How to Zero In on the Right Technology Tools
Data privacy and students’ previous experience with particular tools can help teachers determine the best fit.
While technology is not a new addition to the classroom, the increased focus on digital tools during the pandemic put technology in a new light. Teachers must consider how we bring these tools into our classrooms. As in-person instruction looms on the horizon, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons learned from our virtual experiences.
This year caused me to reflect on how I use technology in my classroom, and several key strategies emerged that will frame my edtech usage going forward.
Evaluate Student Data Privacy and User Experience
When schools first closed, many educational technology companies began distributing free subscriptions of their products to teachers. Some educators jumped at these opportunities, and for many, these free tools made all the difference when it came to creating supportive and engaging online instructions.
But now, many free premium trials have ended. Educators are faced with considering which tools were most successful and are worth paying for going forward.
This past year, I made a point of asking my students about specific technologies, such as Nearpod, Pear Deck, and Quizizz, as I integrated them into each lesson, so I got a sense of what their user experience was like in addition to my own. These discussions gave me better insight into the types of technologies I should continue to use in my classes and what really matters from the students’ perspective.
I now consider the following questions when evaluating familiar and unfamiliar technology tools.
If students log in, what does the platform do with student data? I like to review the privacy and security statements from a policy and specifically make sure the tools are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ensure student data is not being sold.
Is the platform safe for students to use? Some technology tools include ads that may not be appropriate for learners. When investigating a tool, I like to make sure there is no sponsored content on the pages.
Does the platform require students to log in with their school credentials? One benefit of this process is that the students do not have to remember an additional username or password. The disadvantage is that since students are logging in with their information, extra evaluation should occur to see what is being done with their information, such as making sure they have a right to their data.
Is the platform easy for students to access and navigate? If the platform meets my guidelines for safety and security, I check for ease of use by making sure students can effectively maneuver around the pages and easily complete assigned tasks.
Is the platform engaging and interactive for students? The final question requires an observation of students using the tool to see if they are more focused on the task and whether it allows them to take an active role in their learning.
Build on What You Know
The pandemic also showcased just how many digital tools exist. The number of different apps and software programs that have similar capabilities can be overwhelming, and new tools are constantly popping up. It can be tempting to continually introduce new tools to the classroom, but last year showed me the importance of sticking to the tools my students and I both know.
At the start of the year, I surveyed my students about the technology they felt they could use independently so I could choose tools that they were confident about as they worked at home. For example, my students said they had experience with Pear Deck, so I used it. If I wanted to use a specific tool that my students had no previous exposure to, I knew I had to consider their learning curve before integrating it into my instruction.
Try creating a table of technology options to refer to when planning, building in categories so you can quickly identify which ones tick all of the boxes:
- Technology subscriptions purchased by the district that are available to you (like IXL, No Red Ink, and Learning Ally)
- Tools you know well
- Tools your students know well
During the year, you can update the chart as both you and your students become more comfortable with different technologies.
Focus on Learner Needs
Virtual learning reemphasized the value of using technology to put the students’ needs first. Through remote instruction, many students discovered more about themselves as learners. Students could determine what strategies best supported their learning.
My students became more vocal about their learning preferences and instructional strategies they felt benefited their progress, and they advocated for device-enabled accessibility features that worked for them, as well as for other technologies they found helpful. For example, some students found that headphones helped them stay focused, others came to rely on voice typing, while still others used digital timers to remind them to take a break during longer activities.
Not Using Tech Is an Option
One of the biggest takeaways from virtual learning might be that technology is not always the answer. After being forced to go digital, I’m reexamining lessons to consider whether technology needs to be incorporated to meet the learning objectives. For example, our earliest learners should always have hands-on, screen-free learning experiences and play opportunities. When my students returned to school, we used whiteboards, shaving cream, or Play-Doh to practice our letters and sounds in a multisensory way, as opposed to the virtual practices during remote learning.
When my students returned to the classroom in the late spring, I gave them a choice in how they completed assignments: Students who preferred an offline option could work on projects using physical materials, while students who enjoyed their devices could work digitally. Going forward, I plan on building that choice into lessons by allowing students to make decisions about how they want to accomplish a project: digitally or physically.
As I’m planning the upcoming school year, I’m being deliberate about reflecting on each lesson and technology usage. Some, I’m finding, should be completely off-screen (like experiments or simulations), others should be entirely on-screen (like research activities exploring a topic), and others will work best with a blend of traditional and learning activities (such as digitally researching a topic but taking physical sketch notes to show information learned).