4 Reasons That Technology Might Not Be Helping Them Learn

The problem may not be how you’re using the technology but rather how you’re limiting students in their use of the technology.

Why Technology Might Not Be Helping Them Learn

contributed by Nira Dale, K-12 Instructional Specialist

Yes, even teachers make mistakes.

I know because I’m one of those “mistake-making teachers.” I’ve taught students of all ability-levels; I’m now serving as an instructional specialist in a 1:1 school district; I’m a parent of three amazing children who, like my students, have very different capacities for learning. My perspective comes from professional practice, 20/20 hindsight, and daily life experience.

Reflecting on my practice and the challenges both I and my colleagues face, I’m compelled to share four common mistakes that impede technology integration and thereby student achievement and growth.

#1. You’re using technology for technology’s sake.

“How is this tool going to help my students learn?”

Using technology for the sake of using technology will fall flat in student achievement. Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR Model–Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition–upholds the principle that the level at which teachers integrate technology determines its impact on student achievement and learning. (Learn more about SAMR) The lowest level of SAMR is substitution—using technology as a substitute for non-tech without a significant change in the learning task.

For example, digital textbooks may replace paper textbooks, but will this shift in itself strengthen students’ ability or desire to read? Also, students may submit reports in Google Docs instead of writing or typing and handing in papers. Such platforms certainly provide efficient ways to collect assignments and give electronic feedback, but will the task in itself generate transformational learning experiences? Moreover, will you see the same issues as when students submitted reports on paper—unclear theses, poor essay structures, and plagiarism?

The “mistake” is not in using technology in these ways. The ‘mistake’ is limiting students to using technology in these ways. If EdTech only serves the purpose of task efficiency and submitting assignments, students will use technology in your classroom just enough to hate it. …Alternatively, just because “there’s an app for that,” doesn’t mean the app is best for your students learning needs.

The key is purpose and balance.

#2. The technology distracts from understanding.

Is tech driving your instruction, or is instruction driving your tech? Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a teacher having a meltdown because a website or app isn’t running properly, the school’s wi-fi is down, or students simply struggle to use the tech altogether. If success in student learning is contingent upon the successful functioning of technology or the students’ ability to use it, expect disappointment.

I vividly recall a lesson on characterization in which I was determined that each student in my English class was going to create a Prezi to demonstrate his/her understanding of the main characters in Romeo and Juliet. I thought I’d simply demonstrate how to download the application and choose a template. To my surprise, the majority of the class period was spent showing students how to create accounts, type text, and insert pictures, not to mention uploading and sharing their presentations with the class. And even the few that successfully made it to the last step were given little to no time to share and discuss their thinking with the class.

It was a total nightmare for both me and my students! Should I have broken down the steps in creating a Prezi over a longer time period? Could I not have provided more student voice and choice on how they could demonstrate their understanding? Whichever the case, I needed to evaluate what was my foremost goal for that lesson–how much had my students learned about characterization, or how well can my students create a dynamic Prezi presentation?

This was the day I learned that technology doesn’t teach, teachers do.

#3. The teacher is still the audience.

Are you providing a one-person audience for student work?

Imagine walking on stage to put on a big performance. You realize only one person is in the audience. Unless it’s Simon Cowell, had you known beforehand, you wouldn’t have put much into preparation. The letter grade from the one-teacher audience alongside the epidemic of student-apathy in schools today will not motivate students to perform academically. Sadly, students don’t care about our opinions—at least not in comparison to their peers. Sure, kind words from a teacher can move mountains; nevertheless, criticism from peers will intensify motivation.

I hadn’t seen the levels of motivation for writing and creating exhibitions of learning until I pushed myself aside as the only “audience member” and used technology as a vehicle for students to write and collaborate with students in other classrooms and with students in other countries. One year, I created a ‘Global Classroom’ in which my students collaborated with students from over seven different countries! I was ecstatic to see the excitement and motivation in my students to write, research, and solve problems related to the content.

For example, when teaching my students opinion writing based on sound research, they worked alongside a classroom in India to research and responded to the question, “How Effective is Disaster Management in Your Country?” I found my students were staying up late into the night (due to opposite time zones) just to see how the students in India would reply to their posts and what they thought about the topic. (It was even more exciting for my students to see the students in India doing the same.)

My students learned about tsunamis and cyclones from the Indian students and how residents are affected if the government fails to respond, while the students in India learned my students’ opinions about natural disaster events in the U.S. as they wrote about circumstances surrounding natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the tornadoes that affected Tuscaloosa, AL in 2011. More importantly, my students learned how to express their views about a topic based on sound research and an informed opinion–a requisite college-readiness and workplace skill.

#4 You’re neglecting authentic student voice & choice.

My real full-time job is being a mother of three kids, one of whom is a slightly complex sixth-grader who is having the toughest school year of his life. The best way to describe his learning style is to say he is distracted by anything and disinterested in everything–at least everything adult-driven. His teachers say, “He’s smart, but he’s unorganized and unmotivated.” So why share this information about my son?

Well, in this very moment during Spring Break, as I sit on my balcony with my laptop and coffee, my son gives me a handwritten list of items to buy in order that he can complete a self-made project— “a micro switch … a DC motor …3 pieces of wire …” He has immersed himself for days into a coding website and is convinced he has created a prototype for a voice-command responding robot. My first thought is, “Why can’t he put ½ the effort into tasks given at school?” Then it hits me: He has ownership of the task! Despite his inability to complete tasks at school, he has chosen to explore, research to learn information, and problem-solve in order to see this task through to completion because he owns the task. Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like A Pirate, says that academic success has much to do with a teacher’s attitude and “…willingness to relentlessly search for what engages students.”

This is not to say that teachers should just let students code and create prototypes, but if we embed student voice and choice throughout our curriculum and instruction, students will move from completing their assignments to driving their learning. Also, as in my son’s case, their efforts and investment in completing tasks will be more authentic.

In a similar vein, one year I decided to give students more agency in the research paper process, which requires framing a thesis, organizing ideas, and citing sources. They researched the issues and needs of a target population of their choice within our community. They fictitiously wrote grants to create nonprofits that function to service their target population. They created a budget, a plan, and a purpose. They pitched their proposals to a panel of teachers and community leaders who would, in turn, fictitiously award the funds needed for their nonprofits.

What technology did students use in this project? They used whatever technology necessary to reach their team’s goal. They created websites and digital flyers, video PSAs, school-wide polls in Google forms to collect data, graphs & charts to represent results of data collection. One team even used a semi-virtual conference strategy to present their proposal.

The following year, I received this email from a student:

“…In your class, we learned valuable skills that will actually be applicable throughout our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed creating and writing the grant proposal. …I applied to a program and was selected among 50 female students across North America! … I could not have done it without the skills I learned in your class. …Thank you so much!”

This was my reply to the student:

“…I am grateful to have had a role in your learning; however, please understand, your teachers are simply educators—from Latin educe: to develop …to bring out potential or hidden talents. …I’m saying YOU had it in you this whole time. I just provided a platform (and a little coaching) to pull it out of you!”

Essentially, I’ve learned through my experiences and through observation of others that whatever choices we make about technology or pedagogy, if we foster student agency in their learning, academic success will be much more sustainable and authentic.

Nira Dale is an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), English teacher, and a K-12 instructional specialist for Florence City Schools in Florence, AL. Nira has also been named the PBS Digital Innovator Lead for her state. She has presented and facilitated various professional development sessions, workshops, and webinars on pedagogy and instructional technology through local and international platforms