Using Classroom Technology as a Tool, Not a Crutch

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By Michael D. Toth, coauthor of The Power of Student Teams. Originally published in Education Week.

Technology provides many powerful opportunities to support student learning, but sometimes it can be used as a crutch rather than as a tool.

Here are a few guidelines that educators can consider to ensure that technology is not serving as a substitute for strong core instruction, but is rather one component of a high-quality educational experience.



Be used as a resource to supplement a well-designed learning task 

Too often, technology masks low-rigor activities. For example, students may play learning games on iPads and appear to be highly engaged, but these games rarely require critical thinking. These games are essentially “virtual worksheets” where students are still operating at the retrieval level of the taxonomy. Instead, technology should be used as an enhancement for a rigorous learning task that requires analysis and knowledge-utilization level thinking.

An example might be allowing students to use their iPads as a resource so they can search new applications or access expertise from other disciplines  that support their reasoning during an open-ended task that has many possible solutions.

Technology should be used to extend thinking and make new connections, not simply to extend memory.

Help students become critical consumers

Learning tasks that involve technology should help students develop skills like gathering strong evidence, considering multiple perspectives, and assessing whether their sources are reliable.

As discussed above, this means the learning tasks must be open-ended and challenging enough to call for higher-order reasoning. Students must have the opportunity to become critical consumers as they take on roles such as student scientists and student historians and use technology for real-world tasks.




Be the only method used to personalize learning

When teachers have such large class sizes, it can be tempting to use technology that “personalizes” student learning through methods such as automatically adapting an activity’s difficulty level based on the students’ answers. Overreliance on technology such as this to personalize student learning can be counterproductive as it fosters device-centric behaviors instead of human-centric.

The best personalization comes from peer support and teacher support with a human-to-human connection that goes beyond cognitive learning and brings in social and emotional learning as well. When students work together and get to know each other and when teachers know their students well, they can personalize feedback in ways technology cannot.

Replace face-to-face interactions in the classroom

Technology can automate many tasks, but it still cannot automate uniquely human skills like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and human connection. Students must have constant opportunities to work with their peers face-to-face in order to develop the social-emotional competencies they’ll need to thrive in the 21st-century workplace.

The slight changes in facial expressions and body language are important sources of feedback for development. Students should not spend much time working in isolation on separate devices when they can instead work in collaboration with their peers with technology as a supplement.