Technology integration is a double-edged sword: While it can make us more powerful and help us overcome what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, it can also create more barriers if used improperly.
I’ve learned this the hard way, through trial and error. For three years, I worked for an education technology start-up company and network of micro-schools dedicated to personalized learning. While our goal was to help every child reach their full potential through individualized, digitally driven content, I learned over time that many digital tools have dehumanizing effects: They chip away at human connection, limit opportunities for heterogeneous groupings and cross-ability collaboration, and have kids turning toward screens instead of their teachers and fellow learners.
Most of us have little choice now about incorporating digital pedagogy into our teaching. But that doesn’t mean we have to succumb to the dehumanizing effects of individualized or digitally driven education technology. We don’t have to force students to use web-based adaptive tools or make them simply watch videos of us teaching. There are ways to humanize digital pedagogy, in an effort to preserve our students’—and our own—sense of humanity while we’re all teaching and learning remotely.
These are my best suggestions for engaging students in learning using technology.
3 Tips for Keeping the Human Element When Using Technology
1. Move away from industrialized curriculum and toward journaling: It seems to make sense to turn to web-based, adaptive tools at a time like this. They promise to make it easy for teachers to manage learning from afar, and might make it easier to give lessons a personalized feel by creating playlists of activities.
But we cannot let our curriculum start and end with these activities. Even though we must use digital technology for distance learning right now, this is also an excellent time to leverage open-ended tasks, complex instruction, and journaling, allowing students to post pictures of their journal entries through Seesaw or Google Drive.
Journaling might entail providing a math task with multiple solutions for students to solve independently. It might entail reading a story, and asking students to respond to a variety of journal prompts in a reader’s notebook or thinking journal. It may entail free or creative writing, bounded by a genre study or journaling rubric that still allows the teacher to provide structured feedback and help students progress in their writing.
After students have time to work on their own, you can host a discussion online so they can share their work and have an opportunity to connect with one another over academics, just like you would in your classroom regularly.
2. Create opportunities for dialogue and discourse: Social interaction is a critical component of complex instruction. To fully capitalize on the benefits of complex instruction, we must create opportunities for dialogue and discourse, in an effort to keep kids thinking critically over the course of this quarantine. Many of us have audio or video conferencing capabilities at our fingertips. Google Meet and Zoom are just two tools that grant educators the ability to have live meetings with their classrooms. Doing so can preserve some semblance of normalcy and maintain the dialogue and discourse that we value in our classrooms.
But the need for this goes far beyond social interaction. True, deep learning happens not on a worksheet or through a series of decontextualized videos and closed-ended questions. Learning is a conversation; it requires human connection and interaction. In order to preserve the humanity of learning experiences when we’re dependent on digital technology, it’s important to think of these conferencing tools as a means for empathic extension—as a tool for connecting with others when face-to-face human connection just isn’t possible or safe.
3. Build in opportunities for self-reflection: The current crisis is allowing all of us—educators and parents included—to reflect on what it truly means to learn. We are being reminded that learning is more about the process than the product. Sending home worksheet after worksheet is unlikely to result in fruitful learning that will stick.
I’ve been posting additional activities for my students through Seesaw dedicated only to reflection. In these activities, I attach a video that includes a “think aloud” in which I share my thinking on open-ended questions related to readings or solutions to open-ended math tasks from our math curriculum. At the end of the video, I ask my students to consider a few questions and record a video response:
- What went well for you with this task?
- What will you do differently next time?
- How has your thinking changed?
All of these remind students that learning neither starts nor ends with the activity they’ve completed. It can—and will—be connected to future activities, and by taking them through the process of reflecting on the task, I create the expectation that they will need to apply new learnings to future tasks.
The Privilege of Learning Online
Do not take this opportunity for granted. So many students around the country are unable to access rich learning experiences online for myriad reasons—from lack of internet access to the impending financial crisis at our doorstep. We must acknowledge this privilege and do it justice.
In an era of social distancing, we’re all searching for some form of social closeness right now. By humanizing digital instruction—and by using it as an opportunity to connect with your class—you’re fulfilling one of the most important functions of schooling. You’re providing not just meaningful and structured academics but community—social connection that is necessary and will be much appreciated by all involved.