Jul 20 2016

Engagement from Technology Use Is Different Than Engagement from Learning

The nature of the work students are doing will always trump the novel engagement, due to the presence of technology in the classroom.

It’s Wednesday morning, and Mom calls upstairs to me, “Eric, it’s time to wake up! You don’t want to be late, you have PLUS class today.”

I jump out of bed, get dressed with the first shirt and pants I see, then rush out of my room with a Bo Jackson T-shirt, mismatched socks and a serious case of bed head. Then I fly down the stairs, inhale a bowl of cereal and an untoasted Pop-Tart and start my walk to school. My backpack is overflowing with wrinkled, incomplete worksheets, an unfinished homework packet, and a neatly filled-in Pizza Hut reading log.

From the contents of my backpack, it seems like I enjoyed reading. Not exactly. I figured out how to game the system so I could get my free Personal Pan Pizza every month for meeting the minimum reading requirement. Yes, I was that kid.

I didn’t do my homework, didn’t like to read and didn’t like school. Unless it was art, gym, recess or PLUS class, which is a pull-out program in our public school district for students who had been identified as “gifted.”

Once a week I joined the other gifted students and spent the entire day in an environment with the conditions for powerful learning. We did things like problem solving and project-based learning, drew pictures and painted, built things with our hands, had fewer rules, could sit wherever we wanted. Class was based on our interests. It had no homework, and, when possible, the work we did was for an authentic audience.

PLUS was amazing for a kid like me. It allowed me to be creative and gave me autonomy. We did projects relevant to the real world and it challenged me with interesting questions. Most of all, it was fun.

Sadly for me, the following day I returned to my regular classroom to spend the remaining time in school bored, disengaged and getting in trouble for talking or drawing.

True Engagement

When I reflect on this experience and consider what I’ve learned about education, I think of two things. First, I get frustrated and wonder why every day at school wasn’t like PLUS class. Was I only gifted one day a week? Why were the gifted students the only ones privy to this type of learning? More importantly, based on conversations with parents who have gifted students today, it’s puzzling how this is still happening in our school system 30 years later.

Second, my experience in PLUS class did not include technology. There was an occasional quest on the Oregon Trail, but other than that we had NO learning management software, NO apps, NO adaptive software, NO virtual reality. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

The only reason I jumped out of bed on Wednesdays was because I knew when I got to school I would be “engaged.”

When I say engaged, I don’t mean the type of engagement that some educators loosely throw around today when presenting at conferences or participating in Twitter chats. They boast about how engaged students are because they’re using technology and the latest and greatest app or “cool tool.” I loved PLUS class because of the way I got to learn, not the tools I used.

To be truly engaged is when students are being met at the optimal level of challenge and their abilities. I remember being hyperfocused, or “in the zone.”

The type of engagement we should be striving for in education — the type that leads to deep and powerful learning — does not occur simply because technology is present. It can’t be observed, either.

There are far more important factors to consider, such as the purpose for the work the students are doing. Relevancy and authenticity will trump the presence of technology every time. We should ask ourselves: Do the students have autonomy and agency over the learning that is taking place? Are they doing this to get a grade or because they’re motivated by a greater cause? Furthermore, what role does technology play? Is it being used to do old things in new ways, or is it providing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist?

‘Create Powerful Conditions’

If the goal is to engage students, then focus your time and energy exploring how to create the powerful conditions for learning before you utter “ed tech.” Once you’ve mastered those skills, technology will serve as rocket fuel and take your instruction to the next level.

Now, I know this type of instructional shift takes time, but this is not about how teachers prefer to learn, or how comfortable teachers are with technology. There isn’t enough time or money in the world to provide teachers with face-to-face professional development on all of the technology that exists today. It’s not sustainable, and we can’t keep up with the pace of change.

I believe there’s a need to shift away from teaching students what to learn, to teaching them how to learn, and the same goes for teachers when it comes to professional development.

Students only get 930,000 minutes of instructional time from kindergarten to 12th grade. They can’t afford to wait for educators to get comfortable with doing things differently than they have in the past.

More importantly, to paraphrase 88-year-old MIT mathematician, computer scientist and educator Seymour Papert: Simply adding technology to the classroom, but changing nothing else, is absurd. Focus on instruction and creating the conditions for powerful learning before anything else. So when you do use technology, it will be your rocket fuel and not simply a new way of doing old things.

Author’s Note: This post was inspired by a TEDx talk I recently watched called, “The Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools” by Will Richardson.


This article is part of the "Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology" series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #ConnectIT hashtag.

[title]Connect IT: Bridging the Gap Between Education and Technology

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