Book Review: Learning First Technology Second in Practice by Liz Kolb

Learning First, Technology Second in Practice Book Cover (Courtesy of ISTE)
Learning First, Technology Second in Practice Book Cover (Courtesy of ISTE)

In my work with undergraduate pre-service teachers, graduate students in master’s and doctoral educational technology programs, and with teachers through webinars and workshops, a consistent question resonates — “I know I am supposed to use technology in my teaching, but I don’t exactly know how. What can I do?”

And, for well over a decade, Liz Kolb has been trying to answer that question, first with her books about cell phones and in the encouragement to use these devices as learning tools, and then with her innovative Triple E Framework, outlined thoroughly on her openly available website as well as in her 2017 book, Learning First, Technology Second: The Educator’s Guide to Designing Authentic Lessons. For my students, the Triple E framework has become part of numerous class assignments as well as final project evaluations, stretching from undergraduate methods courses to my doctoral seminars. And, they have all found the Triple E to be insightful and practical, helping them think through their choices for when, why, and how to use technology. 

Thus, Kolb’s approach is quite accessible to teachers. Throughout her work, she consistently foregrounds the need for purposeful lesson design, opportunities for student collaboration, and the use of educational technologies for creating content, not just consuming it. This message resonates with educators who are themselves learning how to use technology in a more effective manner, even the most reluctant who fear that students’ learning can quickly be subsumed by glitzy apps, programs, and websites. Her message remains clear: technology should be used to engage, enhance, and extend student learning, and never for its own sake.

She continues this line of work with her most recent publication, Learning First, Technology Second in Practice: New Strategies, Research and Tools for Student Success. In the Introduction, she contends that “this book should open up conversations with teachers, coaches, and administrators around the choices educators are making with technology tools in their classroom teaching,” and I would concur. Indeed, the book will be a conversation-starter among colleagues, coaches, curriculum directors, and others. Set to be released this July, I was afforded the opportunity to preview the book* and offer some reflections on how Kolb’s work with the Triple E Framework – as well as with dozens of educators – has continued to grow in the past few years. 

In the introduction, she describes the ways in which her thinking has moved in the past few years, providing the reader with insights and updates on the Triple E Framework and its many uses. Then, in Chapter 1, following a pattern that I have observed her using in presentations and webinars for educators, the reader is presented with a number of “myths and realities” related to educational technology (e.g., the myth outlined on page 18 that “Computer use in any form will always enhance underserved or at-risk students’ learning experiences,” followed by a detailed explanation of how these myths are not necessarily true. This model appeals to educators, and helps give them talking points of their own for conversations with students, colleagues, and administrators. 

Then, as the reader moves into Chapters 2, 3, and 4, Kolb reiterates many of the key points about the three pillars of the Triple E Framework: engagement, enhancement, and extension. These chapters are centered, as always, on effective learning models (e.g., social, collaborative interactions and bridging school learning to everyday life). My only minor criticism about the book is that — for anyone already familiar with her previous work — Kolb does seem to spend a great deal of time reiterating key elements from each of the three pillars of engagement, enhancement, and extension. Specifically, chapters 2, 3, and 4 of the new book feel very similar to chapters 3, 4, and 5 of her previous one. She even uses a similar model of describing numerous teaching scenarios and analyzing them with the framework, and much of this is also (to her credit) available on her website. 

Still, this book does take the approach that she used in the first a step further by adding a deeper, more thorough analysis (and ratings) of lesson ideas using the Triple E Framework, then describing very specific ways in which an educator could revise a lesson by changing the instructional strategies, the technology, or both. To that end, while some of these three chapters felt a little repetitive, she did work to bring a new angle of analysis using the framework, and I appreciate these new ways for thinking about how to help other educators use the framework themselves. 

The most important contributions from this new book come throughout the second half of it, which includes Chapter 5’s focus on exemplary lessons from K-12 educators, Chapter 6 which articulates fifteen steps to Triple E integration that can be used by tech coaches and instructional designers, and Chapter 7, a model for implementing the Triple E through district-wide PD. In these chapters, there are many gems, including many examples of teachers’ and students’ work and “the fifteen steps,” which I find to be most useful for my own work. 

For instance, she describes ways in which we can crosswalk another popular ed tech framework, TPACK, with the Triple E, and she offers a specific protocol for analyzing an existing lesson using the Triple E Framework. In that practical PD session, she suggests that teachers or coaches use an adaptation of the lesson study model, scoring a lesson with the Triple E framework and offering specific suggestions for improvement. She encourages the reader (who would become the facilitator) to 

[A]sk coaches what advice they would give to the teacher of this lesson for improvement (if it needs it). The advice should either be a tool change or pedagogical changes around the tool. Sometimes a lesson may need both! (191). 

As I consider my own needs — as a teacher educator and professional development consultant — this protocol for discussion with the Triple E (as well as her good-natured advice), is all helpful, reminding me of the power of protocols to help educators move through discussions in purposeful ways. 

And, as one final bonus, Dr. Kolb invites readers to her new Triple E PLN, available as yet another free resource for educators who want to examine — and share — lessons that meet the criteria of the Triple E Framework. Here, “[e]ducators are invited to register, evaluate their own lessons, share their lessons, and discuss ways to improve the lessons based on the Triple E Framework.” Again, Dr. Kolb’s educational ethos leans towards openly-available, immediately useful resources, and she models this through the websites and communities that she creates. 

In sum, and especially with the chapters for coaches and district-wide professional learning models, with Learning First, Technology Second in Practice, Kolb has provided us with another book that can genuinely guide educators as they are “making instructional choices with technology based on the learning goal and the science of good learning practices” (xiv). With many new examples and specific suggestions, Kolb continues to serve the educational community as a leader who models the kinds of teaching and learning with technology she wants to see in classrooms, from kindergarten through college, and in face-to-face, hybrid, and online contexts. It is a worth read, and will help any educator deepen their thinking about teaching and learning with technology.  

*Note: I was invited by ISTE to review this book, and provided a free PDF version of it. Additionally, over the past 10 years, I have worked with Dr. Kolb on a number of short-term projects, invited her to be a reviewer of our master’s degree program and a guest speaker, and have required students to purchase her books for some of my courses. 


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Peer Review in Public

This afternoon, partially as a way to procrastinate from my own writing and partially because I was genuinely interested in the invitation, I participated in an “open review” of Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia‘s forthcoming manuscript, Annotation. Their open review process will continue through August 23, 2019, so jump in! They request that commentary adhere to the following, all good advice for any scholarly dialogue:

Civil. We can disagree. And when we do so, let’s also respect one another.

Constructive. Share what you know. And build upon ideas that are relevant and informative.

Curious. Ask honest questions and listen openly to responses.

Creative. Model generative dialogue. Have fun. Contribute to and learn from the process.

Having read hundreds of academic articles in the past 20 years, as well as offering blind peer review for dozens more, as well as blind reviews of probably two dozen academic books, I thought that this would be interesting. (And, again, I was procrastinating on my own writing, so an engaging intellectual task that can carry me away and still feel like I am getting work done is always welcome). Here are a few things I learned while reviewing their book which, again, you, too, can contribute to through August 23rd.

My Stance as a Reviewer

When I offer peer review to academic articles and books, I am typically using the “track changes” and commentary features in Word or, in some instances, by offering comments and edits on a PDF (my favorite tool for doing that is the iOS app Good Reader). I typically frame these comments as direct suggestions to the author(s) of the article/manuscript I am reading, and I engage in a professional, yet conversational tone.

With my review of Annotation today, I think that I maintained some of that approach, yet I knew that my comments would be captured, in perpetuity, in Kalir and Garcia’s public version of the document. While I didn’t hold back with questions and concerns, I did realize that I changed my tone. Whereas I would try to be explicitly clear in comments and questions (perhaps even providing examples of what I was aiming for with unclear writing) in blind review, I didn’t want that to be part of the public record.

For instance, in the example below, I offered a comment that could spark further dialogue amongst others reading the text, pushing toward some broader implications for teaching and learning. At other points, I was replying to the comments already made by others, and I would specifically say something like “I agree” or “Along these lines.” Also, at points, I directly wrote to Kalir and Garcia in ways that I could do so with colleagues I know, and would be comfortable saying in front of a group of others.

Screenshot of Specific Comment on

My Commenting Style in an Open Setting

Yet, still, it felt strange. In the first few chapters, there were some other annotations/ors, yet they fell away. Even those that remained were offering suggestions for links, not the generative kinds of peer review that (I hope) I have always aimed to offer in the peer reviews that I complete. For instance, I would describe problems and ask questions like:

  • I may simply not be reading this right, but making the comparison of submitting an expense report in relation to the openly annotated future just didn’t ring for me here. Sorry, but perhaps you could find a different example?
  • This is an interesting example, but I don’t know that it fully draws out all the ideas that you mentioned above related to “shifting social norms, changing financial and organizational incentives, and evolving scholarly practices.” Perhaps you could reorganize around — and particularly elaborate upon — these three ideas in relation to SciBot?
  • This is an important, if technical, point, and deserves some elaboration. Why is it important that some are built into the browser, whereas others stand alone. And, for that matter, why have you not mentioned OneNote, Evernote, Google Keep, or SimpleNote anywhere in the text, and especially here before you launch into the important questions you pose below?

By the end of the process — which took me just as long as any other book review — I began to wonder/wander, leading me to other directions.

Reflecting While Reviewing

Of course, during a normal review, the kinds of internal dialogue that I have with myself may make it into the first draft of my comments, but I usually do some editing before a final draft heads off to the editor. Here, I figured that Kalir and Garcia’s invitation to be civil, constructive, curious, and creative would welcome some of these thoughts.

As I went through the process, and saw fewer and fewer reviewers in subsequent chapters, I got discouraged. While this is no fault of the authors, and I know that they have extensively shared their open manuscript, welcoming reviews, it does make me worry a bit about the hive mind, and whether the power of collaboration and collective intelligence is, perhaps, not as powerful as we might hope. A few of my musings, especially as they relate to why scholars may choose not to participate in an open review:

  • This [vision of social annotation and scholarship] is aspirational, and I appreciate it. Yet, I think that you can elaborate more on what actual changes would need to happen to make it a reality. Be specific, and talk about faculty workloads, department/college T&P requirements, and the ways in which “open” is still perceived as subpar.
  • And, yet, there still seems to be reluctance, or at least lack of widespread acceptance [of open review]. For instance, in your attempts to make this manuscript open and accessible (which I applaud), I am still wondering how many total scholars will participate. Even for those of us who saw the invitation to begin with, a gentle nudge was in order for us to participate. And, in the end, I don’t know that my review of this manuscript will “count” on par with doing a review for an established journal or publisher when (and if) I include it in my promotion materials. Of course, for me at least, this doesn’t matter as much as it would to a junior faculty member who needs to decide whether to spend a few hours trying to write her own work, or to participate in a “normal” editorial review board/process as a blind reviewer for an established press/journal. Both of those actions are rewarded in the academy. As much as I respect Remi and Antero (and that’s why I am doing this annotated review), the simple fact of the matter is that I am doing this because I care, not because it will “count.” These are part of the material reality of academe, and I don’t know how we will change that, even with open annotation and peer review. At the end, there is only so much time in the day…
  • So, I have held off until now, but I have to ask… and only partially in a cynical manner… Like the tree falling in the forest, does an annotation really make a sound (ripple, impact, effect, etc)? That is, I appreciate your utopian vision, yet I wonder if you might want to reign it in a bit here. Sorry… not trying to pop the bubble, especially after nearly two hours of reviewing and annotating your manuscript, but I am just being realistic. The first few chapters had a few annotators. Now, here at the end, it is just me. And you two, as the authors. Are we really connected to a “robust information infrastructure?” Or, are the three of us walking alone in the woods?

In the end, I appreciate the opportunity to do this review, and to pause here to reflect on the process. I struggle both with how to structure class discussions in digital spaces as well as how to be a social scholar, so reading Kalir and Garcia’s manuscript was serving many more purposes for me than merely procrastinating on my writing. I am hopeful that the ideas I have offered to them (and those who might continue to annotate over the next month) are helpful. And, of course, I will continue to think about practices of annotation in my own scholarship and teaching.


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Review of Amplify by Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke

For a number of years now, I have been wanting to provide elementary colleagues with a book that offers a glimpse inside a classroom that runs as a digital writing workshop, one that truly embraces the principles of writing workshop pedagogy while integrating digital writing tools into day-to-day literacy practices. I have been fortunate to connect with many elementary educators who embrace the writing workshop approach with digital writing tools, but hadn’t yet seen a book that captured, in words and images, what a digital writing workshop might look like.

Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom By Katie Muhtaris, Kristin Ziemke
Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom By Katie Muhtaris, Kristin Ziemke

Then, last year, I found out that Katie Muhtaris and Kristin Ziemke were working on a book to be based on some of the techniques and strategies they share in their blog, “Innovate Ignite Inspire.” Knowing that they were doing this kind of smart work with their kids, I have been eagerly awaiting their book. The result is Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom.

Now, having met Kristin quite some time ago at a Michigan Reading Association conference, I knew that she was an educator who was a bit skeptical about the use of technology, but wanted to integrate tech in productive, responsible ways. Or, as Stephanie Harvey describes it in the foreword of the book, though Katie had been enthusiastically integrating technology in her classroom for number of years and, subsequently, Kristin would “peek in, curious about how tech platforms might enhance learning in her first-grade classroom, but not entirely convinced” (vii).

Just as its title suggests, Katie and Kristin’s book does not supersede or replace existing literacy practices with technology-enhanced lessons. Instead, their goal is, indeed, to amplify best practices in reading and writing workshop, modeling literacy practices for their students, and moving them toward a hybridity of reading and writing in both print and digital spaces. As they explain:

Digital learning is at a crossroads, and it’s time for teachers and students to share our voices in how, why, and when our kids should use technology as a learning tool. We invite you to join us on a journey of discovery, exploration, and empowerment. (xii)

Their core principles are ones with which I, and countless other teachers, would certainly agree:

  • Use a workshop model for instruction
  • Hold small-group and individual conferences
  • Engage kids in cross-curricular content
  • Scaffold learning
  • Encourage collaboration and conversation
  • Drive instruction with assessment

These principles align with their overarching goal — “Technology in the classroom fits easily into this hands-on approach to learning (the writing workshop): our students should be the ones using it” (5).

They back these principles up with numerous examples, and I especially appreciate the way that they create “technology anchor charts” in much the same way they would when exploring a new genre, discussing reading strategies, or documenting a process. Also, they describe how they adapt the workshop model by adding in the element of “play” before a mini lesson. “Play,” they contend, “is collaborative, experiential, tactile, and active,” all ideas that lend themselves well to using technology (33).

The book itself takes the voice that we have come to expect in all Heinemann titles — respectful of teachers’ time, knowledge, and needs for high-quality professional learning and growth. Rather than providing a buffet of tech tools, Katie and Kristin actually focus their efforts on just a few key tools and processes: capturing ideas with Padlet, engaging students in a backchannel with Today’s Meet, teaching them how to record voice and video with a webcam and microphone. Throughout the book, there are suggestions that a teacher can “try tomorrow” with minimal technology knowledge.

As the book comes to a close, they share insights on reflection and assessment. Regardless of any number of digital tools at their disposal, Katie and Kristin remind us that

The simple act of giving ourselves permission to stop and watch opens our eyes to the rich fabric of learning in our classroom. We can examine the quality of the tasks we ask our students to undertake. What impact do they have? Why is this important? How can this be better? (90)

Amplify has provided elementary teachers a glimpse into the workings of what I would call a digital writing workshop and what Franki Sibberson has recently begun to call a “digital reading workshop” in Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8. Though I am curious as to why Katie and Kristin do not use that language, I imagine that they avoid adding the “digital” label to the work that they do for good reason — to keep the focus on reading and writing, thinking and learning. As we all continue to think about ways in which we can purposefully bring technology into the K-6 classroom, Amplify provides us with both the principles and practices for doing so.

NOTE: While I am a Heinemann author and did request a complimentary copy of this book, please know I am writing this review independently, not at the request of Heinemann or the authors.

Update: 12/10/15, 11:33 PM – Katie was kind enough to point out that I transposed two letters in “Padlet,” so that has been corrected.


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