It’s been over a week since my two-day presenting stint at the New Jersey Education Association‘s annual statewide teacher’s convention in Atlantic City, and I have to say that, my crippling sinus infection notwithstanding, it was an incredible experience.
Credit must be given where it’s due: I think the organizers of this year’s High Tech Hall really got it right in terms of how to provide participants in such a huge setting (we’re talking attendance estimates in the tens of thousands) access to tools and meaningful uses thereof (as meaningful as you can get in a giant convention center, anyway). Presenters in High Tech Hall were given round tables (approx. 6′ diameter), 32″ LCD screens, and 8-9 chairs. We hooked up our own netbooks, laptops, speakers, and whatever other peripherals we needed, and conducted “drop-in” sessions where we could talk with small groups of people (see photos) about our respective topics (I did 4 hours on wikis and 4 hours on developing learning networks).
Having given both large group lectures and small group drop-in sessions, my favorite type is by far the small group setting. I really enjoyed being able to talk with the folks who dropped in, find out what they knew and what they needed to know, and learn about their specific professional circumstances. I was then able to tailor my presentation to their individual needs and help guide them where they felt they needed to go, not necessarily where I wanted to take them.
Toward the end of the day, I was talking with a resource room reading (I think? sorry!) teacher who was thinking that wikis might somehow be encouraging to her students. After explaining the basics of the tool, as well as listening to her background, we agreed that a wiki probably wasn’t going to be of much use to her students. Due to the small setting, however (she was the only one at my table; this was about 10 minutes before shutting down for the day), I was able to sit and brainstorm with her for a bit, and I showed her Audacity, a free program for digital audio recording. We talked a bit about teaching reading, oral fluency, listening skills, and self-monitoring & self-evaluation, and after some further discussion and an impromptu demonstration, that teacher left with at least another idea for helping her students.
It didn’t matter to me that a wiki was not in her immediate future because that would not have helped her students. I liked being able to go “off book” and use what knowledge of tools I have to help her brainstorm some ideas for activities (aided, not driven, by technology) that would suit her students’ needs. We do all our students a far greater service by letting their needs drive the choice of technological tools (or the choice to not use technology), rather than the other way around. As I have said in the past, when you add a wiki (or a podcast, or a blog, or a Voicethread) to a poorly designed lesson, it doesn’t magically become a good lesson – it’s just a bad lesson with a wiki. Folks who attended the High Tech Hall sessions were exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of technological tools, along with ideas for classroom implementations. Speaking as one who knows all too well how easy it is to get swept up in shiny new things, it is my hope that they balance their enthusiasm for their new tools with a very clear picture of the pedagogical benefits they offer (or don’t).