Dec 15 2015

A Principal Shares Tech Benefits for the 1:1 Skeptic

K–12 principal Matt Renwick offers advice from his latest book for those debating a one-to-one rollout in their district.

At a regional meeting for school administrators, a colleague informed me that their school was going one-to-one (one mobile device per student). We talked briefly about logistics and costs before the next item on the agenda was up.

If time allowed, I had more questions about the school’s initiative. How did officials arrive at this decision of one device per student? What did they expect the biggest benefits to be? Might there be any negatives? I couldn’t help but feel my own school is a bit inadequate, since it is not one-to-one. Are we selling our students short?

These are healthy questions to ask as schools consider going one-to-one in any learning environment. Skepticism is increasing based on what current research is telling us about every student having access to a mobile device. Psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis have referred to our youth as “the App Generation” as “they grew up with phones in hand, according to Sherry Turkle in her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age."

Studies have shown that when people communicate primarily through mobile devices, their capacity for empathy is reduced . You cannot see how someone physically reacts to your comments when you post online. What’s more, the skills needed to take someone else’s perspective are not applied when communication occurs over the Internet.

Self-reflection is also diminished by the overuse of mobile technology. Teachers can attest to the frequency of students pulling out their devices when things get boring. But it is in these “boring bits” where the mind is allowed to wander, make associations and create new meaning, according to Turkle.

This information is shared not to dissuade a school from providing more mobile technology for students but to prompt better questions, such as “What does all of this connectivity add up to?” “Will the outcomes be positive?” and, most important, “Is the technology necessary in classrooms or merely nice?”

Here are three examples of when I observed technology to be necessary.

Digital Tools for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia and language delays are two disabilities common to students in many schools. An accommodation that almost all computing devices now have is speech-to-text capacity. Whether using Google Voice, Apple’s Siri or Dragon Dictation, students can press a microphone button and speak, and the software dictates what they say onto the screen. For students who struggle to put ideas down on paper, a speech-to-text application can help them bypass that part of the writing process and clearly convey what they want to say.

Teachers can take this idea a step further with word-predictive technology. Software such as Spell Better will predict the next word a student is trying to type. Students can accept the suggestion or ask for another word that the software offers within the context of the sentence. It is very accurate. In Sue Morzewski’s special education class, I watched a fifth-grade student write a book summary using this application. Once she was done, she had the application read back her own writing to her. This helped her revise and edit her work so it was ready to be published. She may not have written as much without this accommodation.

Assisting English-Language Learners with Tech

Read-to-me digital books are an excellent tool to serve this population. These texts are often read aloud by a professional narrator. The choices in authentic texts grow regularly. A favorite publisher of mine is Oceanhouse Media, which provides a wide variety, quality production and high-interest titles such as Dr. Seuss and Smithsonian nonfiction. With many of these digitally enhanced books, the reader can also highlight specific vocabulary to get a dynamic definition. An animation or similar visual pops up that represents the meaning of the word.

There are also many applications that allow for literacy creation, instead of just consumption. One of the best is Book Creator, which supports the notion that people learn best by doing. Students can create their own digital books, complete with images, drawings, text and audio narration. Once ready, the final product can be published in a variety of ways. Students can save their books in iBooks, to be added to a classroom’s listening library. They can also upload their work to YouTube, so friends and family can view it.

Digital Help Available for Distance Learners

In areas where online access is a big issue, providing connectivity is a priority. There are a plethora of online, blended and post-secondary offerings students can take that are specific to their interests and needs. In rural and urban areas, where it is becoming more difficult to hire highly qualified teachers, especially in mathematics and sciences, having access to essential content is necessary.

Students with physical and mental-health challenges can also benefit from having an online curriculum and a laptop or tablet at their disposal. This can be on a temporary basis, as when a student has a severe but nonpermanent injury that prevents him or her from coming to school. If a district does not offer online coursework, students can be Skyped into classrooms to engage in the learning. Those with severe social anxiety that prevents them from sitting in a classroom may also benefit from a virtual learning environment.

A school’s primary goal is to ensure that students benefit from the connections they develop, both online and off. If technology is used, it should bring everyone closer together as a community of learners. Let our questions guide us as we decide what digital tools are necessary and how to use them effectively in today’s classrooms.

Parts of this article are excerpted from Matt Renwick’s book 5 Myths About Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias, 2015). All rights reserved. For more information, visit

Milenko Bokan/Thinkstock

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