It’s easy to feel inundated with the number of educational applications out there. The sheer amount of options can be overwhelming, and teachers struggle not only to select tools but also to know how to best utilize the tools for their classroom teaching. From the hundreds of pieces of edtech research I’ve read, there are helpful guidelines that teachers can use to have a healthy teaching approach with digital tools.
Digital applications can enhance, engage, and extend learning, but only when teachers use careful pedagogy in conjunction with the tools. It can be easy to get tricked into thinking an application is helping students learn when in reality it’s just a gimmick for behavioral engagement rather than cognitive engagement.
It’s helpful for teachers to use a guiding framework for designing lessons with technology tools that focuses on sound pedagogy and how students learn. The Triple E Framework is a valid and reliable framework to support teachers in using sound pedagogy in conjunction with technology tools to support learning outcomes.
Engage, don’t distract
Most students have access to technology 24/7, so teachers need to be mindful of how it can easily distract students from the learning process. Many apps have distractions such as avatars to customize, stickers or rewards to earn, games to play, too much choice, and irrelevant sounds and clickables—to say nothing of students’ ability to click between tabs to more “enjoyable” options online. Teachers can lessen distractions by doing the following:
- Try to mitigate the distracting elements in the app (e.g., turning off sound effects or reward points).
- Provide scaffolds to help students stay focused on the learning target (e.g., checklists for students or showing students how to read their dashboards and set personal goals).
- Take breaks; this is key to helping students keep their minds from wandering too much. The breaks can be simple activities such as a quick stretch or turn and talk or even a two-minute Cha-Cha Slide dance challenge. Providing breaks as short as two minutes can help to recharge students’ brains and get them motivated to engage in the learning task again.
- Provide time limits; if students know they only have a restricted amount of time, they’re more likely to focus on the task, rather than flipping to other browser windows or even daydreaming.
Enhance learning goals
By encouraging students to use their higher-level thinking skills, technology can help develop learning objectives. Technology best supports learning growth when students can use apps for higher-level thinking tasks such as creating, analyzing, researching, synthesizing.
Consider using tools that encourage higher-level thinking, rather than drill and practice.
- Choose creative tools that enable students to design and create books (such as Book Creator), rather than just having a book read to them.
- If the tools don’t allow students to use their higher-level thinking skills, then the teacher can integrate pedagogical strategies (such as those from the Learner Variability Navigator) with the tools to provide opportunities for students to use those skills around the tools, such as check-ins, share-alouds, gallery walks, and goal setting.
It’s easy for an application to focus on a simple concept and not connect it to students’ everyday lives, but for students to really understand a concept, they need to be able to apply it to their lives. Teachers can look for apps and tools that allow real-world extension of concepts and ideas—for example, using technology to connect with students in Flint, Michigan, to collaborate on a book about the Flint water crisis.
Here are some other ideas:
- Using resources such as Teaching with Google Earth, which includes many ways to use the live Google Earth satellite images in everyday curriculum in all subject areas.
- Using tools that connect students to experts—for example, enabling students to participate in scientific discovery with other scientists in apps like iNaturalist.
- Using multimodal tools such as Goosechase or Seesaw, which allow teachers to create everyday scavenger hunt challenges. Teachers can post new “activities” or “missions” once a week or over school breaks and ask students to complete the missions based on their geographical/political surroundings, such as interviewing a local official for a social studies class or identifying local tree species and sharing why those trees show up in their habitat.
Include social opportunities for students
According to research, social interactions are essential for student growth, and technology should provide social opportunities and not take them away. Students need these social moments to learn from and reflect on their isolated clicking and swiping. Just because an application is developed to be used in isolation doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t add social interactions around the application.
Encouraging students to be social when using technology will likely be more successful with learning growth. Here are a few ways to keep learning social when using technology:
- Integrating cooperative learning strategies like a Jigsaw, so that students may research their technology in groups, become experts, and then share it with other groups of students.
- Pairing students, using models like pair programming, where one student is the driver and uses the mouse and/or keyboard, and the other student is the navigator, providing strategic guidance to the driver about the content on the screen, switching roles as they work.
- If you’re using software that truly can only be used by one student at a time, consider pausing the activities for a reflective share-aloud.
A few careful adjustments can make all the difference when it comes to technology tools and learning. Teachers who can approach technology with a strong framework, understanding what it looks like to engage, enhance, and extend learning goals through technology and provide opportunities for students to be social and connect to their real worlds, are more likely to have success when using technology.