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Two local educators talk technology in the classroom

On a recent weekday morning, Andrew Coy took his class of high school students to take pictures of the Inner Harbor. They used a GigaPan, a robotic camera mount designed to take tens or hundreds of pictures of a given location that can then be stitched together to form a panoramic. The final product can be uploaded online and used to create in-depth views, like one of M&T Bank Stadium that can be zoomed out to encompass the entire structure or in close to enough to see players' sweat.

 "We talked all about how you take things from the real world and you put them in the digital world," Coy says of his excursion with his class, "and then how you take it out of the digital world and into the real world, because these two interact all the time. It’s not just on a screen. And so that whole conversation was outside today—it was just fun being outside with the kids and showing them that this is real life, digital life interacts with real life, and this is how."

Coy and fellow Baltimore teacher Shelly Blake-Plock (disclosure: Blake-Plock is a former City Paper contributor) have a lot to say about the relationship between education and technology. So much, in fact, that they're making their conversation public on Sept. 20, with the inaugural Baltimore EdTech Forum at Digital Harbor High School, where Coy teaches two technology classes in addition to serving on the IT staff.

The forum, moderated by Coy and featuring presentations by and discussions with local technology and design entrepreneur Dave Troy and tech teacher/open-source advocate Tom Murdock as well as Blake-Plock, is not strictly designed to generate concrete plans for, say, revamping the school system. Rather, Coy and Blake-Plock hope to bring people from the community together in an ongoing discussion about the possibilities for technology in the classroom.

"One thing that we've seen in the classroom is that it used to be really bound by what you brought into the classroom," Coy says. "You bring textbooks in, you bring speakers to come in, you bring yourself, whatever you bring into that classroom, but it was all within those four walls. However, within the past 20 years what's happened with technology has opened up the classroom to any number of experiences where you can actually have real-time dialogues."

Blake-Plock taught history, foreign language, and fine arts at the John Carroll School in Bel Air for 10 years before becoming a faculty associate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education; Coy was one of his students. The two say that whether they were teaching students or teaching teachers, there was a lack of understanding about how to integrate technology into the learning process. This summer, they decided on the need for a regular gathering; in August, Digital Harbor agreed to sponsor it.

Blake-Plock says what's at issue is not simply the need to buy more computers or provide each student with an iPad. More crucial, he says, is the need to re-examine what education means in the context of a technological world.

"We can’t decide that technology is going to be right," he says. "It’s not a right or a wrong. It just exists. And you’re not going to get away from that. And we’ve already given birth to children who will be alive in the 22nd century, and in so many classrooms we're forcing them to still have a 20th-century education."

In his own classrooms, Blake-Plock has been conducting social experiments with technology. Students in one of his freshman history courses, for example, write about what they've learned for a blog that has amassed 8,000 page views, due largely to the network of tech-minded educators with whom Blake-Plock is connected. That large audience gives students a feeling of ownership over their work, he says, and forces them to defend their writing and their opinions on a public stage. This ownership, Coy says, leads to student empowerment, a phrase he uses often to describe what he and Blake-Plock see as the ultimate goal of education—teaching kids to want to learn, rather than simply to pass tests.

"Especially in the city, where you have so many problems, that’s all the more reason to focus and innovate and use the technology," Coy says. "Most of the problems that we face are from, in my opinion, lack of attention--parental attention, societal attention. What you can do is you can open up the audience where a student can write for a blog that has thousands of people that are reading all over the country, whereas something that you’re going to write and turn in to a teacher, you’re never going to see again and one person sees it."

Teachers and administrators have, in large part, responded positively to Coy and Blake-Plock's ideas, especially, Blake-Plock says, if those ideas are presented in a way that demonstrates the benefits to students, teachers, and the profession at large. But Coy says he has on occasion encountered negative responses—an administrator telling him blog-writing isn't in the curriculum, for example. And there are problems with access to technology: Some schools still don't have computers, and many that do are blocked from fully utilizing them. Access to YouTube, for example, is restricted in most schools, despite the fact, as Blake-Plock points out, that the site is home to the world's largest collection of educational videos.

Technology is simply the context in which learning now exists, Blake-Plock says, and it's leading to changes in the way students are taught and assessed. In the face of a national push toward standardization, with federal money tied to increasing scores on standardized tests, the question, say he and Coy, is bigger than whether or not students should use iPads.

"Even to step back a little bit from technology itself and just say, maybe it’s time to look at what is it that we’re talking about when we’re talking about education," Blake-Plock says. "Are we talking about the ability to pass a test and increase an aggregate score for your school? Or is education more than that? The case is out on that one."

The EdTech Forum will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at Digital Harbor High School, 1100 Covington Street. It is free and open to the public. Go to for more information.



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