SmartBlog on Education this month is exploring the science of learning. Join us for original content in which experts explore trends in learning research and highlight teaching strategies that can help improve student performance.
“But why do you want students to blog?” This question, posed by one of the professors for an action research course in our school district, gave everyone pause. We had been discussing questions to investigate in our classrooms. The teacher who proposed the blogging idea thought for a moment, then replied, “I don’t know.”
Technology is tempting to embed in the classroom en masse. It piques kids’ interests and it is fun to explore. But does it lead to achievement and help students grow as learners? We need to ask ourselves these types of questions if we want to realize the impact that connected education can have on students. I offer three declarations supported by research to help assess the necessity of technology in classrooms.
#1: Digital reading is different than reading in print
This goes beyond the pixel/ink difference. People read more quickly when reading on a tablet or laptop. When words are on a screen, we tend to not stick with content as long as we might when compared to paper. Reasons include more distractions on a screen, such as multimedia enhancements and advertisements, and the “difficulty to see any one passage in the context of the entire text” (Jabr, 2013). These factors can lead to decreased comprehension and understanding.
Maryanne Wolf, cognitive scientist at Tufts University, has studied this topic. While she confirms that digital reading does reduce comprehension in general, not all screens are created equal. For example, Dr. Wolf notes that dedicated e-readers with e-ink technology are equivalent to print, as far as the mind is concerned. “We’ve not seen the kind of differences that we are most worried about when a child is looking on a Kindle” (Richardson, 2014).
So should reading on tablets and laptops be avoided in classrooms? Not if a digital reading experience offers options for learners who need more support. For example, many English language learners can benefit from digital books on tablets. Certain applications allow these students to touch a word on the screen and watch an interactive definition for that word. This option has a more positive effect on vocabulary acquisition than reading a book in print (Korat et al, 2014). Using technology to address students’ specific literacy needs can have a large impact on learning.
#2: Social media matters
In 2010, at least 75% of adults owned cell phones, and over half of adults were using social networking sites (Porterfield and Carnes, Kindle location 458). These numbers have only continued to grow. Facebook recently reached one billion members. Twitter’s monthly active users average went from 30 million in 2010 to 307 million in 2015, according to Statista.
In other words, social media isn’t just for the kids. Educators can leverage these connections to their advantage. A starting idea offered by a high-school student is for teachers to post assignments, announcements and project ideas on a classroom Instagram account. “This is a good way to get students’ attention and remind them in a relatable way about upcoming tests or homework” (Benmar, 2015).
Teachers can take this concept further by showing students how to connect and interact with online content. When the use is driven with the goal of learning, social media can make a difference in students’ learning lives. In a recent study, teenagers originally from Mexico living in the US saw improvement in acquiring English skills through interacting within Facebook communities (Stewart, 2014). These adolescents also felt more supported and connected when they were able to communicate with others using their native language.
To be fair, social media is not a panacea for education. Too much of anything can be unhealthy. Sherry Turkle, a scientist from MIT, found that empathy can be reduced by up to 40% in college students when they prioritize online relationships over in person conversations (Turkle, 2015). What we allow at school needs to be balanced with an awareness of the often unrestricted access students have at home and the community.
#3: Choose wisely when incorporating mobile technology
Today’s use of classroom technology can widen the achievement gap instead of closing it. Integrating digital devices into the classroom tends to accentuate current instruction but does not improve poor practice (Toyoma, 2015). Our students deserve better.
Educators should determine when technology integration is necessary, just nice, or even detrimental. One professor has found through research studies and personal experience that college students who do not use a digital device during class show better understanding of the content taught compared to students who did (Shirkey, 2014). In fact, the mere presence of a laptop or tablet was distracting to those around the student using technology.
That said, when planned with intent, there are opportunities within classrooms for using smartphones, tablets and laptops that can enhance the learning experience. As an example, high-school English teacher Melanie Kozlowski creates choice boards with QR (quick response) codes to necessary content to be watched, read and listened to online. Melanie allows her students to bring in their own devices into the classroom to access songs and lyrics, book excerpts, podcasts and videos related to a unit of study. Melanie has found student engagement and ownership of the learning increase with this smart inclusion of technology (Renwick, 2015).
So how do we make sense of it all? My suggestion: Keep it simple. If the digital devices lack a natural point for integration, don’t shoehorn it in for the sake of making instruction “connected.” Pedagogy trumps technology.
In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan gave readers a simple call to action to remember the rules for better nutrition and health: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I humbly emulated Pollan’s prose, offering a similar summary in Haiku form of the current findings about classroom technology:
Not too much, at home and school.
Mostly for learning.
Several of these studies were cited in Matt Renwick‘s new book Five Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Matt is an elementary-school principal in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc. You can connect with him on Twitter (@ReadByExample) and at his blog, Reading by Example (www.readingbyexample.com)
Benmar, K. (2015). My Favorite Teachers Use Social Media: A Student’s Perspective. Education Week. Available: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/04/22/my-favorite-teachers-use-social-media-a.html
Jabr, F. (2013). The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. Scientific American. Available: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/
Korat, O., Levin, I., Ben-Shabt, A., Shneor, D. & Bokovza, L.. (2014). Dynamic Versus Static Dictionary With and Without Printed Focal Words in E-Book Reading as Facilitator for Word Learning. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 371–386.
Porterfield, K. & Carnes, M. (2012). Why Social Media Matters: School Communication in the Digital Age. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Renwick, M. (2015). Five Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Richardson, J. (2014). Maryanne Wolf: Balance technology and deep reading to create biliterate children. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(3), 14-19.
Shirkey, C. (2014). Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away. Medium. Available: https://medium.com/@cshirky/why-i-just-asked-my-students-to-put-their-laptops-away-7f5f7c50f368#.asu6dofm5
Statista (2016). Number of monthly active Twitter users worldwide from 1st quarter 2010 to 3rd quarter 2015 (in millions). Available: http://www.statista.com/statistics/282087/number-of-monthly-active-twitter-users/
Stewart, M. (2014). Social Networking, Workplace, and Entertainment Literacies: The Out-of-School Literate Lives of Newcomer Latina/o Adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 365-369.
Toyoma, K. (2015). Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Schools. The Atlantic. Available: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/why-technology-alone-wont-fix-schools/394727/
Turkle, S (2015). Stop Googling. Let’s Talk. The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/opinion/sunday/stop-googling-lets-talk.html?_r=0