Avoid epic fails and get the most out of technology.

It's almost inevitable that you've used educational technology (edtech) at some point during your teaching career. If you've been working in education for a while, you probably remember cleaning off transparencies, wheeling the TV/VCR cart into the classroom, or feeding CD-ROMs into a disk drive. And while those are examples of edtech, things are obviously very different now. Incorporating the edtech of today into a lesson can be exciting—and scary. Is classroom management going to go out the window? Will it actually improve instructional outcomes? Is it worth the trouble? Sure, things can go wrong. But ultimately, there are steps we can take to avoid the pitfalls of edtech integration so that your lesson goes very, very right.

Ask yourself these three questions before, during, and after you bring technology into your lesson to maximize instruction and student achievement:

Why Do You Want to Use EdTech?

Elevate higher-order thinking

Reference the SAMR model to help make your decision: Are you just substituting tech for an equivalent offscreen task, or are you engaging higher-order thinking by redefining the task with tech? Sure, sometimes you want to upload a worksheet into your LMS for your students to complete electronically. But sometimes, just using a pen or pencil makes more sense. Another way to look at it: Does the technology bring something to the lesson that can't be replicated off-screen? 

Differentiate and personalize instruction

With the abundance of personalized learning platforms, such as Zearn, Amira, and Duolingo, students can deepen, extend, and remediate almost any content they're ready to learn. Automated progress monitoring and formative assessments can quickly determine what's too challenging and what students are ready to learn next. When mixed into a blended learning model, students can control the pace, place, path, and time of their learning. But be mindful: Student burnout is real! These edtech tools are most useful in moderation. Relying on one app too heavily won't result in effective learning.

Encourage engagement

With the ubiquitous integration of 1:1 devices, technology in the classroom is no longer a novelty. But there are many purposeful ways to take advantage of the wide-ranging capabilities of tech. For instance, you can use a tech tool to replace hand-raising: It might allow for more wait time and give opportunities to respond in different ways, which could encourage more students to participate. Of course, the best edtech is also engaging because it provides the right level of challenge, hooks kids with narratives, allows for more creativity and self-expression, and/or injects collaboration and community.

Increase digital fluency

It's undeniable that our current generation of students will use technology in college or careers, so they'll need digital literacy skills. Even though today's tech will be obsolete by the time they reach their careers, learning to use a similar tool helps prepare students to use new tools. 

Basic digital literacy skills—like typing, naming and saving files, and organizing virtual folders—are essential to make sure kids have opportunities. Being able to collaborate digitally (as in a Google Doc) is also necessary. Some might argue that basic-level coding and computational thinking skills are also critical, not to mention critically thinking about tech itself!

And then there's digital communication and citizenship to consider. Students need to practice digital discourse to be able to do it safely and with empathy. With a rise in hate speech and cyberbullying, it's imperative that students recognize there's a person on the other side of the screen, and that how we interact with them matters.

How Do I Prepare to Use the Tool with Students?

Practice using the tool

Get ahead of what could go wrong! Replicate using the tech in the closest possible setting to a live classroom. One option is to seek the help of a few peer models who will be patient as you learn the various features and capabilities. Give this group free range to explore and view their screens to become familiar with the student experience, which often looks different than the teacher-facing side. Knowing potential pitfalls and how to troubleshoot when something goes wrong will limit your frustration. And besides, students love being chosen for special teacher assignments and tasks!

Establish norms and expectations

We have procedures for lining up, using the bathroom, and taking tests. Introducing technology is no different. For example, consider using this stoplight poster to guide students on when and when not to be on their devices. Or create an acceptable use policy before introducing the tech to define the do's and don'ts clearly.

Even with expectations established, we know there's no guarantee that students will always follow the rules. Fortunately, many edtech tools provide teachers with some level of student device management. Common features include locking students into a particular app or website, closing tabs, blocking inappropriate websites, and more. But we still want to empower students to make responsible decisions themselves when online, so be transparent and let them know what control you can have over their device. Whenever possible, a private reminder will always be a better practice than closing an app from your desk.

Start slowly

Some tools have a ton of bells and whistles, many of which you may not be ready to use in your classroom. And that's OK! We don't need to have all the features turned on immediately. Disabling the chat, gifs, video responses, and other add-ons may be necessary until you understand the benefits and drawbacks. As you and your students become more familiar, you can unlock more features, with the intention that the student learning experiences will be further enhanced.

What Worked Well, and What Could Improve?

Stay the course

If there were some problems, but there was also promise, try again to get really good at that tool. The latest isn't always the greatest, and the oversaturation of edtech can lead to a lot of jumping around. When considering using a new edtech tool—and especially when you want to compare similar tools—check our Best in Class evaluations where we've done that work for you.

Check data

Another bonus of using technology is the abundance of data that comes along with it. Reviewing this data periodically and looking for trends over time is important and can benefit school improvement planning. If there's growth and higher levels of academic achievement, it could be a testament to the tool. That said, achievement doesn't mean more use is better (remember that burnout?).

Check in with students

Perhaps most importantly, how do students feel about it? Ultimately, they drive the success of their own learning, and providing some choice with edtech and an opportunity to personalize their learning goals is essential to academic success. This doesn't mean that kids have to say the tool is "fun," necessarily, but if they say they hate it, it's best to listen. Ultimately, we want a tool that will increase inquiry, boost critical thinking, and deepen problem-solving, so ask kids questions that will indicate if these things are happening. If so, you're probably on the right track.


Adam Vinter