Saturday, January 25, 2014

How Not to Use Technology in the Classroom

Technology should be used to engage and enhance, not to distract and ignore.

As somebody who identifies as neither Gen X nor Millenial, but rather someone caught in-between, I have a fascination with technology, but it is blended with an understanding that education can and does happen with pencil and paper, and that meaningful learning does not need to have a screen. My childhood classrooms had at most one computer, which was reserved primarily for those students who finished work early. I sympathize with teachers who remember the days of carbon copies, and who are frustrated by this technology infiltration.

BUT.....I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE technology in the classroom!

My students use technology almost every day in my classroom, and they do most of this with their phones.
  • They listen to music on their phones.
  • They use calculators (when appropriate).
  • They watch instructional videos.
  • They play a variety of educational games.
  • They perform simulations.
  • They create videos to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic or skill.
  • They communicate with each other, asking for help and responding to prompts.
  • They self-advocate by promoting their own learning. 
I will write more detailed posts later about how I use technology, but in this post, I want to discuss an issue I see with technology that is used poorly.

The problem is, though, that there are also several "edutainment" programs that do little to promote critical thinking, collaboration, discovery, learning, and reinforcement of skills.

Thanks to No Child Left Behind, students who struggle in core subjects are now entitled to intervention that is targeted to their specific needs. Computer-based intervention programs offer an easy solution for the already overloaded teacher. There are several of these programs for all core subjects, many of which are research-based and are individualized each student. Many of these are game-based and have some sort of award or incentive for completing tasks. I want to be clear: This post is not about discussing the value of these programs, but rather to question the way these programs are often used.

There is no question that technology engages our students, but what must be very clear, is that it also mesmerizes them. It leaves them spell-bound. I see daily how quiet and still even my most active students become when placed in front of a blinking screen.

It is very easy, then, to allow my highly distractible (and DISTRACTING) students to use these research-based, individualized programs every day. And actually, some of my students proclaim to love these programs. A quick glance into an intervention classroom would show students engaged and working on individualized assignments. This is an amazing thing to see - a student who never sits still, who rarely accomplishes tasks or finishes assignments, suddenly focused and engaged in learning.

On closer inspection, however, what I really see is this:
  • Students who are distracted by flashing lights and animations.
  • Students who have learned the appropriate pace, to make it appear as if they are working.
  • Students who hide behind a computer screen.
  • Students who have masterfully learned how to avoid working.
I know that this is true, because when I ask students to show me the skill, (that the computer just said they mastered), they can't.

I know that this is true, because when I ask my students for their honest opinion (Are you using this, because you learn, or because you are avoiding work?), they tell me, they are just avoiding work.

I know that this is true, because my data reflects this.

Our students have become masters at manipulating these programs.

Again, I am not debating the worthiness or value of these programs. But, I am stressing the importance of the teacher's critique and observations. Do not let a student's silence blind you into believing he is engaged. Be absolutely, unequivocally certain that the computer is not baby-sitting your student.

It is far too easy to dismiss our students to these programs.

The harm in this comes when the students fail, and we are falsely led to bad conclusions: The program is research-based, so the problem must be in the student.


Gamification One of the newest buzzwords of education is GAMIFICATION. Put shortly, gamification means using game principles to engage and motivate students. Gamification is NOT putting a student in front of a computer all day, every day.

The Flipped-Then-Re-Flipped Classroom As exciting as flipped classrooms are, the question is always asked, "What about the students who don't have the technology?"

Intervention, Remediation, Special Education...What is the Difference? Intervention is not reteaching or special education. It is the intentional instruction of targeted skills. This is for the student who is multiple grade-levels below. 

Learning Gaps One of the most common frustrations heard from secondary math teachers: HE SHOULD ALREADY KNOW THIS! HOW CAN I TEACH HIM MATH IF HE DOESN'T KNOW HIS BASIC SKILLS?!?!

How (and Why) to Level Assignments One of the most important practices I keep is "leveling assignments." I do this with nearly every concept I teach.

Digitally Illiterate Parents I realized that many of our parents do not have the technology literacy for this type of communication. This made me wonder: What responsibility do we have in educating our families about technology?

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