Transformative Learning Technologies

Those of us old enough to remember the early days of the internet (and before!) have seen the transformational power of technology on society.  Some days, it seems that everything has changed; on other days, the writing on the wall just has a new font.  We’re still human, doing human things in human ways.  Love in 2019 is the same as in 1989, conflict and disagreement are the same, and we aspire in many of the same ways. 

New technology should be used to leverage learning, to transform how learning happens.  More often than not, cell phones or laptops are used in classes as a way of automating processes, making things easier or smoother – and that is fine.  I’m happy that my ELL students have immediate access to Google Translate!  But is this transformational?  How is a student using Translate in class any fundamentally different than having a paper dictionary out on the desk?  It’s faster – yes – but is that it?  Can we really say that learning has been transformed?

Sometimes I see something in classrooms that makes me think Aha! – something that is impossible without modern tech.  A Youtube video, for example, or a Ted talk on the projector.  Surely this could never have happened pre-internet!  But is that right?  Haven’t teachers used videos to supplement their lessons for decades before Yahoo! was a thing?  Having billions of videos at the touch of a key certainly adds to the depth of what teachers have access to – but is it transformative? The basic learning structure is often the same as it’s always been.

When I look around many classrooms, I see essentially the same classroom environment in which I learned as a child in the 80s and 90s.  Largely teacher-driven, with time for small-group and individual work, but with teacher-chosen and directed lessons. Maybe a video to supplement.  We have yet to remove the trappings of the factory output education model. 

I have used technology pretty extensively in my teaching practice – going so far as to go paperless, one year. It can do great things, and can help organize, streamline, and simplify in many ways.  And it can feel good in the moment.  Having a group of students collaborating on a shared Google Doc can give a taste of something different, something impossible without technology.   Bringing in a really good Ted talk can inspire students and teachers alike.

But so what?  Are learning outcomes greater if students collaborate on a shared doc than if they write their ideas on huge sheets of butcher paper?  Are the fundamental models of learning changed by showing a film to your students?

Educators who bring in technology in hopes of transforming the learning in their schools are working from a false hope that modern tech can make everything better by itself. Instead, teachers should focus on how new technology can fundamentally change the way students learn.

One such way is by expanding the interrelations between students. When I grew up, we could only realistically collaborate with groups of about 4 students – and we had to be sitting next to each other, for the most part. One new thing that modern tech allows is for students to work across the classroom, or in another classroom, or even another country. John Hattie’s research on Visible Learning shows that cooperative learning leads to improved learning outcomes, with an effect size of .40 (having potential to accelerate learning beyond the norm).

Ultimately, new tech should change the way students think & learn – not just change the way they receive information.

Fortunately, there are some amazing resources online to help teachers be the best practitioners they can be! One such resource is a blog by Katie Siemer, Talk tech with me. Check out this post of hers on selecting the right tech tool for the job.

Hattie’s research shows that the impact on learning of tech in classrooms is a mixed bag. For instance, one-to-one laptops, often a key marketing point for private schools, shows an effect size of .16 (likely to have small positive impact on student achievement). It’s clear that just putting the tech in front of the students is not enough – students learn through engaging lessons and strong adherence to best practices.