On the first day of class, I informed my students that I would be teaching them how to teach themselves to use technology. I let them know that I’d be there to help them whenever they got stuck, but that they were responsible for their own learning. I spent most of the first class period introducing the idea of personal learning networks (PLNs). For homework the first week, I assigned each student do two things, write a “Learning Contract” and start a PLN. To be approved, a Learning Contract had to specify what the student wanted to learn in this class, what he or she would do to make this learning happen, and what three projects the student would complete to demonstrate their learning. To start a PLN, I asked each student to set up a del.icio.us account, an RSS feed aggregator of their choice and to consider joining a social network with an educational focus.
I chose to emphasize learning contracts and PLN based on feedback from last semester. After reviewing official course evaluations and an online survey that I created, I learned that for many of my students learning didn’t count unless it came straight from the teacher. One typical student confessed to learning a lot in the course, but qualified her statement by saying she learned it from her group, not from the teacher. The highest rated class activities were the most teacher-focused: a lecture/discussion on copyright and a multi-media presentation on Internet safety. I had several of my students complain about the learning-by-doing approach to technology that I had adopted. I felt like the comments said more about student attitudes than about my instruction, but since my students are future teachers, these teacher-centered ideas about learning really concerned me and I decided that I had to do something to address them.
The first learning contract that I received was only four sentences. I politely suggested to the student that four sentences was not worth 6% of a college credit and asked for revisions. The student promptly dropped my class and I was a little worried that more would follow, but they didn’t. As students trickled in for the second class I overheard a student excitedly ask a neighbor, “What’s in your learning contract? I’m going to learn PowerPoint.” My heart sank a little; I had hoped that my students would aim higher than PowerPoint, but then I realized something important. This student was excited about coming to my class. If I could help her learn a little PowerPoint, maybe she’d be more open to the other technologies that I wanted to share with her.
Overall, I think my experiment in learning contracts has worked out. Students have been able to work at their comfort level and they seem to have taken more responsibility for their learning than my students last semester. One student’s first project was to set up his own server so that he would be able to host podcasts and other course content himself. Most of my students started small, with web pages in Google Pages or PowerPoint presentations uploaded to slideshare. All of my students have shown growth over the course of the year. Some of the projects have been quite creative. One future English teacher used SPresent to create a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style story to teach students the elements of Gothic novels. A future family and consumer science teacher used Gliffy and Google Spreadsheets for students to collaborate on a floor plan and then comparison shop for furniture. Two of my students did projects on the Bronte sisters. One did a PowerPoint presentation, while the other did a voicethread. I have to admit that watching the two back to back is almost an advertisement for voicethread.
The main drawback to the approach that I’ve taken this semester is that I don’t have as consistent a set of standards for projects as I would like. In the future, I think I would like to provide students with criteria for the most common types of projects (webpages, PowerPoint presentations, SPresent, podcasts, wikis, blogs, VoiceThreads, Google Spreadsheets, etc.). I also think I will give students more time to explore technology before proposing projects in their contracts.