Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Defense of Old School Tools

by John T. Spencer

I have a class set of netbooks.  Visiting teachers will often mock the little machines by asking if my students can make videos or do extensive photo editing.  Actually, they can, but often they don't.  Sure, as a class, we will create a documentary.  In small groups, students will create podcasts.  However, the most powerful tools are often simply old-school tools with a social twist.

Word Processing: Sometimes we forget that one of the greatest gifts of a computer is the chance to edit and revise text.  Sounds a little lame, perhaps, but to a class that is used to paper, the opportunity to constantly edge closer to mastery is powerful.  Add the social sharing aspect with Zoho or Google Docs and it's now possible to use a solitary medium for cooperative learning purposes.

Spreadsheets: I rarely read a tweet about the HUNDRED MOST AWESOME WAYS TO USE A SPREADSHEET.  As a tool, it can feel cumbersome and even a little anti-social.  Yet, we use it to crowd source shared knowledge, to create large-scale community needs assessments and as a great visual opportunity to see math concepts fleshed out (think simple interest rates or algebraic equations).

Concept Maps: Again, a slightly older medium that is often forgot, the concept map is powerful in the opportunity to display one's mental process in such a visual method.  True, students can create paper-based webs, but the concept mapping process allows them to move a map spatially.

Blogs: At first glance a blog is simply a digital version of a journal.  However, blogs have become our running dialogue on learning.  Whether it's their vocabulary (they are able to tag it with subject and name, so that they can see vocabulary across the subjects) blog, their private blog (which functions as a journal, a scratch pad for their final works, their reflections in various subjects, etc.) or their public blog (where they communicate with the world), the class blog  or various small group project-based blogs, a fairly simple medium becomes a powerful tool for digital literacy.

Slideshows: I realize that PowerPoint can really suck.  I get it.  However, I have found Google Slideshows to be a great way to teach sequencing of events or to get students to create a visual representation of complex subjects.  For example, I might ask students to choose ten symbols to represent the Cold War.

Internet: Perhaps the most powerful tool is the most overlooked* - the simple ability to search a massive amount of information and synthesize it as a result.  My students use a Google Document with a table where they write the inquiry question, the facts, the source and the bias of the source.  These are then used in creating articles, writing scripts, recording podcasts or participating in debates.

Don't get me wrong.  We might use some social media like Twitter or Schoology.  Students might do some online video editing or use a very specific, targeted site like Wordle or Google Maps.  However, it is often the simple, old-school tools that have the ability to transform learning.

*I changed the wording after a comment by gasstationwithoutpumps.


  1. If those are old school...than my system must still be in prehistoric school. We still haven't made to old school yet!

  2. I actually found the opposite to be true in my middle school classroom. My students could recognize when they were being fooled by old-school work thinly veiled by the use of tech. Sure we did our pre-planning on Google docs, but that was just the start. I run as close to true PBL as one can get in a public school and allow students to choose the manner and media of their end products. These ran the gamut of Web 2.0 video tools, game creation,wikis, websites, and presentations (Prezi). When it came time to do the required research paper my students revolted out of feelings of betrayal, and justifiably so.

  3. It's interesting that your experiences were so different from mine. Perhaps it has to do with language development or demographics. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I teach self-contained and so they get a chance to mix media all day - text, video, visuals, audio, hands-on modelling, etc.

    I have a hunch that we have a very similar approach.

    I run a PBL system, too. I allow them to use whatever tools they choose.

    Many of my students found Prezi to be too cumbersome and most video creation sites to be too slow in loading (we don't have the bandwidth we need at our school) and so they take their netbooks to the library to do those types of applications.

    However my students preferred to do the video creation, podcasts and other multimedia platforms with smart phones.

    Wikis and websites aren't all that different from a group shared blog and while I let them use wikis or websites as they create their solutions, many of them like the versatility of a shared group blog with page links.

    What concerns me is your phrase "revolted out of feelings of betrayal, and justifiably so."

    The truth is that students need to know how to analyze online text, write with clarity and create work that is not bound to visual media. When doing research, I want students to read text, interview people face-to-face, watch videos, look at primary sources, etc. Multimedia needs to include the medium of text.

  4. Internet as "the first tool that existed"? Hardly. Both word-processing and spreadsheets predate searching the world-wide web by at least a decade (Wang WordProcessor 1974 and Visicalc 1979 vs. Archie 1990 or W3Catalog 1993).

  5. In saying "the first tool that existed" I meant the first web-based tool. I grew up with a Tandy, using first generation spreadsheets and word processing programs.

  6. Visiting teachers mock your class set of netbooks. We have one school set of netbooks, and two desktop labs. 1400 high school students. Visiting teachers should get off their pedestal and thank their lucky stars.


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