Special Report
Student Well-Being

What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools

By Benjamin Herold — June 06, 2016 10 min read
A.J. Profeta, left, 17, Danny Marks, center, 16, and Eran Kornfeld, 17, all from the Maritime and Science Technology Academy in Miami, work on their robot during a VEX Robotics Competition at the eMerge Americas technology event, in Miami Beach this spring.
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Just providing students with access to classroom technology is no longer enough.

Increasingly, schools are expected to make sure that teachers and students are using devices, software, apps, and other digital tools in “active” ways.

Take, for example, the U.S. Department of Education’s new National Education Technology Plan, which places a premium on closing the so-called “digital-use divide.” In the modern era, the plan says, schools must ensure “all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive, lifelong learning rather than simply consuming passive content.”

In other words, students should be making things and connecting with others and exploring the world, rather than staring at screens.

The idea is that teaching and learning with technology in this way will help engage students more, help them learn how to think critically and solve problems, and prepare them for 21st-century life and work.

But “active” technology use can be hard to define. For schools, making the shift away from “passive” uses of technology is often easier said than done. And some educators worry that this new emphasis on how digital tools are used continues to miss an old point: that pedagogy trumps technology, every time.

To make sense of it all, Education Week spoke with five people who have been thinking deeply about these issues. The following is a summary of what they said.

What does active technology use look like? Why is it good?

Meet Chris Craft.

A national-board-certified teacher in the 16,000-student District Five of South Carolina’s Lexington and Richland Counties school system, he teaches an Introduction to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) class for 6th graders at CrossRoads Intermediate School.

Five Ed-Tech Educators and Experts Weigh In

Chris Craft
National-Board Certified Teacher, South Carolina

Jessica Heppen
Managing Researcher, American Institutes of Research

Kecia Ray
Executive Director, Center for Digital Education

Joseph South
Director, Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education

Stephanie Villegas
Instructional Coach, Austin, Texas, Schools

Over the past two years, Craft’s young students have 3-D-printed more than 150 prosthetic human hands. They gave the first to a South Carolina girl who was born without a left hand. More than 30 others have since been distributed to children around the globe. Craft’s students have also set up a website where they share designs and self-produced instructional videos. And they’ve launched a pledge program where anyone with a 3-D printer can commit to print and assemble a 3-D prosthetic hand for a needy child, too. So far, 115 schools in nine countries have signed on.

Talk to the 38-year old Florida native, though, and the last thing he wants to discuss is technology.

“In my class, each child decides what it is they want to work on,” Craft said. “The goal is for each to figure out a problem they see in their lives, or their communities, or the world, and then figure out a way to make a difference.”

In other words, in Craft’s classroom, tools such as 3-D printers come second. Giving students the power to shape their own learning experiences comes first.

Now, those children have taken that freedom and come up with the idea of retrofitting Barbie Princess Power Wheel Jeeps and other motorized toy cars so that they can be safe “independent mobility vehicles” for children with cerebral palsy and similar disabilities. The 6th graders have done Internet research to learn about the special accommodations such children might need, then figured out how to build features such as a pulse-width modulator, which slows the vehicle down.

Ultimately, the values and beliefs embedded in Craft’s classroom projects—student agency, real-world problem solving, hands-on building and experimentation and creation, collaboration with peers and others, working for an audience outside their own classroom, and using technology as a means rather than an end—are what the experts are looking for.

But is it realistic for most teachers?

Honestly, probably not.

But that doesn’t mean the principles and ideas and philosophies can’t find expression in a wide array of classrooms, experts say.

Start with the National Education Technology Plan, which outlines several examples of active ed-tech use, including coding, design, immersive simulations, interaction with experts, and media production.

The common thread, said Joseph South, the director of the office of educational technology, is that students should be creating something, not consuming something.

One example of how educators can make that happen, South said, is by offering students choices in how they get to show what they know. Some students might love writing a five-page report. Others might prefer to create a website or podcast or video. If a teacher has clear learning goals and a willingness to be open-minded about students’ presentation formats, it’s easy to open the door for students to use technology in all kinds of unexpected—and active—ways, South said.

Collaboration is also key. That might mean working with other students in the classroom. South said it’s also critical to get students interacting with students in other schools, states, or even countries; with experts in the field they’re studying; with members of their community who are dealing with the issue in some way.

Isn’t that still pretty unrealistic in schools?

With the right mindset, it’s actually quite doable—and far more rewarding than teaching the same material out of the same textbooks year after year, said Stephanie Villegas, a former 2nd grade math and science teacher who is now an instructional coach in Texas’ 84,000-student Austin school district.

In her old classroom, Villegas followed her students’ lead, letting a unit on animal habitats morph into a project to design a new zoo for the city of Austin, complete with scale-model zoo landscapes, digital soundscapes for a variety of environments, a land-use analysis based on research using city planning maps, and a presentation to officials from Austin’s existing rescue zoo.

Now, Villegas said, she works to help other teachers find ways to let students build out their own ideas in the open-ended digital game Minecraft, to use the child-friendly computer-programming language Scratch to create games based on what they’re learning in class, and to transition from journaling to blogging—on a platform that allows students and their family members to comment on each other’s writing.

All those projects fit into existing classroom and curricular structures but also create opportunities for students to use technology in creative, productive, engaging ways.

OK, so what does passive technology use look like? Why is it a problem?

Villegas pointed to the quiz-based digital games that are so popular in many schools.

Craft described students seated in rows, watching a teacher deliver a lecture with the aid of visuals on a (supposedly) interactive whiteboard.

And South identified three types of technology use the federal education department sees as problematic: digitized worksheets that might as well be on paper, apps and software that amount to little more than “simple drill-and-kill practice” of basic skills, and student assignments using personal devices to read and watch content that others have produced.

Such practices aren’t inherently bad, South said, but the department believes they will have limited impact on student learning and are not “the best and highest use” of the powerful new digital tools that are available.

The department is also concerned that such practices are more likely to occur in schools and classrooms that include high concentrations of minority and low-income students. A growing body of research supports the notion that there is a new “digital divide” emerging, one that is more about how education technology is used than about who has access to it.

How can schools avoid passive ed-tech use?

There are a number of models that are relevant to making the shift from passive to active uses of classroom technology. One of the most popular is known as SAMR, which stands for substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition. Essentially, the idea is to progress from using technology to perform the same tasks already done by hand (substitution) to using technology for new tasks that would otherwise not be possible (redefinition).

In practice, the shift from passive to active uses of classroom technology often means that both teachers and administrators must step outside their comfort zones, said Kecia Ray, the executive director of the Center for Digital Education and the board chairwoman for the International Society for Technology in Education.

In her previous role as the executive director of the learning-technology department in the Metro Nashville schools in Tennessee, Ray said, her first task was often getting teachers to recognize that their own personal technology use tended to be mostly toward the passive end of the spectrum—sharing information with others, rather than collaborating to create new information; finding small efficiencies within existing routines, rather than finding brand new ways to become exponentially more productive; and consuming news and information, rather than creating and sharing it.

From there, Ray said, she was often able to help teachers make the transition. One example: She often encouraged educators to redesign lessons to include opportunities for small groups of students to rotate among stations, allowing them to receive direct instruction focused on content, but also to engage with some kind of simulation or experiment, to videoconference or connect via social media with an outside expert to discuss what they had seen, and to craft a digital presentation to demonstrate what they had learned.

Isn’t this a lot of gray area here?

Jessica Heppen has spent the better part of two years studying how teachers in the Los Angeles school district utilize classroom technology—specifically, new iPads and associated software and apps that were distributed to dozens of schools.

The findings probably weren’t too surprising, said Heppen, a managing researcher at the American Institutes of Research.

Many teachers were using technology in ways that fall somewhere between digitized worksheets and 3-D printing of prosthetic hands. Among the uses she most frequently observed: encouraging students to conduct Internet research; using software and apps that respond to individual student’s strengths and weaknesses; and delivering whole-class instruction with tech-enabled opportunities for quick, embedded assessments that give a real-time snapshot of what students understand.

“It’s not a black-or-white issue,” Heppen said, and “I wouldn’t say that passive use of technology is always bad.”

In other words, students using a software system that requires them to respond to questions and prompts might be a step up from just watching YouTube videos. And there are likely situations when students watching YouTube videos by themselves might make sound instructional sense. The Education Department’s South agrees.

“I wouldn’t call it passive, but I would say [such] approaches aren’t going to develop students in the same ways as [making them] digital creators,” he said.

If active technology use is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it already?

For one thing, there aren’t yet very clear definitions of what we’re talking about, said Heppen.

A continued focus on test-based accountability is also a lingering barrier, said Villegas, the Austin instructional coach.

“Schools that are on the chopping block because of [poor test scores] are pigeonholed into using tech just for test prep, with rows of students wearing headsets in computer labs working on remediation,” she said. “At a school I used to work at, the technology department tried to shut down the labs to create maker spaces [for hands-on building and tech experimentation], but the principal flipped out.”

As for Craft, the STEM teacher in South Carolina, the biggest challenge might be the field’s deep-seated insistence on talking about technology, rather than pedagogy.

“I would almost opine that the question of active vs. passive technology use is the wrong one,” he said. “If we focus on making life better for other people, and kids have lots of opportunities to contribute their voices and passions and dreams, that dichotomy disappears naturally.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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