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Before Choosing Edtech Products, Ask Yourself These Three Questions

We have to make sure the technology isn’t just about bells and whistles, but rather that it truly enhances our students’ learning.

Remember that the technology might be the thing that pumped you up, but it isn't the technology alone that will revolutionize the way your students learn. The role of the teacher is more important than ever. We have to make sure the technology isn’t just about bells and whistles, but rather that it truly enhances our students’ learning.

We have to make sure the technology isn’t just about bells and whistles, but rather that it truly enhances our students’ learning.

Don’t put off the planning. Here’s how to take your edtech enthusiasm and turn it into real results for your students. These are the questions I ask myself as I plan learning experiences for my students that include technology, and note: the order of these questions is key.

Question 1: Why do I want my students to learn X?

Note that the first question is not, "What do I want my students to learn?" I know the answer to that already. I have a curriculum. So, this first question forces me to think about why I have a passion for my specialty--and in my case, history.

My absolute passion is history. For example, recently my students studied the Reconstruction Era of American history, which is the time period just after the Civil War ended when the nation attempted to rebuild the South. During this time, there were important reforms for African Americans, especially former slaves.

Why do I want my student to learn about this era? It isn't merely because it is a part of the curriculum or because it is next in the list of units after the Civil War. I want my students to learn about the Reconstruction because it was a time that held great promise for the cause of equality for African Americans, but failed. I want them to understand what the reforms of the era should have done, but didn't.

My hope is that my students will learn that great change takes time and perseverance, and that successful reformers do not give up even in the face of incessant resistance. They can carry this lesson forward and become effective change agents for causes they are passionate about.

Therefore, this was their essential question:

What is reform? Is it a process or an event? How can we ensure reform will succeed?

Notice the key terms of this particular time in history are not mentioned in the question. Reconstruction; the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; Freedmen's Bureau; Ku Klux Klan; and sharecropping are not even referenced. For me, it isn't about memorizing terms, dates, or people. I want my students learn from events of the past so they can create a better society. Figure out how to trigger this passion in your students.

Question 2: How do I want my students to experience learning X?

If students are going to digest the importance of this lesson and apply it to their own lives, they have to go through a learning process that makes it relevant to them in a tangible way. Sure, they will learn by reading, practicing, sharing, discussing--but they need to do all of these things because it is what professionals do when learning a new idea. Remember, school is not preparation for real life. School is real life for our children. Let's acknowledge that at engage them in tasks that truly matter. Sometimes, technology helps with this.

In the case of the Reconstruction lesson, I decided that I wanted students to become experts on at least one aspect of the Reconstruction. Then provide their classmates with an experience that made them feel a twinge of the injustice felt by freedmen (former slaves) at that time. I would never presume that my high schoolers could truly empathize with the suffering of freedmen in the 1860s and 1870s American South, but they do have a keen sense of fairness and would understand the importance of the cause.

Question 3: Can technology deepen learning or make the process more efficient for this particular lesson?

For some students, the answer to this third question was affirmative, and for others it was not. For example, one group that did a deep dive to learn about the system of sharecropping set up a simulation. Their classmates were moved to small areas of the classroom in little "families". They were given buttons that symbolized seeds, farm equipment, and crops. Then a person representing the land owner came around and collected a share of the crops that amounted to nearly everything, leaving the families with little to feed themselves and start up planting again the next season. At the end of the simulation, families could trade in buttons for candy and there were fewer candies than family members. That twinge of injustice was felt, but no edtech was used.

Another group had the topic of voting rights for freedmen. They put digital copies of drawings from Harper's Weekly in an online folder, and then created a QR code for their classmates to scan in order to access the folder full of images on their devices. Students were assigned one of the images and told to put it into Skitch, an image annotation tool. They were instructed to point out the freedmen and the white Americans in the images and add text explaining what the image taught them about the reality of voting for African Americans at this time.

In the first example, technology wasn't necessary for students to experience the learning in a way that felt meaningful. In the second, the students' learning experience was fundamentally different because of the effective integration of technology. An activity like that of the second example would not have been possible without the technology because digital annotation can be more detailed and in higher definition than on paper. But there were other benefits to using tech, as well. For example, students could save those digital images in paperless notebooks, which are less likely to be destroyed or lost than a single sheet in a paper notebook.

Asking these questions is worth the time--trust me. So, as you fill your brain and invigorate your teacher-spirit with conferences, edcamps, and online courses, be sure to take the time to plan, too--and get down to the nitty gritty choices by asking yourself these three questions. Use this time to ensure the integration of new exciting technology in your classroom will really transform student learning. This is how I have operated my classroom for years, and it is how I start the conversation with teachers who are looking for guidance on how to best integrate tech in their classes.

Kerry Gallagher is a is a Technology Integration Specialist at a 1:1 iPad school in Massachusetts serving 1500 students grades 6-12. This article was adapted from a post on Gallagher's blog.

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