Over my years as a secondary school teacher, I’ve attended professional development opportunities that introduced me to new classroom technology that piqued my interest. I enjoyed playing and interacting with the new technology, and I assumed that my students would too. I’d go home and redo my lesson plan for the next day so that I could incorporate the new technology.
The next day, my anticipation couldn’t be contained as my students walked into the classroom because I was excited to see them engage with the classroom technology that would guide their learning. On a number of occasions, the result was unanticipated disengagement. At times, they would outright refuse to participate in the activity.
Finding the Right Tech for Your Class Is a Process
Engagement is crucial. I want my students to participate in class discussions, ask questions, comment on their peers’ ideas, take notes, read out loud, post in online classroom discussion threads, and probe deeply into what they’re reading. These are all visible indicators of student engagement, and research supports the idea that student engagement leads to academic achievement.
I’ve seen digital technology capture my students’ attention; it seemed natural that it would be a valuable educational tool. However, I’ve also seen students disengage from technology. Therefore, I sought to understand how I could leverage it to support their learning. When I was standing in front of my disengaged students and needing to spontaneously come up with a new lesson plan, I learned the hard way that I can’t assume that digital technology inherently engages students.
By intertwining my own PhD research with my experiences as a classroom teacher before and after the pandemic, I’ve found that technology engages students when it allows for students to do what I call the 3Cs: construct, collaborate, create.
“I like being able to come up with different types of ideas… things we didn’t discuss in class.”
When technology is used as a tool to transmit information to students to read and memorize, students will disengage by opting out of the task. Instead, we can use technology to allow students to construct their own ideas in order to create personal meaning. Technology is effective when used as a tool for knowledge construction, not knowledge consumption.
In the classroom, this looks like having students read two news articles on the same topic and then letting them decide which article was more persuasive. This allows students to access recent texts through technology, but it also allows them to sort through their own thoughts to decide which article was more effective. Students are able to use technology to construct their own ideas.
“I don’t want to quietly sit at a computer and work by myself. I can do that at home. I want to be able to work with other people.”
When technology is used as a tool to foster collaboration with others within and beyond the classroom, it will engage students. As educators, we need to position technology to facilitate activities that foster social interaction.
Sometimes, we imagine classroom technology to be isolating—students quietly sitting at their desks working on a computer. Instead, we can use it as a tool for communication. For example, I’ve had groups of students gather around a single device to watch a short video. Yes, they could all watch it at their own desk on their own device, but positioning technology this way allows students to pause the video, talk to their peers, and rewind and rewatch as necessary.
This huddled viewing makes the activity interactive and collaborative. Students continue to process their own ideas and engage with their peers to help refine them further.
“I know that I could create without the technology, but the technology means that I can create something better, something I couldn’t create without the technology.”
Technology leads to student engagement when it’s a tool that allows students to design, build, and perform tasks that would otherwise be difficult for them to do without access to the technological tools. Students feel accomplished when they create a product that’s different from everyone else’s. If we can design an evaluation task that allows them to choose how they’ll design their final product and provide them with the technological tools to do so, the technology will engage them.
For example, I’ve had students redesign the cover of a book they’ve read in their secondary English classroom so that the book can be marketed to preschoolers. This enables them to consider colors, shapes, and images that would appeal to preschoolers and subsequently design, build, and create something that’s new and doesn’t exist.
Uniting the 3Cs
Despite the amount of learning that happened through and with technology during the pandemic, I’ve noticed that students still find it engaging. However, I’ve found that rather than tasks that allow for one of the 3Cs, tasks that unite all of the 3Cs foster greater engagement that can be sustained over several classes. The 3Cs allow students to inquire, connect, and design—three facets of education that emergency remote pandemic learning eroded. To rebuild these important skills, I implemented a task that unites the 3Cs.
This activity gave students voice and choice, and the result was that they created work that they were proud to submit for evaluation. Some products included a radio ad, a TikTok video, an Instagram post, a city bus advertising wrap, an infomercial, a television commercial, a rap with a music video, and a magazine ad. What my students created was beyond what I could have suggested because they had creative skills and media knowledge that I hadn’t been aware of until this project.
I learned that when we design an activity that unites the 3Cs, it’s a gateway to invite student engagement.