Mar 13 2015

Digital Learning Success Is About More Than the Technology

A principal offers insights from his teachers on Digital Learning Day.

Across the world on Friday, educators celebrated Digital Learning Day by sharing the strategies that have worked in the classroom.

Technology’s role in schools includes connecting the informational dots, capturing and reflecting on student artifacts and helping teachers personalize their approaches.

In an EdSurge article from 2014, education blogger Shelly Terrell identified four trends she sees in K–12 schools as technology becomes more ubiquitous:

  • Web tools and platforms will integrate apps to allow users to do more.
  • Individuals will document their online learning.
  • Teaching trends will focus on student creation and critical thinking.
  • Online professional development will offer participants versatile, community-driven experiences.

Below, are examples of how three teachers in our elementary school use digital tools to provide meaningful learning experiences.

Integration of Web tools and Apps

Lisa Sonnenberg teaches in a fourth- and fifth-grade mixed classroom. Covering two curriculums is not an easy task.

To help, we brought in a dozen Google Chromebooks and provided Lisa with training on how to use a blended learning framework. Blended learning is the combination of online and in-person instruction. It allows teachers to personalize learning activities for students, freeing up teachers so they can work with the students who most need support.

This year, Lisa prepared content lessons using free open-source software called Moodle. This learning management system allows the teacher to embed audio, video and other multimedia content, combined with authentic assessment tools. Students’ first experience in Moodle involved watching a video about netiquette — proper behavior online.

At the end of the video, Lisa integrated the Moodle app PoodLL. This tool asks students to record a brief audio response to explain what they learned from the activity. Lisa was then able to review the students’ responses and assess their level of understanding. This tool is an excellent accommodation for English-language learners and students with special needs.

Lisa also integrated the Moodle app EduCanon to assess student learning. It is similar to PoodLL, except the teacher can embed questions about the content within the video itself. Lisa’s most current lesson was about the five geographic regions in Wisconsin. While students watched an informative video found on YouTube, it would stop at predetermined spots and pose a question. Students received immediate feedback for their responses and then moved on to the next section of the video.

Lisa has discovered a number of benefits with this blended learning structure. First, she receives results about student learning without the need to grade papers. This data is stored in Moodle. Second, kids can express what they know in different ways, such as voice recordings instead of short answers. Third, students are intrigued by the technology being used for instruction. Learning is on their timeline and structured to ensure understanding before moving on.

Students Documenting Their Own Learning

Educator Gabi Scheunemann is helping first-graders become more independent learners. One piece of software she has started to use in this pursuit is FreshGrade, a digital portfolio tool that allows students and teachers to capture learning, combine it with an assessment and then share it with parents and other teachers working with those students.

Gabi recently documented an activity about the moon cycle. To demonstrate their understanding of this phenomenon, students used Oreo cookies to show the phases of the moon. Gabi took a picture of their creations and posted them in their FreshGrade portfolios. This served two purposes: Parents could see what their child learned that day, and it was documented for later assessment.

Gabi is considering taking this technique to the next level by teaching students to document their own learning experiences. For example, this year the students were given homework that involved drawing a picture of the moon’s location at dinner and at bedtime. But what if students could take pictures of the moon using a mobile device and then upload the images into digital portfolios? There are FreshGrade apps that allow teachers, students and parents to add artifacts as well as to comment on and chat about what was learned.

Gabi hopes that her first-graders will find even more control over their own learning.

Student Creation and Critical Thinking

Sometimes, technology just isn’t necessary — at least in the obvious, digital sense. Third-grade teacher Bri Crubel enjoys posting pictures of her students and their lessons on her classroom Twitter feed. She also allows her kids to write frequently on Kidblog, a free blogging tool for students. However, in a recent project, Bri helped her students create their own board games without using any digital tools.

Students worked together and were involved in the entire creation process: What is the purpose of the game? What will it teach the players? Are the rules appropriate? As groups of two and three put together these projects, Bri realized that technology was not necessary during this creation phase. It may have distracted the students or interfered with their conversations. Critical thinking can be hard to come by if our minds are elsewhere.

Bri found that the best utilization of technology was to just document the process of creating an original board game through Twitter. In an effort to capture a wider audience, Bri posted daily pictures of student work, including relevant hashtags such as #3rdchat. She has also embedded her Twitter account’s feed on her school’s webpage. This gives families a window into their child’s classroom, whether or not a parent is active on Twitter.

Sometimes, the best use of technology is recognizing when it would be distracting or even unnecessary.

What’s Trending?

As we mark another Digital Learning Day on the calendar, let’s take a collective step back and closely examine what this event means. For sure, educators should want to explore the technologies available for teaching and learning. But we also need to get to a point where all learners — teachers and students — start to be more thoughtful about how we embed technology into classrooms. Questions to start asking ourselves might include, “Is this activity better off with technology than without it?” and “Why are these digital tools necessary for learning?”

Reaching consensus on this topic will take some time. It also addresses the fourth trend that Shelly Terrell notes: “Online professional development will offer participants versatile, community-driven experiences.” Lisa, Gabi and Bri all pursued professional learning in these areas, not only to become more connected but also because it could enhance and even transform their instruction.

Ensuring that our students’ experiences have a powerful impact on their knowledge, skills and dispositions should be our primary focus in schools. If technology can better make this happen, then why not?


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