Catholic schools harness Web's power - Catholic Courier

Catholic schools harness Web’s power

Many parents were less than enthusiastic when they learned in the fall of 2007 that educational-technology coordinator Kathy Broderick had started a Web log — or blog — for children at Corning’s All Saints Academy. The blog enables students to post their thoughts about a variety of topics and respond to each others’ comments.

"Parents don’t like blogging," remarked Broderick, who also teaches music at the school.

Yet, she said, students loved posting on the blog, which represents just one of the ways Broderick and many of her fellow Catholic-school teachers have begun to capitalize on students’ eagerness to immerse themselves in today’s technology-savvy culture.

Indeed, children growing up today are so surrounded by technology that they become comfortable with it at an extremely early age, Holy Cross Brother William Clifford told the 80 educators attending the July 10-11 Summer Institute on Catholic Education, sponsored by the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

A digital landscape

"Catholic Education: Culture, Creativity, Collaboration and Cyberspace" was chosen as the summer institute’s theme, in part because previous years’ conference participants had asked for resources to help them become familiar with and use new and emerging educational technologies, said Evelyn Kirst, director of the Warner School’s Catholic- and private-school leadership program. Today’s teachers can’t afford to ignore cyberspace or digital technology, she noted.

"Our kids know about it and they’re exposed to it, and if we’re going to be here to educate the whole child, we have no choice," Kirst said.

Brother Clifford, associate superintendent for instruction and technology for the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Catholic schools, conducted several sessions intended to help educators become comfortable enough with the Internet to use it as a learning tool in their classrooms.

Children today belong to a digital culture, he said, while many adults speak with what he termed an "analog accent." Forty percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds already have used a computer, he noted, while half of the nation’s 18-year-olds already have created Web content. Children are surrounded by virtual mountains of information, which forces teachers to re-examine their roles and techniques, Brother Clifford said. (Click here for a list of recommended educational sites for kids.)

"We used to be the providers of the information," he said. "Nowadays our job is to take the information (surrounding students) and then make it knowledge."

Textbooks used to be the main source of information for most students, but that has changed now that the Internet has made a wealth of information so easily accessible, said Sister of St. Joseph Margaret Mancuso, assistant diocesan superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"(The Internet) is just integrated into everything they’re doing. We certainly see it as a learning tool," Sister Mancuso said.

She said teachers at diocesan schools follow the New York State Education Department’s technology standards, which call for that students to gain and apply technological knowledge and skills to design, construct, use and evaluate products and systems to satisfy human and environmental needs. Teachers also follow national technology standards, helping students understand technological operations and concepts; the social, ethical and human issues related to technology; and ways to use technology as problem-solving and decision-making tools and as ways to enhance productivity, communication and research.

"Working online is the way of the future, and our students and teachers need to be informed and able to use these tools," noted Arline Porcelli, who in June retired from her position as educational-technology coordinator at Our Mother of Sorrows School in Greece.

Teachers at the Greece school often used the Internet to reinforce and enhance their lessons, Porcelli said. After teaching students about owls, for example, a teacher might show the students an online video about owls or play for them an audio clip of an owl’s hoot. The Internet puts the most up-to-date resources at teachers’ and students’ fingertips, while helping students gain the technological skills they’ll need as adults, she said.

Many of today’s most popular college majors and sought-after careers are in such fields as new media and e-business — fields that didn’t even exist 10 years ago, Brother Clifford said. It’s only reasonable to expect that the next generation likewise will be working with Web-based technologies as yet unknown to us, so teachers need to prepare them for this rapidly changing digital future, he said.

Already the Internet is readily available to most children, and it’s the first place many of them look when seeking information, noted Maureen Morehouse, educational-technology coordinator at St. Rita School in Webster.

"It is our responsibility to show the students how to use it correctly and how to deal with fact vs. fiction," Morehouse said.

Harnessing the Web’s potential

Chris Pospisil, educational-technology coordinator at St. John Neumann School in Rochester, shares Morehouse’s sentiment. Pospisil teaches her students to evaluate the sources of the information they find before judging the information’s accuracy. She tells them to note Web sites’ file extensions, looking first to Web sites ending in .gov or .org, extensions that usually mean the sites are run by government or nonprofit organizations.

Activities called Web quests are gaining popularity among many teachers, including Pospisil, Morehouse and Janice Mittak, educational-technology coordinator at St. Mary School in Canandaigua.

"These are basically online lesson plans," Mittak explained.

Pospisil said teachers design Web quests to begins at a specific Web site that poses questions about a certain topic, such as New York state’s waterways, for example. The initial Web page will direct students to other locations, such as the official Web site of the New York State Canal System or a page from an online encyclopedia, where students will be able to find answers to the questions.

Such activities help students become good researchers and explore the Web in a safe and directed way, Pospisil said.

"They absolutely love doing (Web quests)," she added.

The Web’s interactive nature also makes it a great place to post writing assignments and receive almost-instantaneous feedback, Brother Clifford said. Teachers can entice reluctant writers by encouraging them to write essays and creative pieces for Web sites at which readers can leave comments for authors.

Such feedback "is criticism not coming from (teachers’) lips; it’s coming from someone else’s lips, so they’re liable to pay attention to it," he said.

However, interactivity also is what makes many parents wary of the Internet in general, and especially of such sites as blogs and chat rooms, said Broderick, who said she understood parents’ concerns about her student blog. News reports in recent years have been peppered with tales of children who have been victimized or bullied in chat rooms or through cruel blog postings, instant messages, e-mails and text messages from peers.

The fears of her All Saints’ parents were eased somewhat, however, when Broderick explained that the blog is what’s known as an authorized blog. This means all comments to the blog are first sent to Broderick’s e-mail inbox, where she previews them before posting them on the blog. This creates more work for Broderick, but it ensures that she can prevent potentially hurtful or offensive posts from appearing on the blog for all to see.

The way Broderick sees it, the blog provides a safe place for students to experiment with blogs and online postings, and may assuage the curiosity that could lead them to unsafe online alternatives. Like it or not, the Internet is here to stay, so it’s up to educators to teach their charges to safely and skillfully navigate its virtual waters, Broderick and Porcelli agreed.

"Even though there are many concerns with some areas of the Internet and safety issues, as Christians we need to be able to teach our children to live safely in the world around us," Porcelli said.

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