PortablePd; an Interview with Nathan Toft

Teacher and Blogger Nathan Toft is here with us to lend his views on education and technology. Nathan’s blog Portable Pd.ca is “a place where we can share what we have learned about using technology in the classroom.” In fact, Nathan has shared his interview with us as well.

1. What inspired you to start PortablePD.ca?

PortablePD.ca is a site that supports elementary teachers in using technology with their students. It was launched almost three years ago when my teaching colleague Jane Smith and I were awarded a $10 000 grant from the Ontario Ministry of Education. This money, and further funds from our school board, was used to assist 12 teachers from our school board in developing their own blogs and podcasts. We met four times over the school year and PortablePD.ca was set up as a place for the participants to find and share resources, tips, questions and advice in between these sessions.

Early on it became apparent that the site was getting traffic and comments from teachers around the world. I take pride in the fact that a couple of my tutorials on the finer points of making a blog with the Edublogs.org platform continue to be referenced by Edublogs’ own support team.

Prior to this project Jane and I worked as team teachers. We discovered we had similar approaches to teaching and working with students as we planned similar lessons for our junior grade classrooms. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to collaborate on two books for Scholastic: Our Class Podcast and Web Tools for Kids. Both books are part of Scholastic’s Moving Up With Literacy Place guided reading series.

This past fall we were selected to represent Microsoft Canada at the Microsoft Innovative Teachers’ Forum held in Salvador, Brazil. It was an honour and privilege to meet the hundreds of teachers from around the world who participated in this event.

2. What makes the current generation of students different from others in terms of technology?

I’ve worked mainly with the nine to eleven year old set. For the most part, technology for them is viewed as a form of instant entertainment, whether it be in the form of a cell phone, ipod, DSi, laptop, Wii, computer, etc. Take a group of kids on any length of bus ride and you’ll see at least 3/4 of them produce these gadgets – even if the trip is only twenty minutes. It seems these students fear boredom. The trick is to find a way to harness that innate quality of play the kids have with technology and apply it to the curriculum.

One of the ways I think I’ve harnessed this is through our class podcast. PortableRadio.ca is an online radio show that the students produce. Episodes are generally 10 – 15 minutes in length and the content is created by the students. We also produce “Portable Radio Point of View” segments where we take a position on a current news story and send it to our local radio station. We have been fortunate to have our segments aired quite frequently. This past year we entered a contest that required we make a video promoting why we like to have “.ca” at the end of our address. We did well in the contest and learned a great deal about viral marketing in the process. Again, the students were well aware of popular YouTube videos as a source of entertainment, but they hadn’t put much thought into how and why some of those videos become popular.

In my twelve years of teaching, what makes the “current generation” different from a few years earlier lies more with their parents. In recent years parents seem more confident and capable at participating in our class blog (MrToft.ca). Five years ago, when I first started, it was very difficult to find any parent willing to write to their child through the blog. Granted, I’ve worked out a number of ways to entice parents and students to make use of the blog.

3. How can technology change education?

Technology has opened up forms of collaboration that allow students to take their learning far beyond the walls of the classroom. They have the tools to continue working with each other at home, while away on vacation. They can collaborate with students from other classes, schools, cities, countries.

One example of collaboration that I hope is changing education (it has for me, anyway) is happening on our PortableRecorder.ca site. The site is a course of study for kids and teachers to learn how to play the recorder. The site can be used to go much deeper. Students can use karaoke-style files on the site and mix themselves playing the melody have it included on the site. This coming year, my hope is to link students up with Jane Smith’s class (MrsSmith.ca) and have them work on composing and performing songs for each other using technologies like Skype, Adobe Connect, and Audacity. Our classroom blogs also serve as a tool to reflect and critique each others work before being shared on the PortableRecorder.ca site. We find this type of collaboration quite exciting with the knowledge that our schools are over 60 kilometers apart. Our hope is to transfer this collaboration to classes in other cities and countries.

Using technology such as a classroom blog, and using it effectively, has allowed me to communicate far more clearly on a daily basis with my students’ parents. This has resulted in parents having a better understanding of what is going on in the classroom and gives them some ideas on how to support their kids at home.

4. What is the biggest obstacle in integrating technology in education?

Teachers need to have time to get their head around how to use the technology. They need to live with it, full time, in their classroom and work out how to best it can fit it with their teaching. It is too easy to be “wowed” by the glamour of the equipment and to lose sight of the fact that it is still best used as a tool for students to gain a deep understanding of whatever it is being taught.

5. As a teacher, do you think it is possible to one day have all-online classroom in the future?

Like everything in education, I think we should focus on the best teaching practices. There are many things that teachers have done in the past that we should continue to do. However, there will always be a need for innovation and change. There are many types of learners and just as many ways to reach them. The more tools we use to educate our children, the more likely we, and they, are to find ways to help them find success.

Thanks for talking to us Nathan! Again, you can find his blog Portable Pd.ca here. See Udemy’s main website for more information about changing education with technology.