EdTechTeacher’s Beth Holland collaborated with Chicago educator, Shawn McCusker (@ShawnMcCusker) on this post for Edudemic.

From Smoke Signals to Tweets: How The Evolution Of Communication Is Changing Your Classroom

From quill and ink, to slate and chalk, to pencil and paper, to typewriter, to computer, to iPad…. each evolution of technology has allowed students to make their thinking visual, articulate their ideas, demonstrate their understanding of concepts and skills, collaborate with their peers, and communicate in complex and modern ways.

Each advance has made it possible for those who master them to go a little further and to communicate a little more effectively. Historically, people who have taken the time to learn these technologies, or develop new ones, have reaped great rewards.

Andrew Carnegie was “discovered” because of his ability to use the telegraph – the peak of communication at the time – to unravel a rail snarl that paralyzed his company.

Thomas Edison created a way for people to record themselves, and others, and share these messages widely.

Bill Gates invented a way for people to visually interact with data on their computers.

Tim Berners Lee (not Al Gore) designed the Internet so that computers, and their subsequent users, could connect, communicate, and collaborate. With all of these individuals, each one mastered a newer form of complex communication and then became innovators in how they used it.

The technology of today simply takes this connection, communication, and collaboration to a new level and is tied to a process that began, perhaps, with the first use of smoke signals. In fact, the writing of this article would not have been as efficient without these new technologies.

  • The conversation started on Twitter as direct messages.
  • Brief planning period via email ensued.
  • Creation and shift to Google Doc where writing, commenting, and instant messaging proceeded.
  • Final sharing back on Twitter.

Classroom Applications

Note that neither a phone, nor a face-to-face meeting, occurred. In fact, we have only met in person on one occasion, and yet we can seamlessly collaborate. So how does this apply to the classroom? Why is it essential when we are using devices with students that we go beyond simply giving students a tool and expect them to create course-specific content with it?

Because unlike with previous technologies, the teaching of associated social skills seems to have been ignored. We can all remember our parents teaching us to politely answer a phone and write a letter. These norms transferred easily to the realm of e-mail, but how about a 140 character Tweet or a short text? How do we, as educators, help our students to develop skills to use the device as a tool of creation and the social skills to use it without negative consequence?

This actually raises another question, WHY has the modeling of communication, collaboration, and social skills not accompanied these new advances? Educators, parents, and adults have experienced turmoil and discomfort because there have been few rules to go along with these latest technologies and platforms; because, frankly, they have been created and instigated by our students. The telegraph, telephone, computer, and even the Internet were invented by established adults. Facebook, one of the more disruptive technologies, took off because of a college-aged kid! Teens started texting long before their parents.

The Anomie Problem

Since we, as adults, did not model appropriate usage for our children and students, they don’t know how to react to these new communication styles, struggling to determine when they should use them and when they should not. This state of “anomie” or normlessness can be frustrating at the very least. This was true with the invention of cars, phones, walkmen, ipods and is no less true for devices in the classroom. Just think, about how hard theaters have worked to educate people about cell phone use during movies and plays. Consider the efforts currently being made to prevent texting and driving. Society is working hard to create norms in light of the rapid evolution of new technologies.

As teachers, we will need to focus on helping students to learn the norms that relate to having devices in class as well as the appropriate context in which to use – or not use – them. We will need to help the students master the social implications of using these tools appropriately in order to make sure that they add to, rather than distract from, their learning.

How It Looks In The Classroom

Given the challenges of piloting programs, integrating technology, and addressing 21st Century Skills, how do we also teach these complex communication strategies? What does this look like in the classroom?

  • Angela Cunningham (@kyteacher) had her students Tweet the history of the United States as a review activity for their AP exam. However, she first had to teach them to Tweet. With slips of paper, they planned hashtags for major events and handles for significant historical figures. On other occasions, students organized reviews by Tweeting summaries of entire chapters of their book, and then, as a group, evaluated their effectiveness. In each case, students needed to evaluate information, identify the essential importance, and relate that significance to their classmates. Each Twitter activity created a lasting record of the process that reached an audience beyond the classroom.
  • Suzy Brooks (@SimplySuzy) not only models digital citizenship and successful blogging strategies for her third-grade students, but also encourages them to blog. Throughout the year, they discuss the concept of being public, and published, as well as the ensuing social responsibility. Since she moderates all student posts and comments before they become public, Suzy creates a non-threatening learning environment where she has the chance to discuss digital citizenship and effective online communication without concerns about a negative impact.
  • Tony Perez (@TonyPerez) presents FaceBook to his students at the Atlanta Girls School in the larger context of “finding our voice using Social Media.” The ultimate goal is for the students to understand that, to an increasing degree, they are who the Internet says they are. Given an understanding of that concept, students learn to take an active role in the presentation of their own self and ask if they are painting an authentic picture. All of this is presented under the context that everything we post, re-post, Tweet, Like or otherwise engage in on the web and in social media, along with our surfing habits, purchases, and email, contributes to the long-tail which follows us across the web and through the years. It is this body of information about us that creates the larger, universal “my profile” – or, in other words, our digital brand.

Modern Challenges

Today, we are faced with the challenge of helping to define for our students what is appropriate and effective for these new devices – iPad, Chrome Book, laptop, smart phone, etc. As we think about how we can effectively leverage them to transform our curriculum and empower our students as creators, we also need to think about how we are developing our students as citizens and future leaders in the digital world. Just as long ago elders shared the best use of the smoke signal with their children as well as its drawbacks (Smoke signals give you an advantage over your enemies, but also tell them exactly where you are). Or, perhaps more realistically, we have been tasked to guide our students to create appropriate and effective norms of their own.

The next challenge, and maybe the next step in the successful integration of new technology will be to examine our own behavior in how we choose to use, leverage, and model usage of these new tools to not only reflect our own values but also shape those of our students.