Technology with a Purpose

How to help students use technology to make learning meaningful.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gerry DiGiusto 

CREDIT Motivis Learning.pngAt my son’s kindergarten orientation, the school’s teachers and principal—skilled, passionate, dedicated educators one and all—seemed most excited about the new iPads for the classroom. They were all eager to use the new devices with the students, making them part of their literacy, mathematics, and social studies curriculum. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The classroom didn’t look much different than the one I attended as a kindergartner in the 1970s—it was brightly colored, full of blocks, books, and arts and crafts supplies, and even had a central carpeted area for morning group discussions. But, it also felt like we’d gone from Flintstones to the Jetsons, thanks to a handful of tablets. The great educational technology revolution had arrived, and our children would be its great beneficiaries.

The Revolution Has Been Postponed

As the year progressed, however, it became clear that our enthusiasm was misplaced, or at least premature. The revolution had not quite arrived.

In the buzz of using new technology and meeting the expectations of young digital natives, there was never an explicit discussion of goals.

This technology worked as advertised, but it had not proven to be a catalyst to better learning. Though the iPads were chock full of content and engaging supplemental activities, and the students were immediately comfortable using them, they quickly became little more than a fancy classroom accessory. The students read books on them, and the software helped them learn new words, but because they used them only at the “iPad station” with headphones on—to prevent them from becoming a classroom disruption—it became a solitary experience. For all the potential of technology as a disrupting force, my son’s classroom had squashed it. The device removed the student from peers and from the teacher, and any enthusiasm about what they were learning was left unshared, unaffirmed, and unrecognized.

In retrospect, it’s apparent there was never a plan for using the technology. The implementation plan focused on critical issues like security, support, and infrastructure, all designed to protect students, enforce appropriate usage, and ensure the devices were maintained properly. Training seemed unnecessary because the iPad is a mainstream device that nearly every student had used at home, and students were able to use them from day one.

My Kindergartner Constantly Asks Why, but The Adults Forgot To

But it seems no one ever asked why the iPads were so important. In the buzz of using new technology and meeting the expectations of young digital natives, there was never an explicit discussion of goals. What aspects of learning could be improved? How would technology enable this progress? Could that success be verified? The adults failed to learn from inquisitive kindergartners, who seem to ask why ten times in every conversation.

In my experience as a teacher and as an edtech professional, this approach to technology is typical. While schools tend to be intentional about technical details, they can be surprisingly cavalier when asking the more fundamental questions about how technology can further learning. We assume the why is implicit, an understanding everyone shares, but that’s rarely the case. It should be explicit. By failing to make it so, it becomes an ironic situation everyone dreads: the technology becomes the end goal, rather than one tool (among many) that students and teachers can use to drive success.

Purposeful Technology, Purposeful Learning

This notion of student choice is crucial to success when incorporating technology into the classroom in an effective and meaningful way. As educators, we must have a justification and a plan for what role we want the technology to play, and then design the student experiences accordingly. Unless the objective is to learn to use new technology, the activity should not be reducible in any way to “use this technology.”

This approach to technology aligns with what is often called “purposeful learning.” Purposeful learning embraces the idea that students should be at the center of the educational experience. Rather than focusing on specific tasks or milestones, students and educators emphasize the end learning goals, and work collaboratively to navigate the steps to achieving them. This purposeful approach paves the way for greater personalization and student voice. Because students understand and help define their end goals, and why they are important, they are more likely to be motivated toward mastering and retaining the skills and knowledge they learn.

Given this potential to motivate learners, many educators are adopting a more purposeful approach to improve learning outcomes and student success. Technology can certainly facilitate such efforts, but only if its use is truly intentional. Without planning, technology can distract and disrupt students’ efforts to take control of their learning. To make educational technology an enabler of purposeful, more durable learning, the use of it should follow three simple but critical guidelines:

  1. It should be optional, not obligatory. If the goal is to motivate students intrinsically, they must choose to use available technologies because they see their benefits.
  2. It should be inherently social, not isolating. Technology can play a role in facilitating relationships among students, instructors, and support resources that increases learning quality and student success.
  3. It should be more than just a replacement communication channel. Instead, it should enrich the interaction, helping to generate better feedback between teacher and student and among peers.

iPads in The Classroom 2.0

In the case of my son’s kindergarten, a better designed initiative would not have put the iPads at a separate station where students could only use them for prescribed lessons, while wearing headphones. Instead, the iPads would be available to students as a resource for a wide range of activities, just like the pencils, crayons, and paper that are scattered around the classroom. Nor would the iPads be relegated to solitary work. We’d throw aside the headphones and have students use them collaboratively, to gather information, pursue answers to their questions, and find on-demand help with whatever skills they are learning. In this scenario, the teacher becomes a participant in a learning group rather than its leader, steering students in the right direction, offering timely prompts, and encouraging self-reflection on how and what they are learning.

In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been called the “iPad initiative.” We would have referred to it in terms of its desired outcomes—enhancing literacy, learning research skills, or teaching teamwork. Proof of success would have been the ability to use those skills independent of the iPad. The technology, used purposefully and allowing students to choose when, would have remained in the background and largely faded away. And, as a result, it would have been a far more effective learning tool.

Gerry DiGiusto has worked in higher education, both in the U.S. and in Europe for more than 20 years as a teacher, researcher, strategist, and consultant. He is currently Motivis Learning’s Vice President for Strategy. Previously, he was Director of Consulting Services at Pearson Education; Managing Vice President, Research & Data at Eduventures; and was a professor of political science and international relations at Bowdoin College and Princeton University. He earned his AB at Bowdoin College and his MA and Ph.D. at Duke University.

Leave a Reply