Distance learning will inevitably result in the increased use of digital technology this fall, but this doesn’t mean that teachers need to download countless apps to reach students. Instead, this unprecedented challenge requires that we be more mindful of what tools we use and how we incorporate them into our teaching.
I propose asking four key questions prior to integrating digital technology.
Successful Edtech Integration
1. Does the technology minimize complexity? Many teachers jump to using web-based, automated programs like Khan Academy or ST Math to minimize the complexity of reaching students from a distance. But it’s important to consider the by-products of this type of technology in the classroom.
John Hattie, author of Visible Learning, suggests that web-based learning does not conclusively impact student learning positively, while practices like classroom discourse and discussion are more likely to have a positive and lasting impact. Web-based, adaptive products make students passive receptacles of knowledge as opposed to active co-constructors of knowledge, which limits opportunities for engagement.
2. Does the technology maximize individual power and potential? Many inventions that we take for granted, like the wheel, maximize individual power and potential by making previously arduous tasks much easier. In classrooms, we must consider how to leverage technology so that it makes our lives easier while maximizing our teaching capacity.
Downloading an app for each subject or relying on overly quantitative web-based, automated programs do not maximize our individual power and potential as educators. Instead, they minimize our potential by creating an unsustainable workload. Furthermore, the dehumanizing nature of many of these programs reinforces within our students the idea that learning isn’t about personal growth and liberation; instead, it reminds them that their voice is limited and that what’s most important is getting questions right so they can move on to the next level.
There are ways to use technology strategically that contribute to, rather than decrease, our capacity. Creating digital portfolios using Seesaw or Google Drive not only reduces the burden of collecting photos of student work; it also allows students to play a role in documenting and reflecting on their own learning, maximizing their potential as independent learners who reflect on their own work as part of the learning process.
3. Does the technology reimagine learning? It is incumbent upon us as a society to reimagine our education system. While inequities in education have existed for decades, the Covid-19 pandemic has made the preexisting pantheon of structural inequities related to racism even more obvious and urgent.
We cannot reimagine learning with digitized practices that are reminiscent of an industrialized model of education. This is precisely what web-based, adaptive technologies do—no doubt exacerbating the structural inequities brought on by racism and classism.
There are ways to use technology to further a different set of priorities and goals—including designing inquiry- or project-based units that can be completed at home. For example, in social studies, consider planning virtual field trips within Google Earth to have students “visit” different neighborhoods in your city or town, touching on standards related to civics and geography. For reading and science, students might use e-book resources on Epic to create research clubs to study animals, ecosystems, or other scientific concepts while reinforcing critical nonfiction reading skills.
4. Does the technology preserve or enhance human connection? Socialization is critical to child development; therefore, we must adapt so that our students can find new ways to socialize through distance learning.
I recommend leveraging the workshop model to meet socialization needs. In the workshop model, teachers offer a mini-lesson that models a skill, strategy, or task. This can easily be accomplished in Zoom or Google Meet, and followed up by individual conferences and small group work using Zoom’s breakout groups function or Google Hangouts’ group calls. This preserves both peer-to-peer connection and the teacher’s ability to work with students one-on-one to provide growth-oriented feedback, just like one would in an in-person classroom. But most important, leveraging this model allows for human connection to remain front and center.
In the spring, it wasn’t uncommon for me to use these conferencing times to connect with students beyond the scope of academics. I spoke with them about their feelings, their fears, and their questions about when we might return to school. In some cases, I was even able to refer students to virtual sessions with counselors in our school.
While academics will be an important part of our plans for distance learning, our students’ collective need to connect with their peers and their teachers will build the foundation on which meaningful learning will occur. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught us that human connection and relationships must lie at the heart of our 21st-century models of schooling.