Reflections on Panel Discussion: The Current State of Ed Tech

Delia DeCourcy and I prepare for the panel discussion at Sylvan's owners' meeting.
Delia DeCourcy and I prepare for the panel discussion at Sylvan’s owners’ meeting.

Earlier this morning, I was invited to speak with my colleague Delia DeCourcy, Executive Director for Digital Teaching & Learning, Chatham County Schools, on an educational panel for Sylvan Learning during one of their annual owner meetings in Houston, TX.

The topic was the current state of educational technology, and I was able to share some insights and resources on the questions below. In particular, they are in the process of updating their Sylvan Sync digital learning platform, and they wanted to glean ideas about what they could be doing with this tool, in particular, as well as with broader initiatives related to digital literacy and citizenship.

In interest of full disclosure, please know that I was invited to speak at this event by Sylvan’s Vice President for Education, and my travel costs have been covered. I received no honorarium, nor do I have a financial interest in Sylvan Learning.

That said, here are some thoughts and resources.

Question 1 – How has ed tech changed the way students learn today?

On one level, we could say that learning is more personalized, that students can get immediate feedback through automated scoring, and that they are able to make better decisions about their own learning. We have many great technologies that will help — especially with some of the more mundane aspects of memorization and ensuring comprehension — and there are ways to use those, within reason, and for purposeful learning.

At a deeper level, however, I would encourage us to think about the approach to learning — and the assumption about what “good” learning is — that underlies these practices. What is it, exactly, that we are asking our students to do with technology, and asking the technology to do with and for our students? In this case, we need to look at the pedagogical assumptions underlying the tool, the website, the program.

As it relates to the way that many educational technologies are packaged, I would want us to think more about the ways in which we can use technology to help students do more than consume, to answer questions that fall on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Instead, we need to teach them both how to be conscientious consumers of technology and media as well as how to be creative producers of their own products. They need opportunities to represent their learning in many ways, with many forms of media from the written word, to an audio recording, to recording themselves solving a problem with a digital whiteboard demonstration recorded as a screencast.

Question 2 – What is your experience with students as “digital natives”? Are there any assumptions that need to be rethought?

First, we should remember that the term “digital native,” used as shorthand to describe kids who have grown up with persistent and ubiquitous technology, was long ago dismissed by the ed tech community. There is a great article that pushed back on this phrase from both a cultural and intellectual standpoint.

That said, yes, that are quite a few assumptions that we need to consider who millennial students are, what they value, and how they learn. There are technical, social, and academic aspects.

From the technical standpoint, millennial may be on their devices all the time and have exceptional proficiency with a number of apps, websites, games, operating systems, and so forth, yet is safe to say that the vast majority of them still need explicit instruction with technology when we consider higher-level thinking, communication, and problem solving tasks. For instance, I seriously doubt that most students know how to use more than 10-20 basic features in a word processor, most of those having to do with font selection, size, and color. We talked about the use of Ctrl+F for find/replace as a basic tool, but also an opportunity for editing and revision.

We need to acknowledge the social context in which these texts are situated. If you are writing an academic paper for a college course, you better not use spaces to indent. You need to learn how to use tabs. If you are producing a flyer that will be distributed on social media, you better understand the effects of warm and cool colors on a reader/viewer.

So, there are many assumptions that need to be thought, including those that we — as adults and educators — have, including the fact that (though we may not know everything about technology) we do have many experiences as readers, writers, and thinkers that we can reference and build on as we teach students to be thoughtful, productive users of technology.

Question 3 – Has technology created a set of new fundamental skills? What are they? Whose role is it to make sure students have these skills?

Yes, technology has created a new set of fundamental skills, both technical ones (like how to use a device, install a program, and operate software) as well as social ones (such as being a good digital citizen who uses social media in a responsible manner, treats intellectual property in an ethical manner, and engages with technology in a critical, yet creative manner).

Depending on who you ask, that particular set of skills can be very granular — knowing how to keyboard efficiently, being able to operate XYZ program — or they can be quite broad like, as noted here, being a “good digital citizen” which includes many technical and social skills.

We all play a role in teaching students these skills. Of course, parents are their children’s first teachers, so modeling an effective approach to using technology across a variety of contexts, managing one’s own screen time, and setting expectations for children about their use of technology and media is important. Then, yes, the responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of educators, as it so often does for all other “wrap around” elements of our work in terms of emotional, financial, health, and other elements of a child’s whole self and education.

We discussed a few resources that could be helpful in this quest, including Common Sense Media’s incredible curriculum for digital citizenship.

Question 4 – What should our centers be doing to make sure we continue to support students with technology expectations of schools and ultimately the job market?

At a minimum, we should be teaching students how to evaluate their own uses of media and technology, to help them be metacognitive about the decisions they are making, both in and out of school. At the next level, I think that we should be teaching them how to explore, evaluate, and employ digital tools and information in creative, academically-appropriate ways. Then, we need to teach them how to collaborate effectively with one another, as well as with others (peers and adults) outside the walls of school.

Open Q & A with Audience

What advice would you give teachers who want to help students identify real news from fake?

As it happens, this is something that I have been working on quite a bit lately. That said, to be very concrete and concise, I will point out two resources, one a website and one a strategy:

What writing types/formats provide the best digital literacy practice for students prepping to enter college or the workforce?

First, let me begin by saying that, just as I would want for my own children, I want all kids to learn how to read and write, both with pencil and paper, as well as with smartphones and laptops. These are tools. So, let’s not confuse the tool with the task.

That said, I would also want for all children, including my own, the opportunity to write in many different genres, for a variety of audiences, and a whole continuum of purposes. So, we know from research on best practices that students need models, they need practice, and they need feedback. They need all of these things, all the time.

Check out Traci Gardner’s list from chapter 4 of her Designing Writing Assignments book:  “Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities”

Is informal language (text speak) ever okay in school writing assignments?

Yes. Depending, of course, on the assignment.

For instance, in writing an essay on text speak, you would certainly want to include examples. If you were writing a story. Even in informal writing assignments (quick writes).

But, as has always been the case with grammar, when we get our writing to a point that it will be made (more) public, we want to make sure that we are using an appropriate tone, with appropriate vocabulary. Context matters.

We also tossed out a number of other ideas/tools in various parts of the conversation, including:

There are, I’m sure, more… but this is what I could recall from the conversation this morning. My hope is that the conversation was useful for those at the event, and that this round up is useful for my readers.


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