Like most fields, education has seen a constant evolution of new technology. Gadgets, software, applications, and platforms designed to make teaching more efficient and engaging seem to be invented every day.
As an educator, it can be very tempting to get swept up in the excitement around something new that promises to make learning fun for students. But there are a number of factors to consider before making any investment in a new technological element of our classroom practice.
For something to be truly innovative, it must create a permanent shift in how we do and think about things. It’s not always easy to identify what will simply be a fad and what is set to stay.
While using technology, it will certainly be a significant part of most students’ professional lives, it is still important to strike a balance between tech-based learning and interactive instruction. The so-called soft skills needed for effective interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, effective leadership and collaboration cannot be downloaded.
Students need time away from their screens during the school day, especially since the work done outside the classroom is increasingly reliant on computers. We should be helping our students to identify when technological tools should be used if they need to be used at all, and, if so, exactly how they can be best applied to any given situation.
My father always said, “Work smart, not hard.” I think this applies here, especially if we consider that working smart means knowing which tool is best for the job. Sometimes, it is a cool app or software program, but in many cases, the more effective learning pathway involves teamwork, creativity and old-fashioned trial and error.
One way to work toward a good balance is to ask ourselves when considering a new ed-tech product, “Can I implement this in my classes in a way that will be authentic?” In other words, will students use this in a way that is genuinely interesting to them, or will they see it as just another element of schoolwork that is disconnected from their lives and the world beyond school?
The Technology Integration Matrix (TIM), a project of the Florida Centre for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, states authentic use of technology in education “involves using technology to link learning activities to the world beyond the instructional setting. This characteristic focuses on the extent to which technology is used to place learning into a meaningful context, increase its relevance to the learner, and tap into students’ intrinsic motivation”.
What this tells us is terribly obvious once it is pointed out: the way technology tools are most often used in schools is teacher-directed and decontextualized from students’ lives. In such cases, many students will switch off because while the tool is something new or modern, it is being presented in a way that merely makes it another assignment for school.
Several years ago, for example, when blogs were a relatively new and popular internet source of information and entertainment, I decided that my class’s poetry unit would be completed in blog format. Each student would have their own blog page where they would present the final draft of each of their pieces, and their classmates could comment and give constructive feedback. I thought the use of a blog would make poetry more fun and interesting to students, when in fact, applying poetry in this way just made blogs less cool.
‘Was my idea a bad one?’ Not really, but the use of a popular online format, taken out of its context and used for my classroom purposes, didn’t have the intended spark because students could see right through it. It also meant little to them outside the classroom.
To improve on this example, rather than to assign a specific, restrictive space for student writing, I could have collaborated with the IT team and asked students to choose and create their own digital space for sharing. Perhaps some would have chosen a blog format, and with that permission to have creative license, the products would likely have flourished. (It is important to note here that online safety and data protection add additional challenges to this type of freedom and are paramount in how we organize such assignments.)
Just before the pandemic, it felt as if the pendulum had finally started to swing back toward interpersonal, interactive and experiential learning after a honeymoon period of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and one-tone laptop policies in schools. Parents, students, and teachers were starting to feel like there was something missing from the classroom when so much of what they were doing was virtual.
We saw Scandinavian models with small children roaming the woods become a vogue. We saw students in German kindergartens literally hammering nails and sawing boards, and we longed for our children to have a taste of some of the less padded experiences of our formative years.
Then, when the world was thrust into distance learning out of necessity, these ideas were quickly forgotten. We suddenly needed all these digital platforms and so were fully immersed in a virtual world where discussions took place on Zoom and assignments were disbursed and collected online.
Today, we are emerging from that phase, and, as an educator, I hope we can learn from what we have experienced. We should shake off the digital malaise that has settled around us, close our laptops and reintroduce ourselves to each other. Innovation is not the sole property of technology. If we can manage to be reflective on our experiences, be authentic in our practices and equip students with all the tool—digital and interpersonal—they’ll need for success, then “innovative” will not just be another buzzword but a true component of our schools.