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Teaching Opinion

Start With the Content & Not With the Tech

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 13, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are helpful guidelines to keep in mind when using tech in the classroom?

In Part One, Anne Jenks, Michelle Shory, Ed.S., Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., Kim Jaxon, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Elizabeth Stringer Keefe, Ph.D,. and Keisha Rembert shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Michelle and Irina on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Jayme Linton, Eric Sheninger, Cindy Garcia, Suzanne Lucas, Ari Flewelling, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, Dr. Carolyn Brown, and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann contributed their commentaries.

Today, Danielle Herro, Blake Harvard, Michael D. Toth, Michael Fisher, and Kenneth Tam wrap up this three-part series.

Response From Danielle Herro

Danielle Herro is an associate professor of digital media and learning at Clemson University. Prior to joining Clemson, she worked for 20 years as an elementary teacher, computer-resource teacher, and district technology administrator in the Midwest. She has extensive teaching, professional development, and research experience assisting preservice and in-service teachers in integrating student-centered technologies in problem-solving activities in their classrooms. Her most recent publication, An Educator’s Guide to STEAM: Engaging Students Using Real-World Problems, is available through Teachers College Press:

Without a doubt, access to technology has increased dramatically in the last decade in classrooms, with teachers using it more than ever before for instruction, assessment, and to collect student data. This is because of rising expectations for accountability and the efficiency that technology offers. Yet, many schools and teachers continue to struggle when considering ways to use technology for student-centered or production-oriented learning in their classrooms. With so many technologies to choose from, and new technologies being developed and made available every year, it can be overwhelming to know how to approach technology integration in classrooms.

Instead of focusing on particular technologies, which are sure to change, teachers might consider the following guidelines when choosing student-centered technologies:

  • Start with the content, project, or goal of the lesson and then determine what type of digital tool makes sense.

Just because your school has robots or you have read about how virtual reality can enhance instruction does not mean that the technology is the best fit for your classroom. There are definite benefits in knowing features of particular technology; however, returning to the content, project, and goals of the lesson will provide the best fit when choosing tools. Do your students need to collaborate and display visual information? If so, an infographic, Google Sites, or Google Slides might do the trick. Do they need to plan with a group? Padlet, Google Docs, or other online planning or discussion tools might be what you need. If you want students to mimic movement such as a hurricane’s path, a migrating animal, or actions that represent moments in time, you might consider easy-to-program robots such as Ozobots, Spheeros, or Botley. If the goal is to have students reconstruct historical events, detail a journey, or experience and share places around the world, they might use TourBuilder or Google Expeditions to tell a story.

  • Survey or talk with students to see what their interests are and what types of technologies they enjoy using—and integrate them whenever possible.

Finding out what types of technology students are already using outside of school and what they enjoy offers a window into engagement with digital tools in classrooms. Do they enjoy digital drawing? Music-mixing tools? Storytelling apps? Coding or programming? Making movies or designing games? While you might not use exactly the same technology, you may find technologies with similar features and introduce them as options to demonstrate their learning.

  • Encourage tinkering and playing with technology before diving into tasks that are dependent on knowing how to use complex technologies.

Everyone needs time to really figure out what a technology can do. Offering opportunities to try out particular tools and play around with them in order to learn what will or will not work well allows students to be more productive when solving problems or presenting solutions. When choosing technologies, consider how you might teach portions of how to use particular tools in a scaffolded, “just-in-time” manner. Coding or programming projects offer these opportunities naturally; other tech tools might require teachers to build in some play time. Another effective approach is to begin an activity with a few minutes to tinker or to devote an entire class period playing with technology when you begin a unit to get everyone comfortable with the technology—or perhaps even to determine that a different choice might be a better fit.

  • Whenever possible, offer opportunities for collaboration and production with technology tools.

Twenty-first-century skills are all about collaboration and production. Technologies such as Google Docs, Forms, Slides, and Draw are easy ways to encourage collaboration. Technologies such as Tinkercad and SketchUp are great choices for designing or engineering prototypes, which are inherently production-centered. Offering opportunities to produce movies, comics, podcasts, and presentations require planning, and there are a host of collaboration and storyboarding apps that can help teachers guide students through the planning and design phase. Using technology in conjunction with physical activity, tangible learning, or “making” often serves to have students make deeper connections. E-textiles, Little Bits, or other circuitry kits are an easy entry way into making activities. Augmenting these technologies with tangible building tools (Legos, Play-Doh, blocks, recycled materials) provides students with creative ways to express their ideas and problem solve.

  • Consider ways to choose tools that can be shared in online networks.

One of the benefits of increased access to the internet in classrooms is the ability to share in-progress work and final products, find others with expertise, receive and provide feedback, and connect with others to learn through multiple perspectives. Choosing tools that have built-in sharing and commenting mechanisms or that can be easily shared in online networks expands what students can learn. Seesaw and FlipGrid work well for younger students and allow the teacher to control who is in the network; older students might use more expansive networks, including Edmodo, Google Classroom, or even Twitter or other social-media tools.

  • Worry less about if the exact technology will be supported “forever” and worry more about what the technology can do.

Technologies will come and go; however, knowing types of technologies and what their affordances are (what they can do) will help you choose a digital tool that makes sense. With periodic updates, the technology may actually have a much longer life than you anticipate. Choosing a technology based on what it can do also makes it easier to find other, new technologies if you are looking for new options, perhaps with enhanced features, to replace a technology that becomes dated.

  • Take the “Google approach” and integrate affordable, user-friendly but effective technologies in classrooms.

Choosing a technology that you are comfortable with after a reasonable amount of training (depending on the complexity of the tool and expectation for curriculum) and taking some time to tinker is a realistic approach to choose technologies for classrooms. If the technology is consistently unreliable, difficult to access or navigate, or unsupported by either the developer or school district, it is probably not a good technology to consider. Of course, cost is an important consideration with any technology. Many free versions of apps lure the user in but require a subscription to fully use each feature or share or report work with teachers and peers. Investigating if the free version is adequate saves time, money, and the possibility of discontinuing a project later on.

  • Keep safe and responsible computing at the forefront of all technology choices.

Whenever possible, choose technology tools that limit advertising, keep student data private, and have options to limit the external networks for younger children in particular. Technologies that share videos, images, student information should be considered carefully and vetted with school administrators and parents at the elementary level. Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org) offers a wealth of important advice for educators, parents, and community members on choosing and using technology safely and effectively for each age level.

There are many easy-to-use, freely available digital tools and fairly low-cost, subscription-based robust technologies to choose from. The guidelines above offer a starting point in choosing wisely.

Response From Blake Harvard

Blake Harvard is an AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, Ala. His blog (www.effortfuleducator.com) focuses on the application of cognitive psychology in the classroom. You can find Blake on Twitter at @effortfuleduktr:

Technology can be a great asset in the classroom. It can allow for increased connections to information and bring material once seemingly impossible to obtain immediately to the student. But technology is not a cure-all for education, and it should not be used all the time. Like most aspects of the classroom, there is a time and place for everything. Before using technology in my classroom, I have a few questions I filter through to determine if technology use is appropriate:

1. Is there evidence of its positive impact on learning?

Does this gadget, tool, etc. increase the effectiveness of learning? As a teacher, I strive to provide the best opportunities for learning in my classroom. That may mean students are using a piece of technology, they may be involved in discussion, or they may be reading silently and writing.

2. Does the gadget/tool do the work of the brain?

Learning is about cognition; thinking with and about information. If the piece of technology does that work for the students, then it does not have a positive impact on learning. Students need to think with and about the material, applying, synthesizing, etc. If a new tool provides increased opportunities for students to mentally work with material, I am very interested. But if the new tool makes thinking easier or creates a scenario where students have to think less, I am not going to use that tool, gadget, or strategy. If the tool makes information more accessible, I’m good with that. An easing of accessibility to information is quite different from a shortcut to thinking.

3. Do all students have access to this technology?

While some may see this as an afterthought, it is very necessary that all students have equitable availability to the technology. Does the technology require access to the internet or an app? Do all students have these resources available while in class or, if required, outside the walls of my classroom? These are very important questions to consider when assigning classwork or homework where technology is essential.

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is founder and CEO of Learning Sciences International (LSI) and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. He is an expert in research-based school improvement models, shifting instructional methodologies, root causes analysis for school issues, and building 21st-century skills in students; he gives public presentations and advises education leaders on these issues. Toth is the author of several books—his latest is The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming with David Sousa, and more of his commentary on academic teaming can be found on https://academicteaming.com/:

Technology provides many powerful opportunities to support student learning, but sometimes it can be used as a crutch rather than as a tool. The following are a few guidelines educators might consider when bringing technology into their lessons.

  1. Technology should be used as a resource to supplement a well-designed learning task. Too often, technology masks low-rigor activities. For example, students may play learning games on iPads and appear to be highly engaged, but these games rarely require critical thinking. These games are essentially “virtual worksheets” where students are still operating at the retrieval level of the taxonomy. Instead, technology should be used as an enhancement for a rigorous learning task that requires analysis and knowledge-utilization level thinking. An example might be allowing students to use their iPads as a resource so they can search new applications or access expertise from other disciplines that support their reasoning during an open-ended task that has many possible solutions. Technology should be used to extend thinking and make new connections, not simply to extend memory.

  1. Technology should help students become critical consumers. Learning tasks that involve technology should help students develop skills like gathering strong evidence, considering multiple perspectives, and assessing whether their sources are reliable. As discussed above, this means the learning tasks must be open-ended and challenging enough to call for higher-order reasoning. Students must have the opportunity to become critical consumers as they take on roles such as student scientists and student historians and use technology for real-world tasks.

  1. Technology should not be the only method used to personalize learning. When teachers have such large class sizes, it can be tempting to use technology that “personalizes” student learning through methods such as automatically adapting an activity’s difficulty level based on the students’ answers. Overreliance on technology such as this to personalize student learning can be counterproductive as it fosters device-centric behaviors instead of human-centric. The best personalization comes from peer support and teacher support with a human-to-human connection that goes beyond cognitive learning and brings in social and emotional learning as well. When students work together and get to know each other and when teachers know their students well, they can personalize feedback in ways technology cannot.

  1. Technology should not replace face-to-face interactions in the classroom. Technology can automate many tasks, but it still cannot automate uniquely human skills like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and human connection. Students must have constant opportunities to work with their peers face-to-face in order to develop the social-emotional competencies they’ll need to thrive in the 21st-century workplace. The slight changes in facial expressions and body language are important sources of feedback for development. Students should not spend much time working in isolation on separate devices when they can instead work in collaboration with their peers with technology as a supplement.

These guidelines can help ensure that technology is not misused as a substitute for strong core instruction but is rather one component of a high-quality educational experience.

Response From Michael Fisher

Michael Fisher is a former teacher and now a full-time author and instructional coach. He works with schools around the country, helping to sustain curriculum upgrades, design curriculum, and modernize instruction with immersive technology. His last two books, The Quest for Learning: How to Maximize Student Engagement and Hacking Instructional Design: 33 Extraordinary Ways to Create a Contemporary Curriculum, both have themes of authenticity, relevancy, and contemporary instructional practices. For more information, visit The Digigogy Collaborative (digigogy.com) or find Michael on Twitter (@fisher1000):

The single most important thing that a teacher can do when deciding what tech to use in the classroom is to focus on the objective and not on the technology. There’s a favorite quote from Perry Marshall that I often share in workshops: “When you go to the hardware store to buy a drill, you don’t really want a drill. You want a hole.” I think that’s the easiest way to sum up tasks with technology in schools. Stay laser-focused on your objective: writing, creating a presentation of some sort, oral feedback, etc. Then find a tool or create a toolbox that helps students meet their objectives. Now, that said, I believe that classrooms in the 21st century should be immersed in technology resources and opportunities. Like crayons, pencils, and paper, the tech should be ubiquitous, always available, and ever-ready for whatever learning moment arises.

From my book on Digital Learning Strategies (ASCD, 2013), I invite readers to consider six questions for thinking about using technology in the classroom:

  1. What is the learning objective?

    This underscores what I wrote above about what the students are being tasked with. Focus on that and then build in the appropriate tools!

  2. Is the task worthy of using tech?

    If you’re using the tech to put worksheets on your devices or downloading interactive crossword puzzles and calling that contemporary teaching and learning, then you may want to reconsider using the technology. The tech should set the objective free, enhancing something or making something more efficient, not just digitizing the rote remains of yesterday.

  3. Will using technology increase or decrease the thinking involved in the objective?

    Enhancement and efficiency aside, if the technology is detracting from the learning, you may want to rethink it. It’s status quo for students, when writing a book report, to pull quotes and engage with vocabulary. The Kindle app and others of its ilk provide readers with popular quotes and tappable words whose definitions are a click away. This alone makes that traditional book report obsolete. What are students learning beyond tapping and easily finding answers? To increase the thinking involved, teachers may have to reconsider how they upgrade their lesson experiences using technology. We still want students to engage with books, but perhaps we use what the tech now allows to do something we’ve never done before. Students could compare popular quotes or see if the context of certain words changes as the text advances (you can search for particular words in digital texts, too). They could comment or research on the depth of popular quotes or why a particular quote might resonate with a global audience reading the same text. Use the technology to deepen the thinking when you add tech to your lesson experiences.

  4. Does using the tech involve collaboration, communication, creative problem solving, or creative thinking?

    Using tech invites so many opportunities for these specific 21st-century skills. Look for opportunities to engage them!

  5. Are sufficient digital tools available and do all students have access to them?

    If students don’t have at-home access or device-level access to the technology, how can you create opportunities for that access? Special after-hours situations? Local library or business partnerships? If tech is going to be in the learning experience, make sure the students have access so that you don’t unintentionally block learning for those who don’t.

  6. Are the students involved in some of the tech decisionmaking? Students often have ideas about preferred technologies and may also be engaged by teaching their peers about it. Ask them what they think and how they might use technology to enhance or demonstrate their work. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised by their answers!

Response From Kenneth Tam

Kenneth Tam is the executive director of personalized learning and assessment at Curriculum Associates. He works nationally with districts to improve educators’ data literacy by helping develop sound assessment practices, utilize data to guide instruction, identify evidence to inform key district decisions, and communicate assessment results broadly to all stakeholders:

Don’t let too much screen time distract from good teaching or greater student collaboration. When used appropriately, technology has the ability to enhance good teaching by providing educators with accurate, actionable, and easily accessible data that can support greater small-group instruction and differentiation. Meaningful data provides rich insights into student learning and can save educators time when instructional resources are embedded within reports.

Look for opportunities to facilitate greater student collaboration by grouping students who have similar strengths and opportunities for growth. Consider designing projects or activities for the group that reinforces what was recently taught either by the teacher or through digital lessons. A target of 45 minutes per subject per week of digital instruction ensures there is balance between teacher-led lessons and enough personalized instruction to support meaningful growth.

Not all digital content is created equal. Look for high-quality, interactive learning experiences that follow best practices of engagement and are proven to help students grow. For students who are struggling with a particular skill, more practice may not be the best use of limited screen time.

School leaders can continue to support their teachers through this evolutionary process by providing ongoing professional development. Teachers play the most important role in the classroom, and technology can enhance that role, and tech can have the benefit of allowing teachers to spend time doing what they want to do the most: teach. Administrators should encourage peer discussion between teachers, be empathetic to their concerns, and don’t forget to ground the change in culture. Establishing shared vision, values, expectations, and norms will ensure that the use of technology in the classroom will be sustained regardless of who is leading these efforts.

Thanks to Danielle, Blake, Michael, Michael, and Kenneth for their contributions.

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