When Heather Gauck wants to teach her K–4 students problem-solving skills, she might have them play with a robotic toy mouse that follows simple directions. Or she might have them use an app to create a simple video game. Either way, Gauck, who is a special education teacher at Harrison Park School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, realizes the power of technology—and the importance of the skills kids are learning.
The statistics back tech’s role in classrooms: Within two years there will be an estimated 1 million more computing jobs in the United States than people to fill them. Schools are aware of this, and are trying to respond. Nearly all U.S. schools have reliable Wi-Fi, and the number of devices in classrooms is rising—but that’s happening at widely varying degrees.
Experts say pre-service teachers and some already in the classroom also need, and want, more training on using technology effectively. “When schools bring in technology, they also have to create access to training. Newer teachers are more tech savvy in many instances than others. They’re digital natives. But they don’t necessarily know how to integrate technology into the classroom,” says Barbara Kurshan, senior fellow and innovation advisor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Jason Kline, who teaches fourth- and fifth-grade students at EAGLE Charter School in Salem, Oregon, says that many teachers have to get comfortable learning about tech on the job. “The kids know when I don’t know something,” he says. “When that happens, I sit down and learn it right alongside them.”
Whether, like Kline, you have a high computer-to-student ratio in your class or just a couple of laptops to use, there are many ways to boost digital literacy skills in students—and create a more effective and engaging learning environment.
All the Bells & Whistles
Allison Grimm knows she’s one of the lucky ones. Over the past six years, her district in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, has invested heavily in technology. Today, every student in Grimm’s Central Elementary classroom has an iPad and can often be found working on it—creating digital flashcards, using a coding app, writing a blog. They also might be tinkering with robotics or learning to wire circuits.
She says students get more out of learning with the use of tech tools. For example, rather than just going to an encyclopedia to read about penguin habitats, kids can search websites and watch videos on the subject. And they can tailor their reports using multimedia tools. “We are preparing them for the future,” Grimm says, adding that technology has also made her a more effective teacher.
She says one big change for her is the ease with which she can administer fun and quick formative assessments using technology. She often employs game-based tools like Kahoot! and Quizlet to get immediate feedback on her students’ progress.
Blanca Duarte, co-author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom, likes game-based formative assessments, particularly as a lead-in to other activities and when teachers pause for discussion after a quick assessment. She also recommends sometimes letting kids create the quizzes or games to have a more student-directed learning experience.
Duarte suggests using mind maps as well, where students design a graphical representation of ideas to show what they know and boost learning. This can be done with a pencil and paper or through a number of tech tools, such as the web-based bubbl.us.
With so many tools out there, Grimm cautions fellow teachers to ensure learning goals are front and center: “I never put children on an app just to play. I know the content standards I need to teach, and I look for the technology that will help me do that for each individual student.”
Duarte says other teachers can serve as field guides. “Find educators who are socially networked. A lot of them will write about their journey using technology. Many of them have been doing this for years and have learned how to narrow their tools in effective ways.”
Cobbling It Together
Gauck, the special-ed teacher from Grand Rapids, says educators need help sorting out the crowded ed-tech field to ensure the tools they’re using are beneficial.
After receiving a 2016 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Gauck launched the website Innovation Classroom, which offers free video lessons on integrating technology into teaching. Six years ago, she had just one iPad for her students to use. However, when she saw a fourth-grade boy who couldn’t read use it to make words out of letter tiles, she became convinced of the power of tech. She subsequently sought out old laptops and recycled phones, and pursued grants and donations to buy technology.
Besides DonorsChoose.org, two other places Gauck recommends looking for grants or funding are PledgeCents and Teach to Lead. Teachers can also try local business and community partners and union-affiliated programs, such as the NEA Foundation’s grant program for educators.
Gauck now has what she needs in the way of computerized devices, but because resources are still limited, she is a pro at finding free apps and online learning programs. One of her favorites is the Seesaw app, which allows kids to set up learning portfolios and interact and share their work with teachers, peers, and parents. She also likes Adobe Spark, which allows students to create web pages, graphics, and animated and narrated videos.
Gauck works to ensure technology isn’t isolating kids but is instead helping them build collaborative skills. Just as she might pair students to play board games or read, she also groups them when working with technology. For example, they might work in groups to create video reports using a homemade green screen and an app called Do Ink that lets them superimpose objects onto a virtual background. “The kids take turns videotaping each other and speaking in front of the camera,” she says, and exchange feedback along the way.
Tech? What Tech?
For Melissa Collins, who teaches second grade in Memphis, Tennessee, resources are extremely tight. But she’s committed to building students’ digital literacy skills. Collins has three computers in her classroom, plus her laptop, which she sometimes has students use, and she has a Promethean board she received from the NEA Foundation after winning a teaching award. Collins also pairs students on laptops, which education technology expert Christy Crawford says is good practice.
Crawford, who is part of the Computer Science for All team at the New York City Department of Education, says that just as you would pair children with books, you can pair them on computers. One kid might be the driver, using the keyboard, and the other the navigator, telling his or her partner where to go. “They’re explaining their thinking and talking about what’s happening on the screen,” she says, adding that professional computer programmers often work this way. Crawford and her team are developing free, open-source curricular resources in computer science and coding.
Another way Collins makes up for limited resources is by connecting students with classrooms in other communities using video-conferencing tools, essentially taking virtual field trips. She also includes a digital research component when doing projects. While studying earthquakes, students watched online interviews with earthquake experts and then designed models of earthquake-safe structures using classroom materials.
When she travels, Collins brings the world to her students. During a trip to New Orleans, she recorded musicians on Bourbon Street and shared the video with kids, who were doing a music unit. “I started the video by saying, ‘Hey, I’m new in New Orleans. Can you find it on a map? What are you noticing and wondering?’” says Collins. Back in class, she helped students create instruments out of everyday objects and hold a Mardi Gras parade.
Even when resources are scarce, you can still develop computational thinking in students. That means learning to solve problems the way a programmer would—by breaking them down, designing and prototyping a solution, getting feedback and tinkering with the design. Amanda Puerto Thorne is an educator at KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. She teaches coding, which doesn’t always require screens. “I’ll make a grid on the floor with tape and have kids program each other,” she says. The kids write a “code” using arrows or other symbols that indicate how their friends should move around the room.
When asked about the amount of technology in school and whether it comes at the expense of other forms of learning, Kline, the Oregon teacher, says: “Think about how we built houses in the past. In the old days, people used a hammer and nails. Now it would be very rare to see those in use. People use nail guns. We use the tools we have. That applies to education, too.”
Image: Dragon Images/Shutterstock.com (boy); Gail Armstrong (all art)