Talk to a group of teachers and they’re likely to have strong opinions about the pros and cons of technology use in the classroom. They’re not alone.
Some Silicon Valley professionals believe the more tech in schools, the better. After all, it’s the future, right? Many parents, on the other hand, have serious doubts about letting their child’s school experience revolve around substantial amounts of screen time.
And what about the impact on students themselves?
In some cases, using technology appears linked to better learning outcomes for children. Consider, for instance, the leap in the high-school graduation rate in Miami-Dade county (the nation’s fourth-largest school district) from 60.5% in 2007–08 to 80.7% in 2016–2017, after a series of educational policies that included more use of tech in the classroom.
In other cases, however, technology seems to function as a negative distraction for students. This was the finding of a study of undergraduate learners at the West Point Military Academy, which found that students who couldn’t use laptops or tablets in class performed better in exams than peers who had access to digital devices.
No question about it: technology can hurt students as well as help them. It can fail them even as it claims to make it easier for them to succeed.
So how can teachers and schools ensure they use classroom technology right?
How can they prevent it from doing a disservice to students who rely on them for a quality education?
A moment of silence, please, for every carefully-designed lesson plan that’s had to be suddenly tossed aside when technology didn’t cooperate. And applause for every teacher who’s had to hurriedly improvise new activities when classroom equipment they were counting on didn’t work.
But keeping things simple doesn’t only apply to using reliable hardware (and having a backup lesson plan!)
Simple software platforms that don’t need to be downloaded, as well as single sign-on solutions which permit access to multiple educational resources via a single username and password, can be worth their weight in gold. They cut down on confusion and wasted lesson time — both valuable benefits.
Tech companies have a role to play here too. At Math Games, for example, we designed our games so there’s no need for any software installation (kids can play them on any Internet browser). We also partner with Edmodo, so teachers can log into our resources and those of other EdTech companies with a single sign-on. These kinds of design and partnership considerations should be crucial for the EdTech sector moving forward.
A 2016 report on technology and learning in lower-income families found that nearly a quarter (23%) of families below the median-income level and a third (33%) of those below the poverty level depend exclusively on mobile devices for their Internet access.
Plus, while 94% of families have some kind of Internet access at home, this still leaves more than one child in twenty unconnected once they exit the schoolroom.
These findings suggest that any homework which is supposed to be done on a website or platform that’s not mobile-compatible is very difficult for a large segment of pupils to complete.
Consequently, it’s desirable that teachers only assign technology-based homework tasks that can be completed on cellphones as well as desktops, and which students also have the option of completing offline, with a pen and paper.
Again, though, technology companies need to help instructors out.
Here at Math Games, we’ve spent the past three years creating games that work as well on cellphones as they do on computers, and we also provide free, printable worksheets with grading keys, as an offline alternative to our games. We encourage other education-focused businesses to adopt a similar approach in order to close the accessibility gap once and for all.
A major problem for the students in the West Point study mentioned above (who performed worse in exams than their technology-deprived peers) seems to have been DISTRACTION.
We’re all aware of the incredible power of digital devices to immerse us in a world of shiny, flashing objects that easily tug our attention away from the task at hand.
So when students are assigned homework or classroom tasks involving technology, this technology should ideally run on a self-contained platform or website that doesn’t encourage its users to become distracted by aimless browsing.
Likewise, the tech should be captivating enough to hold students’ attention for a sustained time period, while still meeting high educational standards and measuring key learning outcomes.
Math Games works to address this issue by encouraging children to learn by playing fun, online games. Additionally, each of the math skills they practice is directly aligned with the skills required by the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics in K-8 education.
In our view, the technology needs to be engaging enough to keep students focused, while simultaneously allowing kids to enjoy a rigorous (but flexible) learning process.
Finally, tech can also be used the right way in classroom environments when it’s:
But how and where students access educational technology, as well as how exactly to keep them engaged with it, should always be crucial factors to bear in mind.
Math Games believes the EdTech industry should make learning accessible, in-depth, and fun, and we hope that — together with other education-focused companies — we’re on the road to making that happen.
Bill Karamouzis is founder of TeachMe, an educational company that creates innovative games and apps that combine learning with an innate sense of fun. Bill has more than 20 years’ experience in developing product strategy, product design and building interactive experiences that further educational outcomes.