Education is currently facing a lot of tough times. The recession has not been kind to educators and their students, just like everyone else, but there are still a lot of things to be excited about, just go on Twitter and search the hashtag #edchat. Some of those things are the tools that are now available that have never been here before. However, it is also important to see these things as tools, not solutions to educational issues or problems, but tools that can improve the educational experience, for teachers and students alike.
Two of those tools are online learning management (OLM) and social networking. But, the real question is: How can these tools be used to make students more successful and increase engagement?
In the 21st century, students will be required to make more and more creative choices, both personally and professionally. In order to properly prepare students for that they need to be practicing in the classroom. Autonomy is the true secret to mastery. Giving the students the responsibility to not only demonstrate their learning, but to decide the method in which it is demonstrated. Students need to feel as though they are connected to what they are learning, but they can never truly do that unless they have made many of the decisions about how that learning will be demonstrated.
How do online learning management and social networking fit into all of this? One of the problems that I've had as a teacher is keeping track of student work and finding a way to keep my students informed of what is happening in class. OLM takes care of all of that. The system that I currently use is Schoology. It is not the first system that I have used, but so far it has been the most fruitful. It provides a place where I can post all of my assignments, keep my gradebook, and maintain a list of resources that relate to course content. In addition, it provides resources for collaboration, where students can share their ideas with one another through discussion forums. Parents also like the site because I can create accounts for them to see their students' grades/progress in the class.
Social networking has been all but a dirty word (phrase?) in education. There have been a lot of issues that have popped up along the way from teachers harshly criticizing students on their blogs to students who post harsh tweets about their teachers. However, every new technology has its dangers, but they also have their benefits. Social networking offers a way to connect with students that has never been available before. Schoology is great because it offers social networking in their design. Students can use the interface to contact me privately, or they can contact one another through the open classroom environment (private messages between students are disabled to prevent cyber bullying).
All of this comes together to make autonomy in the classroom possible. Students have a place to find the resources they need, and if they can't, a network to find them. They also have a place to go to keep track of their work and a place to turn it in. They feel like true learners because I trust them to learn in their own way, their own style, and at their own level. Autonomy causes students to automatically differentiate themselves - they really do what they can do when you give them the opportunity. Not only do they work hard, but they work on something they are truly proud of.
These ideas are not yet widespread. They are supported by a handful of teachers around the United States and more in Europe. One of the great thinkers that supports these ideals is Dan Pink, who has written multiple books on how people think in the 21st century and what motivates them. Give your students a chance, see what they can really do, and they will AMAZE you.