Digital Learners: How Computers Make “Learning By Doing” Ever More Integral To Our Students’ Education

Submitted by Bedford Schools Superintendent Jon Sills

Bedford Schools LogoSince digital technology has become the principal means by which organizations access, store and share information and ideas, school systems, like all other major organizations, have become entirely dependent upon it.  While it promises to yield certain modest cost-saving or time-saving efficiencies, when it comes to teaching and learning, cost savings are not the principal impetus for its inclusion.  And while we should also see improvements in the standardized test scores of some of our struggling students, as technology enables increasing instructional differentiation, this too is not its primary  educational role.  Technology’s greatest promise lies in its capacity for deepening and extending student learning, in large measure by making the learning process increasingly student-centered.  And, as it is the principal medium for learning, working, communicating, creating and playing in our fast changing world, schools are responsible for preparing students to use it effectively and responsibly.

Instruction and “Minds-On” Learning

“21st century skills”, such as creativity, communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking depend upon interactive learning.  Developing these abilities, learned in conjunction with course content and discipline-specific skills, comprise the core learning goals of the Bedford Public Schools.  Hands-on and “minds-on” learning, where students work through problems, is fast replacing passive listening where teacher “telling” once predominated.  Developing students’ ability to think analytically and creatively and to become self-directed learners depends entirely upon this instructional paradigm shift.  While minds-on or student-centered learning does not depend upon digital technology, it significantly deepens and extends this type of learning when used appropriately and when put into students’ hands.  It also provides access to a wider range of students who find these technologies highly engaging.

  • Broadening Access and Knowledge Demonstration.  Instructional technology provides both students and teachers with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge as they interact with content, create and present information in various formats, including text, image, sound, and video.  This has added value at a time when we have come to recognize what Howard Gardner refers to as multiple intelligences (visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, musical, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical).  In addition to building on students’ unique strengths, teaching through multiple modalities also allows more students to more effectively access the curriculum, as some students are more adept visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners.   Using computers, particularly handheld devices, in small groups enables individual learners to move at their own pace to get additional practice with skills or concepts that they find difficult to master.
  • Brain-based Research. We know from a variety of sources (educational practice, brain research, educational theory) that learning and long term memory are enhanced by active engagement with material.  As a pattern discerner, when the brain makes connections and actively manipulates data, new neurological connections are created and learning is pushed into long-term memory.  This is why we say that we develop thinking through content, and the best way to learn content is to have students think about it.  Instructional technology does not facilitate this automatically, and in fact, its misuse can exacerbate a kind of “mindlessness” that runs counter to reflection and deep learning. So helping students to learn to use technology “mindfully” is a responsibility schools must now assume.  Used correctly, it provides students with rich opportunities for research, for problem-solving, and for presenting their learning in creative ways.
  • Broadening Horizons and Transforming Instruction.  For many wonderful examples of students’ using technology (creating movies, teaching their fellow students using Explain Everything, learning programming, skyping with classes abroad, doing just-in-time research, etc.) please visit https://bedfordtechlibrary.weebly.com/  Two major shifts in instruction that digital technology makes possible are a fundamental increase in “checking for understanding” and the creation and integration of student portfolios.
  • More Regular Checking for Understanding.  Teachers are changing the way they check for understanding in ways that ensure much greater success for all learners.  Historically, teachers would ask the class if they understood a concept or they would call on a student whose hand was raised, and after the correct information was surfaced, they would move on.  Many teachers have long since recognized that this type of approach does not reveal the whole class’s understanding, nor does it require all students to think about the question at hand.  While many teachers have used non-digital methods, like individual white boards, that engage all students’ thinking and reveals all students’ understanding, the new technology offers powerful new ways to do the same.  Particularly when each class member has access to a device, we are seeing a more thorough integration of just-in-time assessment and other forms of immediate feedback.  This feedback is not only useful to teachers, who can then adjust their instruction, but immediately to students as well, as it engages their thinking and informs them of how well they are understanding the material. Programs like Socrative immediately turn the students’ answers into graphs that the teacher can project onto the Smartboard to serve as a basis for further discussion of the material.
  • Metacognition and Portfolios Powerfully, digital technology provides a vehicle that analogue systems cannot practically compete with, for developing students’ metacognition, the awareness and understanding of one’s own learning processes (planning, comprehension, etc.).  As we are beginning to do in several places, students are collecting their work through Evernote and other software programs, and they are analyzing and commenting upon it on a regular basis.  When a teacher asks students to select their best example of learning and to explain why they chose it, or when students have to compare a drawing to one done several weeks later or review their writing over a period of time, several important things happen: one, they more effectively remember important information and concepts; two, they deepen their learning of the skills or content at hand; three, they develop an appreciation for their work product and process (as opposed to the automatic mindlessness that we so often associate with homework), and finally, they develop an understanding of their own learning that creates ever greater independence.  These portfolios will eventually be developed cumulatively over the span of the students’ schooling.   They also provide important opportunities for assessment that regular paper and pencil tests cannot achieve.  Assessing higher order thinking, the ability to synthesize information, apply or transfer skills, and creatively problem solve increasingly require project-based or performance-based assessments. Accumulating and storing this student work data is only possible using digital technologies.

The Promise and the Challenge of Meeting Students Where They Are

Most students are immersed in digital technology in one form or another.  Three year olds have tablets, and despite various market fluctuations, with competition between Androids and iPads, children’s tablet use is on the rise.  Witness Amazon, ToysRUs, Kmart kids’ tablet creations, statistics coming out of the UK with one in three children owning a tablet, and the increasing use of e-readers among all ages. While their ubiquity certainly presents challenges in terms of distractibility and older students’ widely held but erroneous belief that they can multitask effectively, i.e., engage in school work while simultaneously social networking, their promise for capturing and channeling students’ imaginations and technological intelligence is too great to ignore.

Most important, using digital technology enables educators to harness students’ experiences and “speak their language” in ways that are both engaging and motivating.  Teachers find that students often persist longer and even voluntarily practice exercises at home that are traditionally found to be boring and uninteresting.  To fail to do so is to create a false dichotomy between the media for formal, structured learning and the media with which students are already learning, either deliberately or unconsciously in the rest of their lives.

Moving Beyond Consumption

Students are consumers of technology, and while many are exceptionally adept at certain kinds of applications like gaming or social networking, and many are even not so consciously engaged in new forms of communication and digital creation, most are neither well schooled in technology’s more academic, artistic or occupational uses, nor are they particularly reflective about how they use it, either as a source of information, communication or creation.  It falls to the schools to meet students where they are and move them into a more reflective and discerning relationship with technology, and to equip them with the knowledge and the skills to use it productively.  While, for example, many learning games are increasingly available and “teach” valuable knowledge and skills, we want our students learn how to code so that they will be able to create games themselves.  We are beginning to construct a K-12 programming curriculum so that all students can understand coding as a frame of mind, as an approach to problem solving and as a kind of language.  Many students are learning how to manipulate technology, how to solve technological puzzles, how to make things work.  Harnessing those skills and applying them in our academic context is not only engaging for students but provides an avenue for developing the higher order thinking skills that form the core of our educational mission.

To view the complete report, Computer Technology and the Bedford Public Schools: How Students Use, Learn With, And Are Served By, Digital Technology, please go to https://www.bedford.k12.ma.us/school-committee/presentations.html   The  report includes information on the high schools’ one to one iPad initiative, as well as descriptions of all of the various software and applications as well as the different types of devices presently in use.


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