6 Steps to Bring Your Classroom into the 21st Century

Did the help desk recently fix your problem by asking “is it turned on?” Has a pre-schooler ever taught you how to use a piece of technology? Not to worry! You are not alone. And no matter where you are in your tech journey, you, too, can be a 21st century teacher leader — all you need is the will. Here are a few steps to guide you along the way. Trust me — I’ve seen many a teacher go through this process before. And they always come out smiling… eventually.

STEP 1: Inventory your equipment

Before you make any plans, you’ve got to know what technology your students can access. A lot of teachers think they know this (myself included), but you’d be surprised. You probably know what’s accessible at your school — perhaps a computer lab, a mobile lab, a few desktops in the back of your classroom. You might want to double-check with your district technology department, just to be certain you’re not missing anything (and to be sure nothing is sitting in unopened boxes somewhere), but you probably have a pretty good idea about what’s there.

What might surprise you, though, is what your students have. Survey them at the beginning of the school year — ask what they have at home and what they have access to outside of the home. Maybe none of your students have computers, but they all have Facebook accounts, so they must be accessing the internet somewhere. Ask them this. Also, find out what mobile technology they have access to — do they have a cell phone? An iPod touch? A tablet? A Nintendo DSi (that “i” stands for “internet” because these hand-held gaming devices can surf the web)? Do they use their parents’ smart phones?

A student survey might look something like this:

  1. Which of the following technology devices do you use at home?
    • your own smart phone (like an iPhone or Android phone)
    • your parent’s or family member’s smart phone (like an iPhone or Android phone)
    • an iPod touch
    • a Nintendo DSi
    • a desktop computer
    • a laptop or netbook computer
    • a tablet or iPad
    • other ______________________________
  2. What’s your favorite thing to do on the above devices?
  3. How do you access the internet when you’re not in school?
  4. When you’re not in school, what do you use the internet for?


You’ll notice that the above survey asks students what they’re already doing with technology. There are three reasons for these questions:

  • First, remember that you already have experts in your class. You might have an 8-year-old student who spends his weekends making movie trailers with his iMovie app. That’s good to know because you can tap him as a teacher’s assistant when you assign your class to make movie trailers about a book they read.
  • Second, there are a ton of things kids do on devices that you might not even realize are possible. For example, I had no idea a Nintendo DSi could be used to surf the web until my nephews showed me. Almost all of my students had these devices, and I had no idea that they could be used for many of the school projects I was putting on the back burner due to what I believed was their lack of access.
  • Third, your students might NOT know everything their devices can do. A lot of kids have iPod Touches and use them just for music, not realizing these devices are basically iPhones without the ability to make calls. You can even send text messages to other iPods and iPhones with them. Maybe your students say they can’t complete online research because they honestly don’t realize they have a device that allows them to do this.

Once you know what students have access to at home, you can make better decisions about what you can do in school and what you can assign for homework. If you find that most of your students have mobile devices, yet your school has limited hardware, talk to your administrators about your school’s Bring-Your-Own-Device policy. Many schools are adopting a BYOD program to allow students to use their own technology at school for educational purposes (even in elementary schools).

When you’ve figured out what your students can use at school and what they can use at home, you can make better decisions about how to utilize technology in your teaching. If you only have three desktop computers at school, you can use them as centers, with students rotating through them throughout the school day/week/month. Make a schedule to ensure students get equal access. I was able to utilize a computer center fairly effectively, especially when assigning students to do group projects.

If you have access to a computer or mobile lab, how often can your students use it? If it’s limited to when you reserve the space, you can plan ahead to give students time to work on projects. If  kids can access it before and after school and at lunch OR if your students have a lot of access outside of school, maybe it’s best to have them work on technology projects as homework.

STEP 2: Inventory your infrastructure

The U.S. Department of Education has made upgrading internet infrastructure in public schools a priority, and there has been additional funding for this goal available in the past couple of years. Many schools have been able to upgrade their wifi systems, but there are definitely still some holes.

Do you have wifi at your school, or do you rely on wired computers? Talk to your technology specialist about the system’s bandwidth — how many devices can it withstand? What can they be doing? For example, if you have all your students working on creating animations with the free website Go!Animate, will your wifi be able to handle it or will it slow down to the point of frustration for students?

You might need to adjust your goals based on this infrastructure. You might also want to make a plan for how you can ensure your school upgrades it — the squeaky wheel gets the oil, after all.

Even if your school has top-notch internet infrastructure, if you work in a low-income area, many of your students might not be able to access the internet at home. This number is shrinking, as internet service has become available via mobile devices and as cable companies have started to bundle internet service with phone and television service. But it’s still an issue, and there are a few things you can do to help close the digital divide:

First, look into programs for low-income families in your area. For example, Comcast has a program called Internet Essentials, which offers low-cost internet service, computers and bi-lingual technology training to families. To qualify for the $10-per-month service (and a guarantee that the fee won’t go up), families have to show that they have at least one student who qualifies for the free or reduced school lunch program.

Second, create a list of places in your area where students can access wifi for free and give this to students. Public libraries are great for free wifi, but many of them are cutting hours due to a loss of funding. Every McDonald’s offers free wifi, without requiring any purchase. Most Starbucks do the same, as do many coffee shops.

I created a list like this — with addresses, phone numbers and hours — for high school students I work with. I was able to find many places using the website Open Wifi Spots and the iOS app Free Wifi Finder. I also called local coffee shops to check, and I was sure to ask if any purchase was necessary to access the wifi. I noted all of this information in a Google doc, which I shared with students, so they could add any places they found to the list.

STEP 3: Do One Thing (every quarter)

There’s an organization called the Alliance for Climate Education that encourages students to Do One Thing (D.O.T.) to help the environment. The idea is that one D.O.T. doesn’t seem like much, but when you connect all those D.O.T.s, you see major change. The same can be said for technology in the classroom. You can’t do it all, so start by just Doing One Thing. When you’re comfortable with it and it’s become part of your class’s daily routine, add another D.O.T. — aim for one new thing every quarter (or, if you’re nervous, every semester). Before you know it, your D.O.T.s will start connecting and making much larger pictures.

In my fourth-grade classroom, I started with podcasts. Once my students and I felt comfortable with those, we moved on to iMovies. Then, we added blogging. By the end of the year, my low-income ELL kids could create a podcast and an iMovie and post them to their blogs, all within one week. (And that was in a K-5 school that had a single shared mobile cart where only about 10 of the laptops worked on any given day.)

Start with something that you can and will do often. Don’t choose an app that only teaches a single astronomy objective. Instead, pick something transformative and content-neutral that you can use for anything. Look at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and find tools that will help your students achieve those — evaluate and create. Choose to give your students a metaphoric blank sheet of paper, rather than a completed book.

What does that mean? Here are some suggestions:

  • I would start with a closed social network (also known as a “Learning Management System”). These are especially helpful if your students can access them from home. Edmodo and Schoology are popular. I’ve recently adopted My Big Campus, in large part because it also allows students to blog. (All of these options are free.) A closed social network is great as a starting place because it allows you to start small and then add on as you go. Once you set up a class (or “group”) and have your students create accounts, you can just post class discussions on the site. When you’re comfortable, you can start using some of the other features — adding school assignments and even quizzes. Eventually, when you start having students create digital projects, they can publish these products on their My Big Campus account, to share with other students and parents.
    For more details on using social networking in the classroom, check out this post.
  • After you feel good about your class social network, you might want to have your students create their own blogs. This post discusses the benefits of blogging with students. (After examining the Common Core ELA standards, I’m even more sold on the benefits of blogging.) As I mentioned above, if you use My Big Campus as a social network, your students can blog right from that platform.
  • Another good transformative technology integration plan is to look into content creation tools. These depend on the hardware you have available. For video creation, you can have students use iMovie or Movie Maker. Or you can check out free digital storytelling websites like Little Bird Tales (which also has an iPad app), Go!Animate and UJAM (more info on this post). For iOS devices, I really like the iMovie app ($4.99) and the free Toontastic app.
  • I would definitely consider screencasting tools, both for you to use a teacher (have you thought about flip teaching?) and for students to use to explain their thinking. Educreations is a great free screencasting website, and it has a free iPad app.
  • You might also look into collaboration tools like Google docs, which allows students to jointly create and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations. All the while, you can access these documents and offer comments and suggestions while students work together on their projects.

STEP 4: Let go

When I work with teachers, one of the responses I hear most often is, “I’m so glad you told me I didn’t have to know what I was doing. That was so right — I just let the kids try it, and they figured it all out. It was so empowering for them!

Trust your students. They are digital natives, and you are a digital immigrant. They will figure out the technology far quicker and better than you will, so let them do that.

As teachers, we’re used to having all the answers. But we simply can’t do that with technology — in large part because it changes so quickly. But we don’t have to. We are the CONTENT experts. After the primary grades, we don’t teach our students how to hold a pencil. We teach them what they need to know in order to write with it. It’s the same with technology.

When I first had my students podcast, I played them a sample podcast. I then gave them a rubric for their own podcast (this rubric was totally content-based — the same rubric could have been used for a hand-written paper). Finally, I told them they would use a program called “Garageband” to create their podcast. That was it. I told them I couldn’t answer their questions because I hadn’t used Garageband before, but I welcomed them to ask each other for help. Within an hour, every student group had a finished podcast.

In addition to demonstrating that they knew the content discussed in their podcast, this activity had my students practicing some serious critical thinking skills — they learned to click around on a program to find out what different buttons did (that’s inquiry). They learned to work with one another to find a solution (that’s collaboration and problem-solving). And they learned how to open up a brand-new piece of software and figure out what it did — that’s much more important than me going step-by-step through the software to show them what every button does. Especially since any software that they use today might be outdated in a year.

They learned that technology is simply a tool — they figured out how to use the tool to get the result they needed. And that’s a lesson that will go far beyond simply creating podcasts.

STEP 5: Build an argument for more

If you use it, more will come.

Teachers often complain — with good reason — that they don’t have the technology they need in the classroom. This is especially true considering all the technology expectations embedded in Common Core State Standards. But sitting on your hands won’t get your administrators to buy more technology. Showing them what you can do with the little technology you do have will.

Just this week, I spoke at a School Board meeting and a Parent Teacher Association meeting at two different districts to support teachers who want to get more technology in their elementary classrooms. These teachers had their students present to the people who have the power to make change. Their students showed how the technology had helped them learn, and they presented specific projects to demonstrate this learning. Then the teachers explained how much MORE devices would impact what they’re able to do in the classroom. I suggest recording videos of your students using the tools and interviewing them about the process, creating a newsreel-type report on technology in the classroom.

I work with a couple of teachers who have a limited number of iPads in their classroom. They keep asking for more — saying they could do more with more iPads, and I’m in a position to help them buy more. It may sound harsh, but what I’ve said to them is, “you’re not using the iPads you have. Why would I help you buy more if they might just sit in the corner?”

Most administrators are happy to funnel money to programs that they know work. If teachers can prove that technology is having a positive impact in their classrooms, administrators are often willing to find the money to get more. But they’re not going to do this if they think the devices will sit on shelves.

If you’re in a school or district that really doesn’t have the means or will to get anymore technology, look into grant sources. (Jennie Magiera has some great suggestions on how to win grants.) Remember, grant money tends to go to teachers with a proven track record, who have specific plans for how to use the technology.

STEP 6: Lastly, don’t fall in love with the tool; fall in love with the process

No matter what tools you choose to use — My Big Campus, Educreations, iMovie — they won’t be around forever. They might not even survive the year. That’s technology. But don’t worry — there are a dozen other tools that can accomplish the same goal.

What’s important is that you figure out how the process works. Your ecosystems unit ends perfectly with students making their own Public Service Announcements — maybe they’ll use iMovie this year and Educreations next year, or maybe some will use one tool and others will use a different tool. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve figured out that PSAs are a great way to assess their learning.

Don’t focus on websites or apps. Focus on your objectives. Then, find the best app for the job. Or, better yet, let your students find it.

Katy Scott

I spent 5 years teaching in low-income districts in Phoenix, where most of my students were English-language learners. There, I taught 3rd- and 4th-grade self-contained classes, as well as 7th-grade resource. I spent a year teaching 5th- and 6th-grade science in an inner-city KIPP school in New Orleans. I did double-duty as a technology integration specialist for the last four years of my teaching career. I am now the Digital Learning Manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where I work to help PreK-12 teachers and students utilize technology to better understand science. I'm a maker, a snorkeler, and a certified Google Education Trainer.

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