At St. Thomas School in Medina, the continuing advancement of the technological revolution has fundamentally changed, and continues to change, how students and teachers communicate, collaborate and learn. One example is the school’s use of Microsoft OneNote, a platform of digital notebooks and workspaces that connect individual students to their teachers — and to each other. By using OneNote as their online student engagement platform, teachers are able to seamlessly deliver learning content, provide instant feedback on coursework and facilitate collaboration between students. Kimberly Mecham, director of St. Thomas’ Center for Leadership and Innovation, says OneNote has been the single most transformative tool the school has employed in recent years to deliver the school’s curriculum and support student performance.
St. Thomas School is one among many area schools actively working to effectively integrate technology into curricula that support increasingly individualized learning and classroom management, innovation and collaboration. Simply put, technology is streamlining and transforming education in the United States, at all levels and in public and private school environments alike — and at a pace that few of us can or will comprehend. From laptops and ed-tech software platforms and services to virtual-reality (VR) experiences and maker spaces, technology has dramatically changed the classroom over the past decade.
Technology’s presence in the classroom by the numbers
A recent study conducted by MidAmerica Nazarene University puts numbers to this burgeoning of technology in the classroom. Of the 1,000 educators surveyed in the study, 66 percent reported that students are supplied with tablets or laptops in their classrooms; and in 25 percent of schools, students use their own devices. Seventy-three percent of the teachers stated that students use these devices daily. As the costs of hardware continue to decrease and the accessibility of software and devices increases, schools are increasingly invited to access sustainable education technology in a more integrated, realistic and — ideally — equitable classroom model. Cost-effective education software is rapidly becoming the new textbook and can no longer be ignored as a standard tool used in today’s schools.
If tech is the answer, what’s the question?
A key question that administrators and teachers grapple with is how to best incorporate technology into the curriculum and into the day-to-day student experience. Are assistive tech solutions seamlessly integrated into the classroom to enhance learning? Or is tech an add-on? Are teachers comfortable with utilizing these tools, and are they employing them effectively and with intention? Answers to these questions ultimately determine how well a school technology program ultimately serves its students in their educational experiences and learning outcomes.
Administrators, teachers and parents alike must consider whether technology and traditional methods of teaching complement one another, particularly in regard to the teacher-student relationship. Despite the fact that teachers in the MidAmerica Nazarene University study reported that more than half — 56 percent, to be exact — of their teaching tools are tech-based, a 2018 Cambridge International Global Education Census found that 90 percent of teachers still rely on traditional implements of teaching, such as pens, pencils, textbooks and chalkboards, to get the job done.
Eric Ferguson, director of instructional technology with the Bellevue School District, believes the best results are achieved when there is a strategic balance struck between technology and traditional teaching methods. He encourages parents to ask the right questions, no matter their school choice: Are teachers still engaging one to one with your student or have they let technology replace that all-important trifecta of teacher-student-parent interaction? And how, specifically, is technology employed to support the best outcomes in learning?
For technology to be effective in the classroom, says Jeff Tillinghast, director of learning design and technology at University Prep, a private middle and high school located in the Wedgwood neighborhood of Seattle, success in the classroom often hinges on the teacher’s overall attitude about learning: “It’s about whether or not the classroom is envisioned as a one-direction environment or whether it’s a place where students can create, experiment and innovate,” notes Tillinghast.
Once technology becomes a buttressing factor in a school’s curriculum, “personalized learning” — a catchall term for how institutions tailor learning experiences, instructional approaches and support strategies to address the distinct needs, interests, aspirations and cultural experiences of individual students — becomes a key discussion point, opportunity and possibility. An individual school or district can strategically and operationally employ technology tools to focus on developing students’ decision-making, judgment, fluency with subject matter and adaptability in an increasingly individualized learning context. Collaboration, engagement and lesson-plan integration are all critical goals for personalized learning.
With the raft of technology options available, educators can provide multiple avenues to explore a subject.
What does this look like in practice? A page from the St. Thomas School playbook helps to illustrate this. The school uses reading instruction software called Raz-Kids; a teacher assigns the class the same story, but the software program tailors the text to each student’s individual reading level. Then, the students are brought together in a reading circle to discuss the book, with individual students not necessarily realizing that they might have all read the book at different reading levels. This appropriate level of exposure to the content maximizes individual understanding, and typically results in increased student engagement and participation during the discussion. The same is true of Newsela, a content platform that local teachers use to adapt current-events content to different reading and comprehension levels.
St. Thomas School also uses Nearpod, “a software that’s like PowerPoint on steroids,” explains Mecham. With Nearpod, students can easily share their thoughts, opinions and ideas via posting digital “sticky note” comments about a discussion or lesson to a message board. Mecham notes that feature-rich platforms like Nearpod assist the type of personalized learning the school prioritizes for its students.
Being able to manage and simultaneously personalize learning experiences on a classroom-wide scale with technology assistance heralds a monumental shift — and opportunity — for today’s teachers. Through self-guided exploration on predominantly cost-effective instruction platforms, individual students are able to grasp curriculum material in a more authentic, immersive and real-time manner, one that is conducive to their unique learning needs, style and pace. For instance, a student could use Google Earth to explore highly detailed 3-D imagery of entire cities and towns all over the world for a history or geography lesson; or access a primary-source slave narrative or digital photos from the Library of Congress to enhance their understanding of a lesson unit on slavery.
Ed-tech platforms also assist teachers in delivering lessons to those students who might need that extra boost or who require visual or multisensory learning experiences to better grasp the material. “Now, we can meet more different learners at the same time,” explains Tillinghast. Whereas traditionally teachers would have taught from a textbook, one possibly limited in content and often outdated, today, with the raft of technology options available, educators can provide multiple avenues to explore a subject. “We now have the ability to provide a wider range of resources; plus, we have the ability to coach kids to find the information they need,” says Tillinghast.
Deep dives equate to deep learning
Teaching students about life in ancient Rome, as an example, has for centuries meant instructing from dry textbooks. But now, imagine being able to experience ancient Rome in 3-D, navigating Roman roads or drinking from an aqueduct — this is precisely the type of immersive period-learning experience that is available to students today. St. Thomas School uses a mobile media cart outfitted with specialized 3-D computers and VR goggles to expand student engagement and access to an increasingly prolific body of dynamic multimedia content. Not only can students explore ancient Rome via a VR walkabout, they can explore intricacies of the human body, put together a circuit board or paint in 3-D, says Mecham.
With 3-D printers and hands-on design software, student inventors can design and create three-dimensional solid objects from digital files and explore many other “sky’s the limit” options. For those schools that have maker spaces (as University Prep does), students can access fabrication and design facilities to build prototypes, explore robotics and other engineering and multidisciplinary fields, and more.
Old dogs, new tricks
Despite the seemingly innumerable learning advantages today’s technologies afford contemporary classrooms, significant implementation and utilization challenges persist. Today’s students are often referred to as digital natives, given the ubiquity of technology in every aspect of their lives since birth. Though digital natives are credited with having an almost innate ability to use and master technology, a how-to on using learning tech still requires a caring and engaged teacher. But the rapid proliferation of technology means that some teachers have a hard time catching up and keeping up. Veteran teachers may feel resistant to such rapid technological change, worrying that their tech-savvy students are more competent than they are at mastering and incorporating technologies into learning. While thorough professional development and exposure to various technologies may ease these concerns for teachers, schools are pressed to educate teachers about the tech they need to use in order to be successful and meet required standards.
Teachers, parents, students and school administrators are all called upon to adapt with flexibility and initiative to a rapidly shifting environment.
Screen-time alarm bells
A plaguing concern for teachers (and parents) is that classroom technology amounts to yet another digital media distraction for kids who are already easily sidetracked by their personal devices. Numerous studies have shown that technology, specifically laptops, can distract a student’s learning and that of adjacent learners. The key, says Tillinghast, is to focus on creating an environment conducive to learning, no matter what tools are used.
Ferguson believes that a strong teacher uses technology to improve their teaching, not replace it. “If you have a teacher who doesn’t have strong classroom management and you insert technology into [the equation], it shows that the classroom is not strong and the technology has become a distraction. That’s why we believe that a teacher should have an intentional purpose for using technology, or not,” says Ferguson. In the long run, if used purposefully and well, technology should amplify strong teaching and learning.
Among the myriad challenges and concerns parents face related to technology adoption and use in education is the amount of screen time their kids are subject to at school and at home. Both private and public school educators I spoke to consistently say that they communicate to parents that there needs to be a clear distinction between screen-time priorities at school and screen-time diversions at home. But that’s a tough balancing act for most parents, especially since it is no longer so easy to distinguish between “game time” and “homework time.” Now that learning games are increasingly becoming a valid, assigned aspect of classroom instruction, Tillinghast likes to coach parents about where your student studies at home and how that location will enable you to provide the most attentive and appropriate engagement during homework time.
Another concern that parents often voice to Tillinghast is not having sufficient tangible evidence of what their kids accomplish at school. For hundreds of years, worksheets with a grade marked clearly at the top have provided documentation of students’ progress, notes Tillinghast. Now, with networking programs such as OneNote and public school platforms such as The Source, grades, assignments and communications are recorded digitally, and parents must access and familiarize themselves with those platforms in order to best understand how their kids are doing in school.
“When we talk [as parents] about what kids are doing during the day, it is a lot more complex and different than what we envision a school day looks like,” says Tillinghast. As parents, we must wrap our brains around the role of technology in school, how our students are empowered by technology to expand their learning and how, as families, we need to manage device time, says Tillinghast.
It is a crazy, ever-evolving tech world; teachers, parents, students and school administrators are all called upon to adapt with flexibility and initiative to a rapidly shifting environment. How fully integrated technology has become in the school curriculum, how it will continue to be and how it will enhance learning over the long term remains to be seen, but until then, parents can only watch and discover for themselves.