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Ways to Use Tech in the Classroom

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

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

Response From Jayme Linton

Dr. Jayme Linton is author of The Blended Learning Blueprint for Elementary Teachers and currently serves as an instructional-leadership coach for the Department of Defense Education Activity. Jayme formerly served as assistant professor of education, instructional technology facilitator, staff-development coordinator, and elementary teacher. She and her family live in South Korea and enjoy traveling together:

Educational technology serves multiple purposes, and in many classrooms, it has become ubiquitous for teaching and learning. As with any tool or resource, teachers should be informed when making instructional decisions about technology use. Numerous agencies, federal laws, and local policies dictate how technology can and should be used by teachers and students. These are easily searchable and should be made readily accessible for educators, learners, and families. 

What's less easy to find are guidelines for how and why technology can transform the learning experience. I'd like to offer guidelines related to three powerful ways educators can leverage technology: increase equity, be more responsive, and empower learners.         

How can technology create a more equitable learning environment?

  • Connect every student with deeper learning opportunities, making such opportunities accessible through a variety of technologies, strategies, and supports. (Provide scaffolds such as read alouds, video tutorials, models, and chunked content that help every student access complex texts and ideas and respond to higher-order questions.)

  • Find out what increases engagement and motivation for every student and embed those things into the learning experience. (Pay attention to what piques student interest. Don't be afraid to ask.)

  • Use technology to help you provide more time and support for students when they need it and less time and support when they don't. (Provide one-on-one and small-group opportunities for practice and feedback while other students work through their own learning pathways.)

How can technology help teachers be more responsive to student-learning needs?

  • Gather ongoing, real-time information about student learning through formal and informal formative assessments. (Use any of the numerous digital formative-assessment tools to quickly gather, analyze, and archive data about learning. Share data with students.)

  • Provide frequent actionable feedback that helps students reflect on their learning and creates opportunities for dialogue about learning. (Try creating screencasts or audio recordings to provide helpful, descriptive feedback.)

  • Use preassessments to find out what students already know and can do and design flexible learning experiences that allow each student to build on existing strengths and fill gaps in understanding. (Use learning pathways that build on students' current knowledge and skills and lead to new understandings and abilities.)

How can technology help students drive their own learning?

  • Leverage data-tracking tools for students to set goals and monitor their own progress. (Consider using a simple tool like Google Sheets for data tracking.)

  • Create time in your daily and weekly schedule for student goal-setting, progress monitoring, and reflection. (Consider pairing students as accountability partners.)

  • Connect students with real-world issues that need to be solved and authentic audiences for their work. (Blogging can give students a public platform to share their thinking.)

  • Help students build and continuously update a learner profile to help them reflect on themselves as learners. (Use a Google Form to regularly gather information about student passions, study habits, learner needs, career goals, etc.)

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Response From Eric Sheninger

Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Prior to this, he was the award-winning principal at New Milford High School in New Jersey. His work focuses on leading and learning in the digital age as a model for moving schools and districts forward. This has led to the formation of the Pillars of Digital Leadership, a framework for all educators to initiate sustainable change to transform school cultures:

If you don't get instructional design right first, all technology will do is speed up the rate of failure. It is incumbent upon educators to employ a pedagogy first, technology approach second if the goal is to either support or enhance learning. Often the cart is put before the horse where all the "stuff" is purchased or focused on as opposed to the overall goal and structure of the lesson. Thus, planning and purposeful use are key.  Think about the role tech plays in instruction (what the teacher does) and learning (what the student does). Who is the one using the tech? When it is all said and done, it is what the student does with any tool in pursuit of a learning goal that ultimately matters. 

Below are five areas to look at when implementing any digital tool to determine whether or not improvements to pedagogy are changing.  Each area is followed by a question or two as a means to help self-assess where you are and if improvements can be made.

  • Level of questioning: Are students being asked questions at the higher levels of knowledge taxonomy? Do students have the opportunity to develop and then answer their own higher-order questions?

  • Authentic and/or interdisciplinary context: Is there a connection to help students see why this learning is important and how it can be used outside of school?

  • Rigorous performance tasks: Are students afforded an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards?

  • Innovative assessment: Is assessment changing to provide critical information about what students know or don't? Are alternative forms of assessment being implemented such as portfolios to illustrate growth over time?

  • Improved Feedback: Is feedback timely, aligned to standards, specific, and does it provide details on advancement toward a learning goal?

In my former school, we made sure there was not only a focus on instructional design but we also provided numerous supports for our teachers in the form of ongoing and job-embedded professional learning opportunities. If the expectation was to integrate technology with purpose to support and/or enhance learning, we made sure everyone was prepared to do just that. As Michael Fullan has stated, pedagogy is the driver and technology the accelerator. It is not just teachers that need work on instructional design when it comes to effectively integrating technology. The same goes for school leaders, who also deserve support in the form of professional learning so that they can properly observe and provide valuable feedback to teachers when technology is being integrated into lessons. Ultimately it is a leader's overall responsibility to make sure technology is having an impact on learning. Thus, it is wise to put them in a better position to do just that.

Ultimately it all comes down to good instruction that leads to powerful learning, something I focus on deeply in the updated edition of Digital Leadership. A final guideline can be framed around this question: How are or will students use technology to learn in ways that they couldn't without it?

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Response From Cindy Garcia

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog www.TeachingElementaryELs.weebly.com:

Technology Should be Used to Support Learning in an Engaging Way: Before using any type of technology in the classroom, teachers should ask themselves: "How does using this technology tool support student learning? How does this technology tool make the content being taught more accessible to students? Is using this technology tool more engaging for students than a nontechnology alternative instructional strategy or structure?" If students are just using a technology that is fun, but it does not help them learn content or a standard, then that technology tool is not needed. Using technology should make student learning an easier process or allow students to access content in various ways. If the technology is too complex or time-consuming, then students will spend their time trying to learn how to use the technology rather using the technology to learn their grade-level content. Just because technology is used, it does not automatically mean that it is more engaging. A worksheet can be added to Google Classroom to be completed digitally, but it is still a worksheet. Students can respond to questions using Flipgrid, but if students are just sharing answers rather than explaining their thinking, the tool is being under used. 

Set Usage Guidelines:  Students need to have a clear understanding of when and how long they should be using technology. It's great that students might want to watch videos on Edpuzzle, but they should not be spending the majority of their classroom time watching videos and answering questions. Students should know what the expectations are when using technology in the classroom. 

Know How Tech Support Will Work: Devices will need updates, programs will show error messages, Wi-Fi issues will stall student work, and troubleshooting will be necessary when using technology in the classroom. Prior to using technology in the classroom, there should be a plan in place for technology support, and students should be made aware of the plan. Find out if there is a person on the campus that you can call for support. Train students to troubleshoot common technology problems to make sure they spend as much time of their day learning rather than waiting for their issue to be resolved. Brainstorm with students what they should do when technology breaks down. Develop a plan for logging in as a student to apps, programs, and devices and checking out what is going on from the student view. 

Monitor Effectiveness: It is important to develop a plan to periodically check that the technology tools being used are effective in supporting student learning. Plan out when you will review and evaluate student products using content-standard rubrics. Check in and conference with students to get their feedback about what is working and not working when they are using various classroom technology tools. 

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Response From Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne Lucas is vice president of digital product marketing for Scholastic Education. In this role, she ensures that all digital programs are built with educators' and students' best interests in mind as well as their input during the development process. In Suzanne's 18 years in education, she has been a 1st grade teacher, a trainer, a program developer, and a marketer. Suzanne earned her undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in early-childhood education from Brooklyn College:

I've been excited about the opportunity technology could bring to students since my first year teaching when I was given "internet." Today, I have dedicated my life's focus to supporting best use of technology in the classroom to ensure that all students, regardless of background, have the opportunity for a fair and equitable education. 

Through the use of digital programs that provide adaptive and/or embedded personalized instruction, my hope is that a student can be who they are, without judgment, and advance in their growth. 

When planning to use technology in the classroom, I believe there are four areas that educators and decisionmakers need to consider:

  1. Digital Equity
  2. Productive Screen Time
  3. Data to Inform
  4. Professional Learning

Digital Equity

With digital equity, there is so much more at stake than if a program differentiates instruction or if it is web-based. The simple fact is that not all students have the same access to technology or high-speed internet in or out of school. 

In schools, we need to deeply consider who gets the most access to tech in the classroom and when—especially if using programs designed to fill instructional gaps in curriculum. Students who need more time on digital programs for personalized, adaptive instruction should get that additional time in school—be it during rotations, before, and/or after school. Instructional technology, when implemented correctly, provides students the instruction they need and the ability to become empowered learners and efficient partners in their learning journeys, while allowing teachers more time to provide 1:1 or small-group instruction. 

Productive Screen Time

Parents today are engaged in a constant struggle over how much is too much screen time, which can often have fallout in our schools. As educators, we must consider: How do we make screen time in school "productive screen time" for our students? 

When selecting digital programs, we should be taking into account how those programs can enhance the learning that is happening while also helping a teacher to differentiate for each student in his or her classroom. For example, consider the many expectations the core English/language arts standards place on students. This is where education technology programs can shine. By filling academic holes in instruction, especially those that drive the achievement gap, teachers can meet each child where they are and get them to where they need to be through the use of digital programs. If programs selected for use in schools are personalized and/or adaptive, fill an instructional need, and engage students, then we can provide students choice, ownership, and dare I say fun, while ensuring they get the instruction and practice they need. 

Data to Inform

When implementing technology in the classroom, it is essential to choose programs that not only meet pedagogical needs but also provide robust learning analytics at every level—from the student to the district administrator. With access to detailed information on learning objectives, teachers can group students in more meaningful ways. For whole group, teachers could pair students who have mastered a specific skill with students who are struggling, thus enhancing learning for all parties. Teachers can also use data to determine if reteaching needs to happen and, if so, whether it's required for the whole class or a small group of students. Additionally, teachers implementing guided reading can rely on information that goes beyond students' reading level, making for more meaningful, effective instruction. 

Professional Learning

My final note to leaders, as you consider your technology transformation, is that the key for any of this to be truly effective is providing educators with professional learning. Teachers need to be trained on how to transform their instruction with technology and how to read and use data to evolve their instruction to meet the needs of all their students. As Sarah Thomas, Nicol R. Howard, and Regina Schaffer say in their recent book Closing the Gap: Digital Equity Strategies for the K-12 Classroom, "Well-designed PL for technology-enhanced learning initiatives integrates tool training with content and pedagogy training" (ISTE 2019). 

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Response From Ari Flewelling

Ari Flewelling is an innovative educator with nine years of experience in education and specializes in pedagogy-first technology integration to enhance practice and student achievement. Her passion is inspiring others to share their stories and skills through technology:

When integrating technology in the classroom, it can be easy to get caught up in the features of the tools. There are key considerations to think about when designing a lesson or activity to make technology integration effective. High-quality instruction requires a thoughtful lesson design that includes reviewing one's pedagogical and content knowledge before making decisions about appropriate technology.

When lesson designing, the first area of focus is always the content. From a theoretical standpoint, content includes concepts, theories, ideas, and organizational frameworks. From a classroom standpoint, teachers should consider any relevant standards, texts, primary sources, or appropriate curricula that need to be taken into account for the lesson. It is also essential to think about cross-cutting concepts and how they may be similar or different depending on the subject.

The second area of focus when designing a lesson is pedagogy. Pedagogical knowledge includes the responsive, creative aspects of teaching as well as the skills and practices. To think about pedagogical knowledge, think of a spectrum where one end is teacher-centered learning and the other is student-centered learning. Teacher-centered lessons are activities that are crafted and revolve around the content and choices of the teachers. Students don't participate in the lesson design. The next phase of lesson design is when the majority of the lesson is planned and implemented by the teacher. Students are involved in making some choices about their learning. For example, in a science lab, teachers create the lab, including the questions and experiments, but students participate in the activities. The far right of the spectrum is when the learning is truly student-centered. When students participate in student-centered lessons, they are involved in designing the learning process and/or product. For example, students adopt a bathroom at their school and develop a project to increase student respect for school property on campus while relying on principles from math, economics, and English.

The final area of lesson design is technology. First, this means teachers need to understand what technology is available to them and what can and cannot be done with it. This comes last in the development process because teachers can create compelling learning experiences without technology. However, that does not mean technology should never be used. It is crucial for teachers to model a balanced use of technology for their students. To determine if the technology is appropriate for use in a lesson, teachers can refer to the SAMR Model (substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition) created by Ruben Puentedura.

When thinking about substitution, the most critical question to ask yourself is, is the time and effort you're going to put in to plan or manage the technology worth it for your content goals? For augmentation, what is the technology providing your lesson or grading?  Too often, people think the SAMR Model is just about students; however, it applies to the behind-the-scenes work teachers do as well. When it comes to modification, it's important that the lesson you're designing is different from what you'd do without technology. This is why content and pedagogy always come first in the planning process because these will guide the decisionmaking process. With redefinition, while the technology is an important aspect, ultimately it's what the students are creating that is most important. The power of technology is when our students are empowered to be creators and not just consumers of technology.

The key to lesson design is to balance your content, pedagogy, and technology. An experience or unit should not be overconcentrated in any of the areas of the spectrums (DOK, Pedagogy, SAMR). Despite color gradients or rankings, none of the ranges listed should be equated to ladders to be climbed. It would be unrealistic to teach at the DOK level 4 every day or to only have students collaborating within redefined technological tasks. If any metaphor is applied, it should be that of a lap pool in which all areas are covered, instead of always treading water in the deep end or never progressing in the shallows. 

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Response From Carrie Rogers-Whitehead

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the founder of Digital Respons-Ability, a mission-based company focused on digital citizenship. Her company educates students and parents across the state of Utah, and her work has been recently published in Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field with Rowman & Littlefield:

In all my years of teaching, my very favorite class was to a roomful of intelligent women—with felonies. In the summer of 2018, I taught a college-level business class at the Utah State Prison to the women's unit. The reason I loved teaching that class was not just because I had great students—but there was absolutely no technology.

Detention centers and prisons severely limit technology, for safety and security reasons. In my classroom, students could not use a computer to research anything, but they could send requests for articles to the prison library. I had no projector but a large white board. I operated entirely with that white board and a copious amount of worksheets. I graded by hand and had no way to communicate with my students beyond notes and check-ins in class.

Despite the low-tech options, I have never had such an engaged and enthusiastic class.

I am a big fan of technology; in my normal teaching, I use it frequently. However, technology is a big distraction in the classroom. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Media Education surveyed college students about their usage of devices for nonclass reasons. It found that the average respondent spent about 21 percent of class time using a device unrelated to the instruction. These are college students, whose brains can better self-regulate than young children. Distractions can be a bigger issue among younger students. 

Teachers and students must work together to create guidelines and policies related to digital distractions in the class. Distractions don't just affect the student scrolling their feeds but the others around them. It can be hard to focus on what's being said when you see a bright light or image right next to you.

Here are some suggestions for guidelines around digital devices in class:

  • Keep laptops closed and tablets turned off until the appropriate time
  • Turn off notifications on devices
  • Devices are not to be used during any type of testing
  • Encourage note-taking through paper and pencil rather than a computer
  • For younger ages, provide some quiet nontech distractions like coloring pages, manipulative toys, or just markers and paper to doodle
  • Promote doodling. Research around fidgeting and doodling say it can help focus and provide stress relief. 

Of course, these policies must be consistently reminded and reinforced. In one class I taught, I had created a rule that when we debated or discussed topics, we needed to be respectful of the different speakers that were talking. That meant no technology.  I remember one time in class having a deep discussion on a topic, and then loud music erupted from a laptop in one corner of the room. Heads turned, and the entire flow of the conversation was interrupted. The student sheepishly turned the volume down. At that point, I didn't need to say much to reiterate the policy; the other students did that for me.

It is hard to focus. It's like a muscle that we have to practice consistently. For young students just growing these muscles, a digital device is like sitting in front of the couch, instead of moving. Students have to be taught, and they need to practice self-regulation. Creating policies and rules around distractions helps with those important skills. 

My experiences teaching in a completely tech-free classroom showed me that by taking away potential distractions, students can focus more on the lesson at hand. My students in the prison doodled on their pen and paper and listened carefully to others in the classroom. We had debates, group exercises, lively discussions, sharing of experience, and lots of learning. Of course, almost all students are not like those in the contained walls of a prison, and technology is here to stay. We cannot ban it, but we can regulate it, and more importantly, encourage students to regulate themselves.

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Response From Dr. Carolyn Brown & Dr. Jerry Zimmermann

Dr. Carolyn Brown and Dr. Jerry Zimmermann are co-founders of Foundations in Learning, a company whose Foundations Learning System provides school districts with research-based tools designed to assess struggling readers, address their foundational skill deficits, and assist them to achieve gains in reading fluency and comprehension. Follow them on Twitter @FoundLearn:

Technology is an accepted part of daily life and is readily becoming available in most schools as a regular component in the classroom day. Used appropriately, technology can serve as an independent and individualized learning tool for students while providing a useful "extra hand" in classroom management to support one group of students while the teacher engages in personalized instruction for others.

Whether technology energizes students and brings learning opportunities into the classroom or dampens engagement, expression, and creativity depends on the culture established by the teacher for the purpose and value of technology. Lately, there has been an outcry by both students and teachers to bring learning and interaction back to the classroom rather than spending time on "digital busywork." The following suggestions can help teachers increase students' understanding of the purpose and procedures for classroom technology use, leading to a more engaged and successful learning environment. These guidelines assume that the technology used is pedagogically sound and relevant to students' needs. 

  • Through discussions, help students establish a mindset that technology is a tool that prepares them to develop skills, gain knowledge, and become a better learner—one who can ultimately participate and share their ideas with others.

  • Get students' buy-in to use the technology as intended and at regular intervals and evaluate whether they are using it as expected and reaching their desired goals.

  • Specify the purpose of their computer time to support a real outcome (e.g., finding information to write a report, learning to decode words to read better, etc.)

  • Establish the conditions for students to bring their skills and/or knowledge back to real-life interactions with their peers and/or you. Whether it involves reading a shared story together, drawing pictures of their favorite character, discussing alternative endings, making interpretations, and applying data to other uses, the importance of formulating and sharing ideas with others cannot be overstated.  

  • Establish schedules and routines that support rotations through technology as a learning station. Once students see the relationship between their work on the computer and their interactions in group or individual instruction, their time on the computer becomes more relevant and valuable.

To assess whether they have appropriately and successfully leveraged technology to enhance classroom instruction and student engagement, teachers can reflect on the following questions:  

  • Are regular routines established and are students able to independently follow the schedule?

  • Do students know why they are using technology and how it supports their engagement with peers and teachers?

  • Are the students applying the knowledge and skills learned on the technology in real-life interactions in which they share, formulate, and refine ideas?

  • Are students self-motivated to learn more and to participate in shared experiences?

Used well, technology can serve as an equalizer by providing widespread access to high-quality learning support and enable students to acquire and apply skills and knowledge while actively participating in real-life interactions. Through engagement, observation, and focused instruction, teachers will be able to provide feedback about their continued use of technology and/or other avenues to support their learning. This modeling of the iterative learning process will support them throughout their lives as active and curious learners.

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Thanks to Jayme, Eric, Cindy, Suzanne, Ari, Carrie, Carolyn, and Jerry for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

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Mistakes in Education

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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