Sunday / September 24

Use Technology to Work Less and Empower Students More

Use Technology to Work Less and Empower Students More

One of the best reasons to adopt technology is because it can provide students a much more active, meaningful, and self-directed educational experience in your classroom. As a bonus, it can make your job much, much easier. In my workshops with educators, I often call the following example one of my most valuable lessons (MVL’s) because it has made such a dramatic impact on my students ownership of their learning while also reducing my workload.  Here is one way I use technology to work less and empower students more in my classroom.

The Resource Library

A week before the start of every unit, I give my students an assignment. I provide the topic for the next unit, for example, Ecosystems. I do not give them any information other than the name of the next unit. Each student has to find a different resource (website, video, app, article, etc.) about Ecosystems and post it to a shared spreadsheet I have created for them on Google Docs.  On the spreadsheet they have to list a) the name of the resource, b) a link to where to find the resource, and c) a short summary of the resource.

They have to post their resource by the start of the unit the following week. They cannot post the same resource as anyone else so students are rewarded for starting the assignment immediately—those who wait until the last minute have to look at everyone else’s resources to make sure they are not posting the same thing. Interestingly, the students who procrastinate are usually the ones that need to look at all the resources anyway—so that works out well too.

On the first day of the unit, I pull up all of the resources they have created and we critically review each one. We project each video, app, website, etc. and go through them each as a class. We ask each student three questions: 1) Why did you pick this resource?; 2) Why did it appeal to you?; and, 3) How does it help you learn? The first couple of times we do this, I have to help them critically evaluate the resource but they soon get the hang of it and begin to lead this critical evaluation exercise themselves. By the end of the semester, you may want to even have student pairs lead the exercise themselves.

There are many things that occur during this exercise:

  1. Students gain background knowledge about Ecosystems before the unit even begins. Once they walk into class on the first day of the unit, they have already read some of the terminology, seen pictures of ecosystems, and have a general idea what we are going to be doing.
  2. Students see how much information there is available to them about ecosystems. Oftentimes our students do not realize that there are other resources out there besides the teacher. If students go to Google and type in Ecosystems, they quickly find out how much is available to them. They are also able to use this later in the unit if they want or need to find out more.
  3. Students learn to pick resources which appeal to them and we can discuss why it is appealing. We often talk about “lifelong learning” but rarely ask our students how they learn.  This exercise can help them start to understand their style of learning. This is why asking “Why does this resource appeal to you?” is so important. Maybe they like an app because it is an interactive game that they can play, maybe they like a website because it has so many visuals, or maybe they prefer an article because it is straightforward and easy to understand. Either way, they start to consider how and what resources work best for them.
  4. Students begin to critically evaluate resources for learning. The first day of the unit is incredibly important as we evaluate each resource. This exercise helps them to start to really think about why each resource is, or is not, valuable. We discuss things like authorship of the information, primary and secondary sources, evidence-based content, and the “age” of the knowledge reported. If there are 26 students in class, we may decide to eliminate 7 of the resources because they don’t meet our standards. As we move further into the semester, I start to see much more credible resources being added as students learn to think critically about what they are discovering.
  5. Who works hardest in my classroom? I ask myself this all the time and, in this example, here is what I have done by the time the first day of the unit is completed. 1) I told them the topic of the unit. 2) I created a Google doc and shared it. 3) And I facilitated a classroom discussion on resources. Oh yes, I also have a list of 19 new resources on Ecosystems that my current students can use and that I can use in future lessons! As I have done this over multiple semesters and units, I have literally collected dozens and dozens of practical resources that I can use in class without having to do anything myself.

It is important to point out that you can do this for any content area. For example, I don’t even teach science, I just used ecosystems for this example! But you could easily have students create a resource library for a Shakespeare novel, a unit on angles in geometry, to discuss the Civil Rights Movement, or any number of other topics. I actually do it for every single unit I teach. Having students create their own resource library allows students to take ownership of their learning. For them to take complete ownership, that often means me becoming more invisible in the classroom. In this resource library example, and many others, technology helps me facilitate working less and my students learning more. Good luck!

Written by

Zachary Walker is the founder of Last Backpack Generation and is currently a faculty member at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. He was one of five recipients of the 2012 Think College Emerging Scholar Award for his research on the use of technology to prepare students for post-secondary environments. His current research focuses on the impact of mobile technology on both students and teachers and practical strategies for teachers at all levels.

He is the co-author of Teaching the Last Backpack Generation. Visit his website:

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