Amanda M. Greenwell, Central Connecticut State University
This reflection examines two writing assignments within the context of the course design insofar as their success in prompting pre-service teachers to think critically about the use of educational technology in their discipline-specific pedagogy. Drawing on recent studies and texts as well as student feedback and instructor reflection, the paper discusses the interwoven elements of encouraging pre-service teachers to research, select, integrate, and reflect on technology in their units and requiring that they collaborate via a course wiki as they do so.
A recent study of the perceptions of novice teachers regarding their pre-service technology training found that subjects “were not able to see many connections between their one required technology course and the teaching theories and methods that they were learning in their other courses” (Sutton 2011, 43).When I designed a pre-service teacher education course titled “Advanced Composition and Technology in the English Classroom,” a requirement for pre-service secondary English teachers at my university, I employed a “backward design” structure so that my students came away with a strong understanding of the pedagogical benefits of integrating technology into their teaching. Backward course design, as described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, calls for the instructor to begin not with specific assignments, activities, or lists of texts and materials, but with the enduring understandings students should retain after the course is over. Enduring understandings are larger than finite objectives based on skill sets or standards; rather, they are essential insights into a subject matter and its study (Wiggins and McTighe 1998, 8-19). I focused my course planning by developing the following enduring understandings related to educational technology:
- Technology is useful not as an end in and of itself, but as an aid in teacher preparation, student learning, and student performance.
- Effective teachers of English in the 21st century discover, analyze, evaluate, and implement current technologies related to teaching and learning on an ongoing basis.
According to Wiggins and McTighe, once an instructor has expressed these enduring understandings, the instructor can go on to design the assessments that will provide evidence of student learning, and finally plan instruction and activities that will help students to reach these understandings. The dual nature of my course—which covered, as its title suggests, advanced composition as well as educational technology—actually helped me design assignments that reinforced the importance of marrying technology to disciplinary skills and content thoughtfully. While many educational technology courses consist of a series of small technology-based projects that pre-service teachers could use or adapt for their own classroom needs as novice teachers, the design of this course had to involve a framework for writing critically about such projects, especially as they relate to teaching English at the secondary level. Indeed, such a structure is both in better keeping with backward design and more useful for students, given that rapidly changing technology might make a particular tool obsolete before a student even becomes a teacher.
Below are two writing assignments designed in sequence to empower pre-service teachers to employ technology thoughtfully in their future classrooms by utilizing Wiggins and McTighe’s conceptual framework (which has been adopted for curricular planning by many school districts locally and nationally). In the first assignment, pre-service teachers engaged the first step of backward design by creating an overall focus for a unit of study; in the second, they designed a final assessment involving technology that would allow them to assess how well their future students had come to recognize the enduring understandings and standards that would drive the proposed unit.
The purposeful omission of student-centered technology for the first assignment allowed pre-service teachers to create a context for the eventual use of technology without the danger of the technology selection interfering with the disciplinary focus of the unit. Pre-service teachers have “described the software packages they had learned in their one required technology course as not being relevant to their particular content areas” (Sutton 2011, 44),and so the “Unit Development Proposal” (Appendix A) required students to propose an English/Language Arts unit for a theoretical (or real, if they were involved in field experiences for other courses) grade and course level and argue for the relevance and importance of the unit to both the students and the discipline. Including a discussion of the state standards the unit addresses created a strong foundation for the integration of technology in assignments and activities that would help secondary students achieve those content area standards as 21st century learners.
In order to successfully research and plan their units for the first assignment, pre-service teachers needed to access technological resources. Many joined The English Companion, Jim Burke’s award-winning Ning Network, in which they interacted with other English teaching professionals to discover and trade ideas about the discipline and pedagogy. Students were also required to search academic library databases in both the English and Education fields for articles that might help them shape their units. This assignment was partially designed to help students toward the first enduring understanding for this course, which emphasizes secondary teacher use of technology in researching and planning a unit for the English classroom.
During the pre-writing and drafting phases of this assignment, students contributed to a discussion on our course’s private wiki (created with a free educational upgrade at wikispaces.com), in which they shared the resources they found and suggested resources to others working on related topics and/or skills. As Matthew, Felvegi, and Callway have found, “unlike individual writing assignments, posting to the wiki pages required students to be cognizant of their peers’ contributions…[as] they were continually reading and rereading their classmates’ postings in order to add new and relevant information” (Matthew, Felvegi, and Callway 2009, 58) . The course wiki functioned as an online meeting place for the class to supplement its in-person meeting, which took place in a long block once a week. The wiki also modeled for students the manner in which e-mail and online discussion-board correspondence can supplement or even replace in-person collaboration among and within departments. Thus, we were using technology in the way that many teachers do for their own professional development activities.
Students also used technology hands-on as they provided feedback on the drafts of their peers. Each of these assignments was accompanied by two workshops: an in-person workshop held during a course meeting, and an online workshop conducted via the course wiki. The workshops for the first assignment were held in this order, which was reversed for the second assignment.
For most students, the initial online workshop was their first experience conducting peer review in an online setting. After we had completed both the in-class and online workshop, we reflected together on the differences related to setting and timing. Students found that the in-person workshops made it easier for both reviewer and author to have their questions answered and misconceptions clarified. At the start of the course, the face-to-face interaction of a synchronous conversation helped students build relationships within a learning community. However, the time restraints for reading, commenting, and discussing necessitated by a scheduled, in-person meeting left some of them feeling unfulfilled or confused by the end of the workshop. In turn, many of these same students claimed they enjoyed the longer time period offered by the online workshop setting (which occurred asynchronously over the course of about five days) because it allowed them to craft their comments on their peers’ work more carefully and gave them time to “digest” the comments of others. In these reflections, the students echoed the characteristics of asynchronous writing conferences as described by Beth L. Hewett in her book The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors as she discusses the. In remarks that moved beyond Hewett’s findings, the students also expressed appreciation for what they called “unlimited space” for their commentary: during the in-person workshop, they handwrote brief comments in the margins and were able to explain them in more detail during the subsequent author-reviewer conversations. Online, however, they inserted their comments in bold or a different color font directly within the writing of their classmates, and the electronic document format allowed them to write as much as they needed to explain and clarity their critiques. They also reported that since they knew that all of their classmates and their instructor were able to read their comments, they appreciated the time and space to word their feedback clearly and carefully.
Using the wiki for peer commentary during the first assignment prepared students for a deeper engagement with educational technology, which took center stage for the second writing assignment. The “Assessment Rationale” (Appendix B) faced pre-service teachers with a complex task familiar to many teachers: that of integrating technology into curricula. Ultimately, the assignment required that students create a tech-based or tech-integrated summative assessment to the unit they proposed in the first assignment, thereby engaging step 2 of the backward design process as well as emphasizing the critical thinking called for in the second enduring understanding of this course. To emphasize the importance and the necessary thoughtfulness of such integration, the paper called for students to explain their choices not just in reference to the Understanding by Design (UbD) elements and state standards driving their units, but also to educational technology standards. To this end, we spent class time discussing and hypothetically applying The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards for students and teachers, and students were required to design an assessment that could demonstrate both types of competencies. The key word here is design: I wanted students to be in complete control of the technology they were researching and choosing for this unit. I did not prescribe a type of technology (e.g., presentation software or wiki use or website creation), but rather encouraged students to find and select technologies appropriate to the learning in which they wished their students to engage. This emphasis on choice and freedom was central to my course design from the start. It prepares students to strive to integrate technology in their units when they become novice teachers who may very well lead the vanguard in technology use at their future schools. Furthermore, given that this second assignment was intensely related to the first in terms of conceptualization of a unit, I encouraged students to modify any aspect of the unit they had conceived in the first paper that was not “up to par” so as to allow for a stronger platform for the creation of the unit assessment. Indeed, many students ended up adding a state standard (and explaining their reasons for adding it) to the unit for this second piece in order to demonstrate the strength of their technology-integrated assessment. Such a practice is also in keeping with Wiggins and McTighe’s UbD framework, since all stages of unit design “speak” to each other and might be modified based on changes in conceptualization at any other stage.
In order to add an element of complexity to this assignment, I required that each student find and reflect on at least one alternative choice for a technology-based assessment that might also be appropriate to the unit they proposed in the first assignment. This portion of the assignment challenged students to become meta-cognitive about their pedagogical choices by acknowledging the alternatives, exceptions, and judgments a teacher must explore while creating an assessment. As students worked through this process, their considerations of technology included creating comics at www.makebeliefscomix.com for exploration of theme, constructing a pseudo-Facebook page at www.myfakewall.com to articulate character development, creating an e-book at www.wix.com to share close-reading explications, using a Prezi to facilitate a presentation on textual analysis, producing a video documentary in one case and a short creative film in another that convey warning(s) about power similar to those in texts such as Orwell’s 1984, constructing “altars” to heroes at www.myhero.com to encourage students to think critically about mythology, conducting character interviews and reflections in a video medium to facilitate character analysis via a historical lens, and using www.weebly.com to create a public service website in keeping with thematic implications of the literary works in a unit about people with disabilities, among others. Scheduled “tech play days” allowed students to experiment with online applications and websites as a pre-writing activity and emphasized the importance of being self-motivated to learn, via trial and error, how to use various (often free!) technologies availability to them. Sharing our experiences during these play days made possible a rigorous evaluation, grounded in both philosophical and practical considerations, of the way these technologies can challenge and aid students as they move through the learning process.
You will see below, in Appendix B, that the assignment also called for students to discuss a formative assessment they might use as a precursor to the technology-integrated summative assessment.1 This consideration helped reinforce for students that a technology-integrated summative assessment must be linked to the teaching and assessment done throughout the duration of the unit, so that it measures student learning outcomes better than an assessment that is simply “tacked on” to a unit in order to satisfy a technology requirement (all too often seen in districts that push for technology without supplying adequate professional development and release time to encourage teachers to integrate it thoughtfully). In more than one anonymous reflection written at the end of the course, students claimed that they found the course assignments most helpful because the “realistic” situations and challenges they were asked to handle put them “in a real teacher mindset,” especially that of the “secondary English teacher.” Student comments on their peers’ papers included such thoughtful questions as, “Are you going to include any literary aspects like point of view, irony, etc. in this unit assessment as well or are you going to focus solely on theme?” and, “how will [this technology] specifically demonstrate their understanding?” Furthermore, they were quick to praise meaningful connections their peers made and to convey their excitement about the use of technology in their assessments: remarks such as, “Nice examples; these are great ways to tie your EUs to the unit” were often accompanied by various iterations of “I may use this in my classroom some day!”
To elicit such engaging comments, this second paper also went through two workshops, but I purposefully reversed the order of the workshop settings: the first was online, the second in person. During the subsequent discussion about this reversed order, students shared that the online setting felt, in some ways, more comfortable for them this time: not only had they done it before, but they also, having received instructor feedback on their commentary and revision process on the first writing assignment, were more confident in their abilities to cater their comments to their audience. Furthermore, they felt that peer interaction after workshop commentary (via e-mail or the wiki page) was more helpful and abundant. However, some of them also expressed that not having the opportunity to ask questions of the instructor while they were commenting on peer work—an opportunity easily afforded by in-class workshops—made them feel less equipped to discuss certain components of the assignment or question authorial choices. Some of them did avail themselves of this opportunity during the second in-class workshop, and expressed disappointment at having misconceptions “corrected” so late in the process. It is important to note that some of the more proactive students did contact me via e-mail or visit my office hours to obtain the answers they needed and share them with their peers before the wiki workshop period ended. When I noticed a pattern of questions (for instance, some students wanted confirmation that they needed to speak to state standards as well as ISTE standards since they had seen that some of their peers neglected the former), I sent out a class-wide e-mail or posted an announcement on the wiki homepage to clarify the requirements for all students as quickly as possible. The in-person workshop produced a similar type of reflection about time constraint as the first workshop of the semester: students reported that, especially since they were working on a second draft that would benefit from more syntactical polishing in addition to conceptual review, they would have been able to give and receive more helpful feedback had they had more time to do so. I will build such extra time into the schedule the next time the course runs.
It is interesting to note that students expressed the greatest frustration over creating the portion of the assessment aimed at their future students: the actual write-up of the directions of the assignment. They found themselves confronted with questions such as, “how much detail is too much? Too little?” and, “How much can I spell out for them in terms of logistics without taking away their creative freedom?” Students also found it challenging to decide how much instruction about the actual technology was appropriate to include so that any student, even one absent the day the assignment was first discussed, might understand it, or so that a special education teacher who might help to modify an assignment for a particular student could appreciate the full extent of technology use and critical thinking expected of the student. This was also the portion of the assignment least commented on by peer reviewers, most likely because they felt ill-equipped to do so. These struggles indicated to me that next time I teach this course, it would be worth spending more class time on the notion of student-as-audience and the practice of writing assignment directions. These, indeed, are “advanced composition” concerns, and too often in pre-service education courses students write papers aimed exclusively at a professional audience such as their professors or future colleagues at the expense of the audience most likely to receive their writing on a daily basis: their future students. Most pre-service teachers in the course expressed that this assignment write-up was the first time in their studies of education that they were ever asked to write for their students, and given that at least five of them were slated to student teach the following semester, such an admission necessitates attention.
These assignments were followed by technology-integrated mini-lessons taught by each student and critiqued by all, as well as a final paper that took the form of a grant proposal for the addition of technology to the classroom or even to an entire district. Grounded in a meaningful discourse about the place of technology within the discipline-specific classroom by the first few assignments, students utilized technology with very clear disciplinary goals during mini-lessons and imagined technology integration with exciting academic and sometimes interdisciplinary possibilities in their grants. By the end of the course, students understood both broad and finite implications of technology use in the classroom. Final student reflections included comments such as, “ENG 402 was a good, hands-on course and helped alleviate my fears of technology,” and, “[I] realiz[ed] that technology can be used to better enhance the discipline instead of just being an add-on to a lesson.” Interestingly, more than one student called for a field experience component of the course, or at least the chance to see teaching with technology actually happening in a secondary school. While some students were able to indulge this desire via field experiences assigned in their other courses, many felt they missed out on the chance to see educational technology in action, and so appreciated the mini-lessons since they could watch their peers teach with types of technology they had not encountered themselves. Indeed, the cross-pollination afforded by the mini-lessons and by the drafts and comments posted on our wiki page constantly challenged students to contemplate technology choices they themselves may not have made; the freedom of choice within the course design was well-balanced by an exposure to multiple technologies that these opportunities afforded. That said, some students reported wanting more technology in our classroom, including the addition of a Smart Board. I will likely write a grant next semester to procure one, but more immediately I am contemplating further modeling opportunities by both myself and former students. I have already asked some pre-service teachers who have student taught since the end of our course to guest speak and demonstrate lessons. I did have one veteran English-teacher-turned-Library-Media-Specialist come in to speak during the course (to great success), and so in the future, if schedules align, I may be able to put together a panel discussion of novice teachers who, because of their closeness in experience to my current students, will be able to act as immediate role models for their development in the use of educational technology.
I look to the next semester of this course as a way to refine and modify these assignments so as to enforce even more the importance of thinking critically about and reflecting on the use of technology in the secondary English classroom. I continue to struggle, as most instructors do, with the balance of fitting all that we’d like to into a coherent and reasonable fifteen week semester. Sutton brings up an important notion to consider:
In order for preservice teachers to see a connection between the words and actions of university faculty regarding the importance of technology integration, in order for them to see the relevance of technological skills to their content areas, and in order for them to have sufficient time to retain and reflect on the technology skills they have been exposed to, they need to be provided with authentic learning experiences using technology throughout their teacher preparation program. (Sutton 2011, 44)
Right now, technology is, in many programs, treated in an “extra” course, so I tried to create a course that helped alleviate the problem of “disconnect” (Sutton 2011, 43) between pedagogical courses and technology training. Indeed, the very word “training” is antithetical to the rich thinking and learning in which we rightfully expect pre-service teachers to engage. Since throughout the semester we consistently couched our selection and discussion of technology in the context of good teaching and learning, I am hopeful that students have been able to transfer their learning from this course to their other coursework and teaching careers. The use of the class wiki has actually helped facilitate this transfer: Matthew, Felvegi, and Callaway found that “preservice teachers perceived the wiki as personally useful for them as students…and as future teachers” (Matthew, Felvegi, and Callaway 2009, 68), and I was pleased to have a student e-mail me after the course was over to ask whether she could continue to access the wiki during her student teaching semester. I assured her that I was not planning on deleting it, and now that the semester is drawing to a close she reports that “it was very helpful” due to the “great resources” we had collected there. Another student wrote, “I just wanted to let you know that I am using what I learned from your class constantly in my education courses. I am currently designing a unit on The Crucible using ‘Fakebook’ as a reading journal. Technology is definitely an integral part of the English classroom and I wanted you to know how helpful the course has been.” This course design, as exemplified by this series of assignments, helps to keep present in the minds of pre-service teachers the notions and practices of educational technology: students are able to both recognize and critique the merits of technology in the classroom, and look forward to using and thinking critically about technology throughout their future careers.
Burke, Jim. English Companion. Continually modified. http://www.englishcompanion.com.
Hewett, Beth L. 2010. The Online Writing Conference. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook. ISBN 0-86709-601-2.
International Society for Technology in Education. Last modified 2007. “ISTE NETS.S: advancing digital age learning.” http://www.iste.org/Libraries/PDFs/NETS-S_Standards.sflb.ashx.
International Society for Technology in Education. Last modified 2008. “ISTE NETS.T: advancing digital age teaching.” http://www.iste.org/Libraries/PDFs/NETS-T_Standards.sflb.ashx.
Matthew, Kathryn I., Emese Felvegi, and Rebecca A. Callaway. 2009. “Wiki as a Collaborative Learning Tool in a Language Arts Methods Class.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 42, no. 1: 51-72. ISSN: 15391523.
Sutton, Susan R. 2011. “The Preservice Technology Training Experiences of Novice Teachers.” Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education 28, no. 1: 39-47. ISSN: 2153-2974.
Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. 1998. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. ISBN 0-87120-313-8.
Appendix A: Unit Development Proposal
Conceiving a unit is a philosophical as well as a practical task. While you will not be writing an entire unit plan during this course, it will be helpful for you to envision a particular unit that you might very well end up using in your own classroom. This paper assignment requires that you write up a Unit Development Proposal in which you analyze the purpose and appropriateness of the unit’s topic and scope.
This paper will have four sections:
- Unit Topic/Focus Overview—this section must contain the following “quick reference” information:
a.Topic/Name of Unit
b. Key Text(s) [note: at least one of these key texts must be one that is presently used in a Connecticut public school on the Secondary level of English/Language Arts]
c. Enduring Understandings
d. Essential Questions
e. Connecticut State Standards the unit will address
2. Analysis of Topic/Focus– Why is this unit appropriate to the grade level of students you are imagining? What will it give to them, and what will they take away from it in terms of learning? What makes each chosen text “key” to the effectiveness of the unit?
3. Analysis of Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe) elements– Analyze the Enduring Understandings: Why is each enduring understanding important? Why would each provide a meaningful response to a student who asks “what’s the point of learning this stuff?” Also, analyze the Essential Questions: What makes them “essential”? How do they leave room for student participation in the meaning making process? What layers of “understanding” embedded or implied in each one might you hope they explore?
4. Analysis of Relationship between Unit Topic/Focus and Standards—Explain how this unit will address the Connecticut Literacy/Language Arts Standards you have identified. Get specific: what important Literacy/Language Arts content do you hope students will learn by experiencing this unit? Why is this content important? How will the unit help them learn it? What important Literacy/Language Arts skills do you hope students will develop by experiencing this unit? Why are these skills important? How will the unit afford them opportunities to develop them?
While this paper assignment gives you a general structure to follow, remember that you should give careful consideration to the way you organize your ideas within each section. Your paper should read less like a list and more like an intelligent, analytical discussion of the main elements of the unit.
For this paper you are encouraged to use as many outside resources—scholarly and practical, formal and informal—as you feel necessary to build a strong, reliable proposal for your unit. Yes, that is a hint! A lack of any outside sources at all, or a lack of variety therein, will bring the legitimacy of your proposal into question and may not exhibit complexity of thinking.
Appendix B: Assessment Rationale
Now that you’ve conceived your unit in theory (Enduring Understandings, Essential Questions, etc.), it’s time to think about how you will evaluate its outcomes in an authentic way. Understanding by Design emphasizes the importance of authentic performance assessments: assessments designed to solve a real(istic) “problem” by way of a real(istic) product for a real(istic) audience.
Due to the focus of this course and the fact that you will be teaching 21st century learners, your performance assessment must be tech-based or tech-integrated.
This assignment requires two portions, each aimed at a different audience:
- The write-up of the performance assessment that you would give to your students, including purpose, description, directions, etc. This write-up should fit on one typed page.
- The rationale for the assessment that you would give to your department head, a person notoriously skeptical about technology, in which you evaluate the strength of this assignment. This rationale must include the following components:
a. An argument for the reason your assessment “works” as a UbD-style summative performance assessment specifically for your Literature/Language Arts unit focus and standards: why is it appropriate? How does it foster student engagement? How will it help you evaluate whether students have understood the concepts (EUs) and met the standards important to the unit?
b. An argument in defense of the technology you’ve chosen for student use for this assessment: why is it appropriate? How does it foster student engagement? To which ISTE student standards does it speak? To which ISTE teacher standards does it speak? (Access ISTE teacher and student standards from our wiki page.)
c. An evaluation of this performance assessment against at least one other viable tech-based or tech-integrated performance assessment you had also considered for this unit: What did the other choice afford? Why did you choose this one instead?
d. A description of and evaluation of the way at least one formative assessment during the course of your unit will both help students prepare for this summative assessment and allow you to check in with them about their learning progress. Note that formative assessment(s) for this unit may or may not involve technology.
While I have listed these items separately, I do not want you to answer each question separately. Rather, I want you to create an organization that makes sense to you based on what you want to tell the reader: work organically towards a sound structure that incorporates these elements rather than one that is dictated by them.
Overall, convince us why your assessment is a great way for students to engage with key concepts of the unit and a great way for you to evaluate how well they can do so.
Remember: not every assessment can speak to every enduring understanding, every essential question, and every standard covered throughout the unit. Every unit involves multiple modes and levels of assessment, so we don’t have to cover all of them at once. The summative performance assessment, however, is by nature more inclusive than your formative assessments.
About the Author
Amanda M. Greenwell is an adjunct faculty member of the English department at Central Connecticut State University. A former high school English teacher, she specializes in teaching courses in writing, young adult literature, and English education. Her scholarly work focuses primarily on young adult literature, and she is the part-time faculty recipient of the 2011-2012 Excellence in Teaching Award at CCSU.
- In the secondary classroom setting, “summative assessment” refers to an assignment given to students at the end of a long unit of study in order to assess student learning. Summative assessments often take the form of major papers, tests, and projects. “Formative assessments,” on the other hand, are smaller stakes assignments meant to give teachers the opportunity to assess how well students are learning the material along the way (and whether the teacher needs to modify plans and instruction). Common formative assessments include quizzes, short written responses, or even informal observation during class discussion. ↩