perusing PBS online educator resources, the blog of a teaching friend, or the online pages of this journal. No doubt, I have a shelf bending under the weight of all the books I’ve read about teaching, and I like to look for lesson ideas in print, too, but the online world is a treasure we can all share — and expand — for free.

Spending an afternoon building a “Favorites” list for classroom inspiration is like attending a national conference in your discipline, without the $700 in expenses. Online, educators join a virtual community of thousands, perhaps millions, who are all interested in sharing their experiences and enthusiasm. New ideas await at a mouse click or a finger stroke.

In the end, I am reminded that with such privilege comes responsibility. (Isn’t this what we’re telling our 12th graders right now?) The world of online educational resources can only be as good as we make it. When that wonderful lesson plan pops onto our screens, we should consider contacting the author to show our appreciation and our desire to see more. When we discover satisfying materials on a lesson-sharing site, we should send in our own work as well. We should submit to online newsletters, journals, and magazines, and we should suggest that our schools set up email addresses for sharing best practices among our own teaching communities. Finally, we might even start a free blogspot blog to post our schools’ strongest lessons, inviting each of our teaching friends to check out our work, inspiring them, perhaps, to start an online resource of their own.

These days, becoming a teacher-researcher and author is as easy (and certainly as useful) as it has ever been. With the click of a button, we can influence classrooms across the globe, brightening the faces and units of educators and students we may never even meet. Whether these virtual colleagues have Smart Boards or access to the latest educational texts, their students will have a better learning experience thanks to our online efforts. Who knows? Perhaps our students will share a reciprocal benefit from them — someday very, very soon.

One English Teacher’s Internet Journey

  • PBS Teachers
    http://www.pbs.org/teachers/
    Here are wonderful resources in a variety of disciplines. I’ve particularly enjoyed using the Mark Twain interactive scrapbook.
  • Web English Teacher
    http://webenglishteacher.com/
    Carla Beard has put together the strongest collection of lesson plans and activities I’ve seen. Simply click the type of lesson you’re looking for (speech, debate, literature, poetry?) and browse. You can always email Carla with online resources you have created and invite her to link to your work on her page; she welcomes contributions.
  • Outta Ray’s Head English Lesson Plans
    http://www.rayser.ca/
    This Canada-based sharing site invites you to browse others’ favorite project ideas and to email in your own to share with the world.
  • Internet-Based Reading and Language Arts Lessons
    http://www.readwritethink.org/
    The National Council of Teachers of English runs this extensive online lesson file cabinet. Click on “FAQs” at the bottom of the page to learn how to submit your own web-based lessons.
  • Google Blogger
    https://www.blogger.com/start
    From the Google Blogger page, it takes about five minutes to set up a class blog or a teaching blog. Posting handouts on Google Docs (docs.google.com) and then linking them to a blog is easy and enables access to work for absent students and teaching colleagues. Simply send out an email letting folks know about the new class blog. 
  • Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame Educator’s Site
    http://www.rockhall.com/teacher/sti-lesson-plans/
    Care to teach the 1960s through its music? Discover the Carpe Diem message in Pink Floyd’s lyrics? On this site, find more than 50 lesson plans designed to engage students with academia through the work of famous musicians.
  • Penguin Teacher’s Guides
    http://us.penguingroup.com/static/pages/services-shared/teachersguides.html
    These downloadable PDF guides offer dozens of teaching ideas for many classic novels and plays.
Betsy Potash

Betsy Potash is an educator and writer, currently living in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, with her family.