Before he became a full-time author, blogger and speaker, Matt Miller taught for more than a decade in public schools. His signature book, Ditch That Textbook, offers ways for teachers to use digital technologies to revolutionize the classroom with innovative teaching, mindsets and curriculum. EdTech talked with Miller about how teachers can move away from paper textbooks and deploy more digital technologies in the classroom.
Matt Miller, author of Ditch That Textbook. Photo courtesy of Matt Miller.
EDTECH: For educators interested in going digital or ditching textbooks, what’s the best way to get started?
MILLER: I don’t mean to say that textbooks are evil, and we should throw them all out. They are a resource, just like anything else. I talked to some literature teachers recently and they said, “If I ditch textbooks, where will the kids read the story?” That makes sense. I think teachers can start with digital by looking for ways they can get away from marching chapter by chapter through the textbook and doing discussion questions and then the worksheet at the end. I really believe that when you incorporate technology in the curriculum it starts to move the needle for learning. Start by doing interactive slides with Pear Deck or Nearpod. It will get the students away from passively consuming information from the teacher and makes the experience more hands-on. Research shows that if students are doing hands-on learning, retention is better.
EDTECH: How do teachers choose the app that’s best for them and their students?
MILLER: A lot of it gets back to thinking about what the teacher wants to accomplish. What skills do they want the students to learn? What I find is once a teacher becomes aware of several different apps and digital tools, they start to see some connections between what the students need to learn and the specific features and benefits of the tools. If a teacher wants kids to discuss something they have read, and is aware of tools like blogs and Flipgrid, all of a sudden, natural pairings emerge.
Teachers need to keep abreast of what’s out there. Hallway conversations work, too. If other teachers are having success with a tool, I find I have a better chance of having success myself. Teachers don’t even have to have a reason for using a tool right away. Just create a mental catalog of what’s out there. Then all of a sudden as the teacher plans a lesson, one of them will jump to mind.
EDTECH: How can teachers move away from paper worksheets?
MILLER: If teachers use worksheets, they have to ask if there’s a better way that they can do it? A lot of times teachers use worksheets because they want students to gain repetitions with new content. Paper worksheets usually ask dry questions that wind up not becoming meaningful repetitions. Research shows that whenever students have an emotional connection to something the information will stay in long-term memory. If we can rethink the repetitions, then we can avoid the worksheets. One option is playing a Quizlet Live game. Now, students are learning the content in a competitive, fun, collaborative environment. With that kind of experience, teachers are more likely to create rich repetitions that are memorable.
EDTECH: What new tools do you suggest using from Google’s G Suite for Education?
MILLER: A lot of schools are starting to dabble in augmented and virtual reality, the AR/VR space, as well as artificial intelligence. With AR/VR, students create content in AR and consume it through VR. A good example is Google Expeditions, which has gotten more and more popular as schools get their hands on these kits. Schools are using the VR viewers so teachers can take students on immersive virtual field trips. Of course, Google Expedition kits are not cheap. However, I’m finding that teachers who work with it some are seeing some gains.
On the AI side, teachers are using Google Assistant and Amazon Echo in class more. AI can make teachers more efficient. Many teachers say time constraints often become a huge barrier and the AI tools let them set reminders that will pop up, keeping them on track when they have to shift to another topic. Teachers also ask Google or Alexa questions, which also cuts down on research time.
EDTECH: With all this new technology, are we creating an even deeper divide between the technological haves and have-nots?
MILLER: Absolutely. It will widen the achievement gap if we’re not careful. However, some of the new technology is fairly low cost. A Google Home Mini starts at under $60, even cheaper if you catch it on sale. Then you can have one of those in the classroom. Even with VR, there are inexpensive options. Teachers can buy a Google Cardboard viewer for just a couple of bucks. If a teacher can get a parent to donate an old smartphone and viewer, a teacher can have at least one VR viewer to cycle around to students at low cost.
EDTECH: How can teachers make decisions on which hardware will create the best digital experiences for students?
MILLER: Again, not all technology has to cost thousands of dollars. The price points for a lot of the devices has started to come down. Schools don’t have to buy hundreds of tablets or expensive notebooks like they did in the past. They can get good, reliable Chromebooks for $250. With all the device diversity, teachers don’t have to go “all in” on any one device. I’ve heard of some teachers that have a variety of devices. They can pick and choose today.
Each device has its own strength. Tablets are good for creating video. Chromebooks have a keyboard and are good for web browsing. Desktops and notebooks let teachers install high-powered software on them. So instead of looking at which device we like or which one is most powerful, teachers need to evaluate all the features and decide which one fits best with what they want to accomplish and which empower students to do their best work.