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8 Strategies to Manage the 21st Century Classroom

By Nicole Mace, MEd August 7, 2018

We’ve all seen the black and white images of the one-room schoolhouse. Students sit in perfect rows that face a teacher who’s writing on a chalkboard. Up until the last decade, our classrooms haven’t drastically differed from those 100-year-old images. We are so fortunate to be living and teaching in a time of rapid educational change. Instead of personal student chalkboards, a number of students now have access to electronic tablets. Many teachers can now use Smartboards instead of dry-erase boards. The limits of the central textbook have transcended the limitless information gathered online.

Although these changes are exciting, using technology in the classroom can seem overwhelming when you have multiple objectives to achieve each day and 30 – 35 students to engage simultaneously. So how do we manage the advancing 21st-century classroom environment? Here are eight real-world strategies to slay the daunting, technology classroom dragon.

1. Start with your classroom set up

Just as any well-managed classroom, set up is essential. First, configure the desks in such a way that you can see all or most screens. For example, student desks can face the outer walls of the classroom in a circular fashion. Or, if rows or pairs work best for your class, consider setting up your desk at the back of the classroom. You’ll be able to view all screens and students without being front and center.

Establish, display, teach and repeat your classroom rules and procedures when using devices. Students should be clear on their expected behavior and how to handle arising technology use issues. To help create this structure, number each device. Students will have a sense of ownership, and the numbering assists with technology support communications.

Lastly, have a system for student logins. Any teacher with computer use experience knows the student login headache. Help students become more independent by creating login cards. Each personalized login card should include the device login, then a couple of the main websites or apps used. Be sure to keep a master list of logins. For the most part, logging in should be the responsibility of the student — though that does depend on age and whether or not your students have any special needs.

2. Make digital citizenship a priority

Now that you have the devices in the hands of each of your students, they’re ready to engage in this type of learning. This is your chance to teach one of the most essential skills needed in a 21st-century classroom: responsible use of technology, also known as digital citizenship. Students can’t automatically navigate the internet safely, communicate effectively and respectfully, and handle other digital dilemmas. These are all skills that have to be taught.

No matter what grade you are teaching, take the opportunity to guide students so they become responsible digital citizens. While this can be a daunting task, there’s a vast depository of lessons, materials, and entire free curriculums online. One of my favorite resources when teaching digital citizenship is Common Sense Education, which provides curriculum for each grade level and includes teacher tutorials, materials, and truly engaging lessons for every classroom.

3. Teach mini-lessons before using devices

The number one mistake I’ve seen in classrooms using devices is the order of process. Imagine a student-filled room start to vibrate with excitement as the teacher rolls the C.O.W. (computers on wheels) into the classroom. The teacher hands out the numbered devices to his students and their fingers punch in their personal logins the moment they get their hands on them. Relieved that all the devices are in functioning condition, the teacher begins his directions for today’s lesson and the goal in using the devices. What is wrong with this picture? What percentage of students do you think are actually listening to the directions or the lesson’s concepts?

Teaching mini-lessons prior to student access is the key. Students won’t be distracted and are likely to fully participate because they know that paying attention and demonstrating their understanding of rules, procedures, and tasks means they will get the privilege of using devices. Mini-lessons also give you time to make sure students fully understand your expectations and the assignment involving technology. Even if the lesson is inquiry-based, students should still know what is expected of them before logging in.

4. Use the power of choice

Traditionally, the teacher is the center of instruction. In a 21st century classroom, instructional technology provides the opportunity for each student to make choices over their own learning. Making a choice provides student ownership over what is learned. In each of the three categories of instructional technology activities (practice, creativity, and discovery), there are opportunities for students to make choices.

Applications that allow students to practice and advance their skills, such as Khan Academy, usually allow them to choose what to work on or which game to play when practicing. A creativity assignment is full of choices for students to show their ability to apply the concept, to evaluate their own work, and take full ownership of the finished product. A discovery assignment allows for students to use their natural curiosity as a navigation tool.

When designing a lesson involving instructional technology, remember to include the chance for your students to make a choice that appeals to them. To learn more about the importance of providing choice, check out the research done by Universal Design for Learning.

5. Remember that sharing is caring

Allow time for students to share something they have created or discovered. Knowing they will have this opportunity encourages focus. In addition to focus, other students will be inspired by their peers and find value in their own work. Sharing doesn’t have to be done at the end of a project.

As you are circulating around the room, catch a student who’s doing something well and point out that student to the rest of the class. Often times students who don’t excel in traditional class settings don’t have a chance for a lot of praise. Technology changes that environment, providing opportunities for all students to shine, including English learners, introverts, and those who may lack proficiency in certain subjects.

6. Conduct teacher check-ins

One of my favorite strategies for managing a complex classroom is conducting ongoing teacher check-ins. Instructional technologies give our students the chance to have a more individualized learning experience: working at their own pace, using tools that work with their learning styles, and learning about topics that interest them.

Although this can create an optimal learning environment, how can a single teacher manage each student’s learning? Build in time for teacher check-ins to confer with each student once a week. Or, conduct these check-ins using an online poll such as Google Forms. Your online survey can include guiding questions related to challenges and achievements. Feedback is quick and you can use it to create a plan to support and intervene as needed.

7. Build in breaks from devices

Technology can be motivating for students in and of itself. Still, like adults, students’ focus can wander when working online. To have students re-engage with the task at hand, give them a couple minutes off their devices and have them turn to engage with a classmate face-to-face. If possible, have students sit away from their devices or use management software such as Veyon to view and lock their devices for three to five minutes.

8. Software tools are your friend

About five years ago, when the one-to-one (one device for each student) initiative started to take off, educational technology took a huge turn from teacher-centered tools to student-centered tools. Many students are now in the driver’s seat learning on their own, thanks to these educational technology tools. Different types of software were developed to assist in managing this new landscape. Classroom management software tools have been created to assist with behavioral management such as Class Dojo and Class Craft. Open-source learning management systems such as Canvas, Moodle, and Schoology have been designed to assist with course design, assignment submissions, file organization, and digital grade books.

More recently, software tools have been developed to be the “all-seeing eye” on students’ devices in use. Device management software such as GoGuardian allows teachers to view, take control, and freeze student devices from one single teacher control panel.

Our classrooms are finally starting to evolve with the surrounding world and, by implementing these eight strategies, you’ll create an innovative and successful learning environment for your technology-hungry students. If you’re interested in taking your “EdTech” skills to the next level, check out our MEd in Educational Technology Leadership for a comprehensive program that will help you lead the way as a 21st-century teacher.

Nicole Mace earned a MEd in Educational Technology from Lesley University and a professional graduate certification in instructional design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She’s spent nearly a decade in education, teaching multiple grade levels in the U.S. and South Korea and working as a lead instructional designer at the college level. Currently, Nicole serves as an adjunct online instructor and a freelance instructional designer. Her website offers key resources for instructors looking to crack the code on quality online instruction.

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