Digital technology comes with great promises of “improving teaching and learning” or “revolutionizing the system”, but in reality, technology seems just to be making teaching busier, more complicated and, often, less personal. Simplifying digital learning, and using technology effectively in our classrooms, comes down to three key considerations:
- Minimizing digital distractions
- Encouraging digital citizenship
- Promoting engagement with digital content
Visiting various classrooms around the country, I see many effective uses of technology, but I also see the opposite; ineffective or inefficient uses of technology. I think it is important to consider how (and why) we use technology in our classrooms and be honest about our motivations around this.
Minimizing Digital Distractions
Digital Distractions are everywhere. Even while writing this, I have visited Facebook, Twitter, and Stuff. I have music playing in the background, and occasionally a song comes on I don’t know, so I go and check it out. It is naive to think that exactly the same isn’t happening for our students. Short of becoming “digital supervisors”, we sometimes have no idea what our students are doing while we are teaching. Supervising is a waste of our time (and skills) and, in my opinion, is a waste of our learners’ time.
To minimize digital distractions, we need to think about the online world like we do a desk or a tote tray. When we tell our students “it’s writing time”, they take out their writing books and a pen or pencil. They don’t grab their maths book and a crayon and start scribbling (most of the time). We need to encourage this thinking online. The best way to do this is by limiting both the time spent online and by increasing the purposefulness of time spent online. “Independent Research”, a term used incorrectly to describe busy internet work, is an ineffective use of online time. Instead, I encourage online time to be meaningful, planned and focused.
Encouraging Digital Citizenship
Like many things, “Digital Citizenship” has become a bit of a buzz term in education. What it means varies between schools (and indeed teachers within schools) but generally, it is accepted that it means being a good person online and making good choices online. We cannot control what students do at home, and often there is a lot of unlearning to do around how we behave and exist online that comes from the students’ experiences at home.
As with the desk or tote tray analogy I described in the digital distractions section, it is important to set the expectations from the start very high. Counter-intuitively, that doesn’t mean locking down the students’ experiences, moreover, it means showing that what they do online at school is monitor-able by teachers, other students, and their parents. There are no secrets (or surprises) and there should be no expectation of privacy online. Encouraging classmates to monitor their peers and encourage good online behaviors frees the teacher up to teach. One of my biggest fears is that teachers will one day supervise learning through a screen.
Promoting Engagement with Digital Content
Just because content is digital, it doesn’t necessarily make it good quality. Even with all the filters in the world (apart from completely locking a network down which I’d argue is equally dangerous) the internet is still the wild west. I’m loathed to use the term, but the “fake news” online is scary. Basic searches come up with misinformation, disinformation and dangerous, agenda-filled results. As teachers, we need to teach students to critically evaluate what they find and actively critique what is put in front of them. Early on it might be necessary to explicitly direct them to resources and actively teach critical thinking and evaluation skills.
There are four online behaviors for engaging with digital content:
- Passive Consumption
- Active Consumption
- Passive Production
- Active Production
Passive consumption is probably the lowest level of engagement. It is the mindless watching of videos, the “independent research, and the playing of pointless games. Passive consumption is to me like trying to read a book upside down with your eyes closed. You might get the gist of the story, but you certainly won’t be learning anything.
Conversely, active consumption is the deliberate engagement with content. It is the annotating of videos, the choice making to find related resources, the critical thinking and critiquing of what you read. This higher-level engagement should be encouraged and reinforced. For time-poor teachers, teaching (and insisting on) active engagement can be often neglected.
Passive production is most commonly known as “copy and paste”. Limited decisions are made about the content produced and even less attention is paid to learning and/or reflecting on the content being disseminated. Passive production is characterized by “Fact Sheets” and is nothing more than regurgitation.
Active production is where the rubber meets the ground in terms of digital competency. Students are actively engaged in the decision-making process about the way(s) they will present information, synthesizing a variety of sources and choosing the audience(s) they will share their learning with.
It should be the goal of every digital teacher that their students are actively engaging with content and making good use of their online time. As the evidence grows that learning can be hindered by the poor application of devices by teachers, we, as professionals, must step up and utilise tools to best advantage for our learners.