March 2015 | Classroom Commentary
By Mary Courtney
Imagine your classroom where every student uses a computer, in every class, every day. How would that change what you do, how you teach, or how your students learn?
I work in a school that has been blessed with technology for years. We have had student netbook carts, laptop carts, and iPad carts. A computer lab and technology teacher offer Microsoft applications for college credit to every student in ninth grade. But in the summer of 2014, teachers were informed that our school was going to be part of a pilot project that would supply a Chromebook computer to every student, and they would have the machine with them throughout the school day.
My first thought was: This is fantastic! A computer in every student’s hands at all times! No more fighting to be the first to sign out the laptop cart or worrying about whether the last teacher remembered to charge the iPads. And then I began to think and wonder … what exactly is a Chromebook? And how is it different than the laptops we used last year? Do I need to get one? What do I need to learn about the machine? How can these devices be used for chemistry instruction?
We are now halfway through the first year of Chromebook implementation, and it is definitely a mixed prognosis. Implementation can be thought about in multiple categories—student engagement, teacher adaptation, and chemistry instruction. Although student engagement is all over the map, from those who don’t like using them to those who use them constantly (though not always for academic pursuits!), and teacher adaptation plays a huge role in the success of Chromebook implementation, I will focus on chemistry instructional use and how the Chromebooks have changed my practice.
Before I could think about what to have students do with Chromebooks, I needed to come up to speed. The biggest change was learning how to use, and becoming comfortable with, Google Drive and Google Docs. Chromebooks do not have hard drives, so students do not work with the Microsoft programs I am used to using. I was minimally familiar with Drive and Docs but had no idea how to effectively use them with students. I spent a good portion of the summer in professional development to become proficient at sharing documents in various ways, structuring folders to help organize online storage, and discovering how tremendously useful Google Forms can be for administering assessments. I also had intensive training in the software that we use for our blended learning classes.
Our blended learning classes are similar to a flipped classroom concept. Students are responsible for much of the direct learning through a commercially sourced online curriculum. These online lessons are supplemented by in-class lab experiences, and reinforcement of specific skills and concepts can be tailored to students’ individual needs. The software used for the virtual curriculum allows for teachers to manage lessons, assignments, and online quizzes as well as communicate electronically with students.
With so many new tools, the learning curve for me as a teacher was steeper than the students’! In one day of focused lessons during the first week of school, students were up and running and teaching me things about how to best use Chromebooks, despite my summer training. Students are truly digital citizens, and I realize more every day that teachers need to do everything we can to meet students where they are, technologically. It may feel new and advanced to us, but students have never known a world without technology, so they are technology natives and we need to allow them to work within that framework.
When I think back to how I taught even as recently as four or five years ago, there is very little that I teach the same way now. My biggest change has been to provide more individual feedback to students because of effective formative assessments via Chromebooks. By monitoring students with the help of the technology, they are able to correct misunderstandings and achieve greater success in chemistry. As I continue to learn how to use technology more efficiently, I anticipate being able to provide even more individualized feedback and targeted instruction.
For motivated students who are technically savvy and intrinsically motivated, online chemistry instruction that provides the majority of direct content instruction has worked well. This allows classroom time to focus on individual questions and clarifications, application practice, and hands-on lab activities. Via their Chromebook, students can review the instruction as many times as they need to, at any time, from anywhere they have internet access. This method, however, breaks down for students who are not technically savvy or who prefer face-to-face instruction from a teacher, rather than learning from a video, reading, or simulation. Some students lack the discipline required to complete digital instructional modules in a timely manner and are hesitant to seek help when they have questions—they fall behind. Teachers who use the digital model of instruction must be willing to modify and adjust instruction to meet the needs of their students. If you are able to, you should carefully select the students who take part and monitor student progress closely for success.
Labs are an area where there are some real possibilities. Virtual labs are useful for simulating a hands-on lab experience as a prelab exercise or to conduct an experiment that cannot be done in person for safety, cost, or other prohibitive reasons. For example, I have students complete a virtual version of a hydrate composition lab so they know what is expected of them when they carry out the hands-on investigation. Also, a quick virtual lab can illustrate ionic and covalent properties, which are difficult to demonstrate with chemicals. In New York State, where I teach, virtual labs cannot be counted toward lab minute requirements. This is consistent with the American Chemical Society position statement, which says “computer simulations that mimic laboratory procedures have the potential to be a useful supplement to student hands-on activities, but not a substitute for them.” In a class where hands-on labs are not essential, virtual labs can provide a way to get simulated lab experiences, but I feel strongly that chemistry students need to actually work with lab equipment and chemicals for a complete experience.
By having the virtual curriculum available, students are able to take more control over their learning. I teach some topics through more traditional, direct instruction, but students also have electronic lessons available so they can review or dig deeper into topics they struggle with. This gives them more options for how and when to learn.
In a class using a more traditional instructional model, the Chromebooks have provided me with a means to deliver more instruction, offer more student choice, and spend less time on tedious grading. The Chromebooks use Google Docs and allow for a lot of flexibility with assignments. Google Forms, in particular, are a useful method of formative assessment that delivers individual student feedback, which allows me to immediately adjust instruction within a class period. In a lesson, students complete short assessments through a Google Form, which can be varied from student to student. As soon as student results are submitted, I can display the class results on my SmartBoard in pie charts. This allows me to quickly identify areas of understanding and confusion among the whole class and target revised instruction to correct misunderstandings on the spot. Through the use of an add-on called Flubaroo, student results are evaluated in a matter of seconds, and individual results are emailed to students before the class period ends. This immediate feedback loop keeps many students on track who otherwise may have been lost by November.
Many students have a preference for working online or on paper, and the Chromebooks provide students with flexibility to complete assignments the way they prefer. In many cases, the same assignment can be adapted for computer or paper, and I have noticed that by giving students control over the way they do the assignments, completion rate of student work has increased.
Overall, I would say that the Chromebook experience is positive and gives students options for methods of learning that can be tailored to individual strengths, needs, and preferences. In some ways, it is no different than what many teachers have been doing for years except that it offers an on-demand electronic alternative. With the push for 21st-century skills as a goal of secondary education, I think Chromebooks, or an equivalent, are worth exploring, embracing, and embedding in the chemistry classroom.