Supporting Self-directed Learning in the Classroom - Guest Blog Post

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Guest Post by Sarah Pewitt, Technology Specialist, Heatherwood Middle School

Teaching technology to middle school students is a profession that is incredibly rewarding as I watch that light bulb come on when students' eyes open to the potential of all that technology can do!

As a technology teacher, I can access the state standards, however... there is no scope and sequence for how to teach to these, no formal assessments by the state, and frankly, no curriculum…it is all up to the individual teacher in the classroom. While this predicament allows you leeway and ultimate creativity with curriculum, I constantly hear the voice in my head telling me,"how are you going to teach them everything they need to know to be successful in school and in the future when technology moves so fast?" and "As a technology teacher, how will you become the expert in your curriculum so you can teach it to the students?"  
Well, in my technology classroom, I am learning as fast as I can and right alongside my students. In fact, I learn something new every day! I learned to not be afraid of not being the expert. Although my students are much younger than me, they have a lot of knowledge especially in the area of technology and as digital natives, they learn differently.  
Several years ago I attended the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) conference and was feeling like the way I had been teaching technology was not matching up with the times and that there had to be a way to do it better. I read through the conference session book and landed in a small room completely packed with people attending a session on 3D GameLab. I remember listening to the presentation feeling as though I had won! I had found it! A way to teach my students in an online, self-paced and self-directed, quest-based learning format where all of them could feel successful. In the next few months, I took their online teacher camp and began planning for how to implement this new type of learning.  
One of the key features that makes this type of self-directed learning work is to have instructional videos so that the teacher is not the disseminator of all the information but the students learn, "just in time"--or when they are ready. As I mentioned, I learn a lot from the students... I listen, ask questions, and pay attention to their conversations. When I ask them how they learn to do various things from skateboard tricks, video games, to making movies, they tell me, "we just YouTube it!"  So, off I set to find the best instructional videos that would focus on the skills I needed them to learn to complete the projects in particular programs.  

Sometimes the videos online were helpful, sometimes. They were as close as I could get but were not as specific to the skills I needed. In 3D GameLab, I had the potential to embed videos right in the quests, but due to our internet filtering, finding a place to put these videos took considerable time. For each video I took the time to locate, I had to download, convert, and upload each video to my class website. The process was workable, but time-consuming.  
Last spring I had a complete "a-ha moment" where again I felt as if I had won. I knew our district had a contract with Atomic Learning and had repeatedly told teachers about how they could do the "just-in-time learning" for pretty much whatever they needed. What I didn't realize is that students had access as well with just their district log in! I breathed a sigh of relief and set out to locate the exact videos I needed.

This past summer I re-vamped my website and quest links to take the students to the Atomic Learning website. These videos are straight-forward, isolate specific skills, consistently of high quality, and perfect for students' "just-in-time learning."  Using Atomic Learning, I can locate the videos, create easy links, and paste them right into the students' quests or add them to my website. It is such a wonderful resource for students, teachers, and staff that I wish people would just take the time to check it out more often and realize that you can learn technology--one atom at a time!

About Sarah Pewitt
Sarah Pewitt is a Technology Specialist at Heatherwood Middle School & has taught in the Everett School District for the past 13 years. In her classroom, she works with 6th-8th graders facilitating their learning of a wide variety of applications all through the 3D GameLab portal. Additionally, Sarah enjoys working with staff in her school and throughout the district leading various forms of professional development and being active on numerous district committees focused on effective technology integration. Sarah has taught pre-service teachers through City University of Seattle, is a Microsoft Innovative Educator and has enjoyed sharing her insights and experiences with educational technology as a NCCE presenter in both Seattle and Portland.

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