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Interview with Nick Lawrence of NCSS Tech Community

1. Thanks for taking the time to interview with us! Tell us how the NCSS technology community got started.

The Tech Community has been around for a long while. Some of our members like to recall the times when the community was discussing the advent of the ballpoint pen as a particularly ingenious invention, though obviously our work these days is focused on digital tools. 

We really picked up steam at the conference in Boston in 2014. There were about a dozen people at the community business meeting that year and many of us had attended prior meetings (some for many years). We decided then and there that we’d stop the cycle of meeting once a year to talk about what could be done with little action otherwise. Our first step was to start meeting monthly online, which allowed us to discuss possibilities and start implementing some programming throughout the year and at the annual conference.

Since 2014 we’ve established a lounge space at the conference, a webinar series throughout the school year, and we’ve worked to publish in Social Education as well as to write a position statement on Youth, Social Media and Digital Civic Engagement, which goes to the heart of our work in supporting teachers and students at the intersection of technology and the social studies. 

2. How is technology helpful for teaching social studies?

Technology is helpful in teaching any subject if implemented effectively, but there is a unique space in social studies to both use tools to support students’ education while at the same time demonstrating to them how civically engaged adults use digital tools to “do social studies” in their communities. Students consume an incredible amount of digital content and are subjected to so many influences they cannot see and cannot control as they traverse online spaces- often alone. Social studies educators are poised to address those things and other impacts that digital tools and social media are having on their students. 

There are also some really practical reasons to use technology in the social studies classroom in particular. Online simulations, virtual and augmented reality, educational games, and the sheer amount of content that students can access make digital tools and the internet game changers in how students learn about themselves and the world around them. 

3. What are the latest trends in social studies technology? 

When we think of trends, we often think of the tools and application of tools in the field. There are a few ways of looking at tools used in the social studies, but we tend to look at two different camps of technology- instructional tools that are used in the service of teaching social studies and tools that support the delivery of social studies content. The instructional tools can oftentimes cross subject areas and support the idea that social studies can be found in all content areas, while resources focused on content delivery are more specific to our field. 

The categories of instructional tools we’re looking at right now are learning management systems, teacher presentation tools, assessment tools, teacher content creation tools (largely video), student video creation, podcasting, discussion platforms for students, and social studies games. Here’s a list of the tools our community members are using:

There are new players in each of these all of the time, but a wider trend we’re seeing is for some real giants to be rising in educational technology, such as Google with its suite of tools and Nearpod, to name a couple. While there are a lot of start-ups, we’ll possibly continue to see similar trends as with the larger tech industry, in that most of the start-ups will be subsumed by larger projects. 

In terms of new technologies, there is definitely a lot of work being done with virtual reality, augmented reality, and educational gaming that will provide some powerful tools for educators to bring into their classrooms. 

4. What are some of the upcoming projects that the tech community is working on?

We have a few irons in the fire! This year we’re fine-tuning our webinar series to support teachers as they proceed through the year. The launch will be talking about Google Classroom and a few other tech tools to help teachers get started this school year. We’re definitely open to feedback on what the council would like to see in this series throughout the year!

Another priority is working with the national team to breathe more life into the Youth, Social Media and Digital Civic Engagement position statement the BOD passed last fall, which is designed to be a living document that council members can contribute to and help to update. Ideally, there will be a clear space for council members to share resources related to this statement as well as discuss what it means for them and their communities. Part of the shift in this approach to the position statements is that we’re advocating for reform within the council that will lead to our council members connecting far more often for professional learning and support. Giving teachers solid examples of how the C3 Framework operates in classrooms, for example, will not only illustrate to our members and the wider teacher community how the national social studies standards operate, but will show NCSS can truly support its membership in doing social studies. 

Connecting council members in an online space like this can also allow educators to collect and promote their passions in the field. For the Tech Community, that means talking about the tech tools as well as higher level discussions such as the impact of digital media on society. Having a forum to do that with the wider council would be great. It could also serve as a space for those passionate about their state councils to support one another and for those advocating for a return of the social studies to schools to get insight on how that work is going elsewhere. In short, we’re advocating for a push to connect our council more substantively not only to promote the social studies, but to demonstrate the very real work of the social studies as we go along.

We’d love to have more people join us in this work! That can mean anything from signing up for our newsletter to joining our team to meet monthly to discuss projects we’re working on to pitching new ideas about how the community should work at the intersection of social studies and technology. We’re always looking for new ideas to explore, so if anyone is interested, they can easily connect with us at @TechNCSS on Twitter!

5. If I’m a teacher, and I’m trying to incorporate technology in the classroom for the first time, where would I start? What tools would I use?

It’s probably no surprise that we’d preface this with “it depends,” but you can ask a couple questions to help figure this out. The first is what are you hoping the students will ultimately do as a result of using the technology. Are you looking to enhance what you do or try something entirely new? Is it the outcome something that can only be achieved using a digital tool? How will the action taken with the tool reflect the way that civically engaged adults work and behave in our society? There are tools that support nearly every aspect of instruction, so identifying your goals as an educator with your students can give you some direction. 

If that seems intimidating or complex, another way to go is to start with a learning management system like Google Classroom or a presentation tool like Nearpod. Google Classroom is pretty easy to set up and has a lot of functionality in terms of how students can interact with their teacher and with each other on it. Setting routines and expectations with students about how to use technology in the classroom is a must and if you don’t have a lot of experience with using various tools, it can be easier to start in one place with the kids as you can do a lot with it, but can also keep it pretty simple. Nearpod may be a solid way to do that. 
Incorporating technology can also be as simple as using a game or a website as part of your social studies curriculum. For younger kids, is a fantastic resources to introduce kids to civic concepts. iCivics is another resource that has a lot of things built out for teachers and students. Starting with things like this allows teachers new to the use of technology to focus on managing a classroom of tech users, which can be intimidating for first-time users. Ultimately, that’ll be an important part of using any sort of technology in the classroom.