Reevaluating Ed-Tech Tools and Learning Games

by Staff Writers

Educational technology has seen an explosion in recent years. Where teachers once relied on heavy textbooks and overhead projectors, we're now seeing SmartBoards and iPads. For the most part, the benefits of educational technology are promising: the ability to get students excited and engaged, the opportunity to create fun new learning resources, and the power to access more information at our fingertips now than ever before. It's difficult to deny the promise that ed-tech holds, but educators need to understand technology's limitations and practices for best use in education.



Is Ed-tech Really Working?

Although ed-tech is popular with both teachers and students, and it has a great potential for learning, it's important that we don't make the mistake of believing that it's a silver bullet to improve education. Ed-tech tools, though advanced and agile, are still only tools. Just like textbooks or chalkboards, iPads, laptops, and SmartBoards can be used with varying degrees of effectiveness and require a skilled, well-trained teacher to make the most of them. As tools, they must be used appropriately and effectively to have an impact. Are our schools getting the best use out of ed-tech tools? There's not enough research for a definitive yes or no to this question just yet. The results are mixed, indicating that although ed-tech has great value, there are factors that can greatly influence its effectiveness.

Schools with one-to-one computing programs boast great results: fewer discipline problems and dropouts, higher rates of college attendance, and a rise in achievement scores on high-stakes tests. Students who use iPads enjoy using the devices and find that they are more motivated to learn when using them. With their use, student achievement and quality of work are on the rise. Kindergarteners who use iPads score better on literacy tests.

But most studies focus on only one school, and some do not show the same gains: in Maine's statewide one-to-one technology initiative, there was little to no effect on student achievement, except a small improvement in writing. In Texas, student achievement grew slightly in math, but not reading, and there were actually lower writing scores for students in laptop programs.

With mixed results like these, experts are having trouble coming up with strong data to support the widespread success of ed-tech. "The data is pretty weak. It's very difficult when we're pressed to come up with convincing data," says Tom Vander Ark, former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Digital Overload

Ed-tech may be giving students too much of a good thing. Pediatricians recommend that young children under the age of two avoid any screen time, including iPads, TV, and computers, and older children should not have more than two hours per day. The American Academy of Pediatrics is careful to differentiate between "recreational" and "educational" screen time, but pediatricians still recommend that total screen time be used in moderation, up to five to six hours per day. When digital learning devices are used at school, and students use digital learning tools at home, six hours can add up quickly.

Parents are quick to point out that pediatrician guidelines limiting screen time may not be realistic, or even helpful, when digital media presents so many opportunities for learning. It's entirely possible that lacking sufficient data, the AAP is taking an excessively limiting precaution against too much screen time. Still, it's important to remember that even with its benefits, digital learning does have its drawbacks.

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Differences in Digital Reading and Learning

E-books have been a huge development in digital learning, with the potential to replace heavy, expensive textbooks and backpacks with slim readers and tablets. It's an exciting new frontier, but educators should be careful to consider the potential drawbacks of e-reading, including a lack of spatial navigation, and difficulties in memory recall.

A study from the University of Leicester indicates that there is an advantage to reading paper-printed books for material that should be remembered long-term. In this study, students who read material digitally required more repetition to understand and remember the information than those who read the same material in print. Further, the print readers were better able to recall important facts effortlessly, and the recall gap between e-readers and print readers grew larger with more repeated testing.

Researchers believe the likely culprit behind this recall deficiency in e-books is "spatial navigation," or "spatial context." The problem is that e-books lack physical space, instead offering virtual space that is less useful to the brain. Spatial context and landmarks are important for not just remembering, but "knowing," a state of effortless recall. With more associations for your memory to use, the easier it is to recall a memory. E-books have fewer location cues for the brain to rely on, making it less easy for students to remember what they've read.

E-books can also be distracting for students, in more than one sense. Jakob Nielsen, a Web usability expert, explains that typing to search, or scrolling to different pages, creates more work for the brain and results in distraction: "There's a huge benefit from being able to glance [across a page or two] and see [everything] simultaneously. Even though the eye can only see one thing at a time, it moves so fast that for all practical purposes, it can see [the pages] and can interrelate the material and understand it more."

Perhaps that's why both iPad and Kindle reading speeds are slower than reading print. Additionally, multitasking reading devices like the iPad and Kindle Fire offer distractions beyond reading, including games, social media, and email, potentially making it more difficult for students to focus on the single task of reading.

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Google: An External Hard Drive for Your Brain

Digital learning difficulties aren't limited to e-books. A study published in Science indicates that students who were encouraged to use the Internet during class lectures did not process information as well as their peers who were not online, especially in comprehension tests. UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield believes that this type of multitasking "prevents people from getting a deeper understanding of information."

Digital tools like search engines may also have an impact on learning and memory. Students no longer have to remember every single detail, because it's all available with a quick Google search. Says Science, "the Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves." Knowing that the information will be there when needed means that students are less likely to consciously put for the effort to simply remember.

A Science study asked students to type in pieces of trivia, and told them that their information would either be erased or saved. The students who expected to have their data saved had lower rates of recall, presumably because they thought they'd be able to find the information again later.

Internet use not only changes the way students remember; it changes the way they think and utilize what they know. To really use information, it's important that students have it available in their minds for instant recall, a state of memory that comes from simply "knowing" rather than "knowing how to find it." Without this state of knowing, students are less able to put information to work, especially in creative or innovative pursuits. Texas A&M neuroscience professor William Klemm insists, "Creativity comes from a mind that knows, and remembers, a lot." Ideas spark and flow much more naturally if students have information in their minds, rather than Google.

Of course, we cannot expect students to know and remember everything without assistance. Great creative thinkers of the past surely had to rely on outside memory, including books and trusted advisers, so the way that students use Google is not much more than a new tool for an old use. But educators should ensure that students are not using tech tools as a replacement for their memory.

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Utilizing Ed-Tech Tools to Build 21st Century Skills

Although educational technology has its drawbacks, when used carefully and creatively, it also has many distinct advantages over less savvy teaching tools. Ed-tech tools present great opportunities for teaching 21st century skills, not just the use of technology, but collaboration, communication, innovation, and problem solving. Even with its problems, ed-tech is too valuable to dismiss entirely. That's why it's important for educators to thoughtfully utilize ed-tech in a way that maximizes the opportunity for building 21st century skills:

  • Encourage communication and collaboration. Digital communication and learning makes it much easier for students to interact and collaborate. They can connect across continents and time zones, at nearly any time and place. Use apps and other ed-tech tools to bring students together with collaborative mind-mapping, document sharing, and even reading together. Show students how to work in virtual communities, not just in LOLs and text messages, but in thoughtful messages and discussion.
  • Develop creativity and innovation. Although there are creativity-stifling memory problems in digital learning, there's no denying the wealth of creative learning opportunities available. Use lesson plans to turn students from consumers of digital media into creators, like group YouTube video projects that encourage students to share their voices. At High Tech High, students learn in hands-on, technology-enabled projects that have real world impact and encourage innovation. From creating mechanical interactive displays, to developing software and producing films, technology can be used to make innovative project based learning richer and more fulfilling.
  • Encourage critical thinking and problem solving with games and other learning tools. Games can be used to demonstrate learning concepts and encourage critical thinking and problem solving. Studies suggest that games can even increase working memory, critical thinking, and problem solving. Short form games like Pavlov's Dog or Power Words are effective for skill refinement and practice, memorization, and drills. They also fit easily into short blocks of classroom time, but they're not useful for building higher thinking skills. Long form games like Geography Explorer, Journey to Ernie: Clue Hunt, and Eterna extend beyond a single class period, but tend to be more effective at teaching and supporting problem solving and critical thinking. These games push students to actively engage in decision making. MMORPGs like EverQuest can even build leadership skills: an IBM study indicates that the leadership skills built in MMORPGs are very similar to the skills needed to run a 21st century company.
  • Teach students marketable technology skills. Technology is here to stay, and it's useful not just for enhancing learning, but teaching students how to use it. Focus on giving students the ability to utilize technology in useful ways, taking their use one step further. Instead of merely using a program, teach them programming skills to create their own. Go beyond simply showing them how to collaborate and connect on social media by teaching them how to use Twitter to market an idea or business, or LinkedIn to build a professional network.
  • Pay attention to details that matter. Ed-tech gives the education community a wealth of choices and options, and although it can be overwhelming, it's important to put thought into choosing the right tools. Fore-reading, choose larger screens that allow students to focus on more text at a time, and ebooks with better spatial navigability like numbered pages and progress bars. Consider the reading format when making assignments: for concepts that benefit from long term memorization, paper books may be a better choice over ebooks, which are better suited for initially getting familiar with information. .Don't dismiss long form games, which may take up more class time, but can prove to be more valuable than short form games for building strong problem solving and critical thinking skills.

    Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES says, "The best way to use tech in the classroom is when the technology primarily supports the process of student learning, not the product. Sure, it's easy to get excited when we find tools that make things easier, but we have to be careful about what's getting automated. Tools that support deep student creativity may take more time to learn, but in the end, give students access to powerful, creative experiences. The learning that takes place on the journey is the real outcome, and a "push-button" tool deprives the child of that experience."

  • Make it personal. A recent study on ed-tech strategy and use indicates that schools with 1-to-1 programs, with one computer or device per student, had better success than schools with higher ratios. President of the One-to-One Institute Leslie Wilson says that "personalization and individualization of instruction work best when students have 100-percent access to a computing device."
  • Learn how to use tools effectively. Research from Project RED indicates that educational technology works best when educators are well-trained. Although technology tends to show some benefit even without proper training, "when principals receive specializing training and technology [is] properly implemented, the benefits increase even more," says Project RED. Experts recommend extensive professional development for operating new educational technology, with special attention paid to strategies for classroom integration.

Educational technology is a boon to education, but even though we're seeing great results in some models, let's not just throw iPads in every classroom and expect results. Educators need more than that to do their jobs effectively, and students deserve better. Consider how you can take ed-tech beyond a novelty and really turn it into an effective tool for teaching 21st century skills. Technology has the power to take learning to the next level. Let's make sure it actually does.

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