Many K–12 classrooms are now equipped with the combination of one-to-one devices and Wi-Fi needed for educators to seamlessly harness the connectivity of the internet to give students access to knowledge, communities, and opportunities that they would never have been able to reach before. However, putting digital devices in the hands of students and teachers doesn’t guarantee expansive and networked learning.
In fact, technologies can sometimes have quite the opposite effect. In some technology-rich classrooms, students that could be active, collaborative, and engaged instead sit silently staring at screens.
Effective Tech Integration Supports Student Communication and Choice
Some platforms that sell themselves as gamified, personalized learning simply have students complete standardized test questions with fun animations. Given this new reality, it can seem like technology is merely bringing students into digital one-room schoolhouses where outdated instructional models have simply been repackaged with a digital bow.
So, how do we differentiate these lackluster approaches to technology integration from the more meaningful approaches that help us craft authentic, collaborative, and rigorous digital learning experiences for students? This question can feel like a daunting one, especially when educators’ in-boxes are filled with marketing emails promising the next best edtech app, platform, or upgrade.
We’ve found that three questions can help cut through the noise.
1. Will this technology expand student-to-student communication?
Research continues to underscore the importance of discourse in student learning. When students can communicate with others about their ideas, their understanding deepens. Luckily, new technologies offer far more avenues for classroom communication than we’ve ever had before. Students can use their devices for digital writing and editing, composing photos or videos, or responding to polls. Unfortunately, the way we leverage technology in classrooms doesn’t always spark communication between students. In fact, sometimes it even blocks communication.
Many technologies, particularly those that promise to personalize students’ learning experiences, isolate students in their own bubbles, rather than connecting them to one another. In some technology-rich classrooms, students are expected to engage with their computers rather than each other, even when they’re seated side by side. This doesn’t have to be the case.
Platforms such as Padlet and Jamboard allow students to share quick comments and drafts of ideas, shared Google Docs allow students to collaboratively edit and comment feedback, and discussion trackers such as Parlay allow teachers to track whether classroom talk is equitable, giving all students a chance to participate.
These technologies enhance student-to-student communication rather than block it—allowing students to see more of their classmates’ ideas, give each other feedback, and collaboratively revise their thinking. As you assess technology integration options, ask yourself: “Is this new digital tool, software, or platform increasing student-to-student communication or is it decreasing it?”
2. Will this technology expand possibilities for student choice?
By expanding students’ access to new technologies, you can open up learning possibilities that were previously unavailable. When the only knowledge resources available were the books that we happened to have on our classroom bookshelves, topics for student research were thin. When we lacked audiovisual recording and editing technologies for every student, they could only compose using the written word.
Now, digital technologies expand the topics that our students can investigate and allow them to share knowledge through multimodal compositions. However, in many classrooms, we’re integrating technology in ways that narrow students’ options for engaging and participating rather than widening opportunities for student choice.
In some classrooms, students log in to software where each step of the learning process has been predetermined for them, and their job is to simply click through to the next task. This mode of instructional delivery is not much different than students progressing through paper worksheet prompts and problems. As you assess technology integration options, ask yourself: “Is this digital tool, software, or platform allowing my students choice, or is it funneling them down a predetermined path?”
3. Will this technology enhance assessment?
New technologies can offer us access to incredible amounts of data about our students. Where previously we only had access to information about students’ learning based on what they told us verbally or in writing, digital tools now keep records of almost everything: how students spend their time, what their early drafts or first attempts look like, and who they communicate with and in what ways.
Ideally, we can use this seemingly infinite information about our students to adapt our teaching to better meet their needs. However, because this deluge of data can be overwhelming, many formative assessment platforms like Nearpod, Edulastic, and Formative curate the vast amounts of data that they collect to offer us easy-to-understand snapshots or dashboards that provide automated judgments or rankings of student learning.
Often, these snapshots offer educators a view into their students’ digital performance with color-coded labels, such as a green “meets standard” check mark or a red “below standard” label. What they fail to offer educators is the kind of nuanced information you get from checking in and talking with students. Educators are then left to wonder, is the platform labeling some of my students as “below standard” because they truly don’t understand the concepts or because they’re not using the software properly? Is the platform labeling my students as “meeting standard” because they’ve mastered the content or because they’ve figured out how to game the system?
While digital tools can offer us a pulse check of students’ digital activity, they rarely offer us the whole picture. It can be helpful to ask: “Is this technology automating assessment, or is it providing useful data that can help inform more holistic assessments of students’ learning?”
Digital technologies are just like any other human tools: they’re not inherently good or bad, and they can be used to pursue worthy or unworthy goals. We can use classroom technologies on our path toward more collaborative, authentic, rigorous, and meaningful visions of teaching and learning, but on that path, we need to be careful not to re-create outdated approaches to teaching and learning. By asking the hard questions, however, we can leverage technology to create the classrooms we’ve always dreamed of.