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March will mark two years since schools had to switch to remote learning, district leaders frantically bought educational tech products and teachers rushed to make them work with their lesson plans. Today, as the Omicron variant spreads across the United States, many schools have reverted to online instruction, at least temporarily.
The result of this infusion of educational technology is that it has become an integral part of the K-12 educational landscape, not just virtually, but in the physical classroom. Some young learners, like the second and third graders I teach, have never known school to be anything other than technology-centric. Whether they’re at home or in an actual building, they fire up a laptop or tablet, log into a content management system, and start exploring educational games, puzzles, or videos. Every time I walk into a classroom, I’m reminded that COVID-19 turned a generation of kids into full-fledged consumers of ed tech content.
They are now ready for the next step: creating this content themselves.
Today, students can make their own movies, design their own graphics, and power their own robots. At Newtown Elementary School in Virginia Beach, children used Wixie to create language arts presentations, Dash robots to learn coding, and BrainPOP to create their own weather animations. Not only do kids love using these types of tools, but research shows that active, hands-on learning can lead to higher retention rates and better academic performance. Technology that puts students in control of their education also has the potential to promote agency, the process by which students begin to direct their own learning, adapt when things get tough, and believe they can succeed.
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Here are three tips for turning young consumers of educational technology into content creators:
1 Make students the teachers
Four years ago, my school started a program called Power Hour. Teachers nominate students to join me for a 45 minute lesson each month to learn about an educational technology tool that promotes active learning. Then they go back to their classrooms and teach their peers how to use the tool. Some students are so excited to share what they have learned that they ask to present it to other classes. It’s become a huge hit with kids, who get excited about creating content while showing their classmates that they’ve mastered a subject.
There’s also a side benefit to power hour: once students are comfortable with the technology, teachers are more likely to incorporate it into their lessons.
2 Don’t save the students when they’re wading
Many Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs say their biggest failures have led to their biggest successes. The same is true for young learners. I will sometimes see teachers begin to “rescue” students in difficulty, whether with science, STEM or a technological tool. “Wait,” I tell them. “Let them fend for themselves.” Learning becomes more powerful when children discover the solution themselves. For this reason, I never teach my Hour of Power learners the full functionality of a new tech tool, although I sometimes hint that there are “easter eggs” hidden within. When they find them, the wide smiles on their faces tell me everything I need to know about teaching and learning. Then they can share with their classmates.
3 Balancing technology with other forms of learning
While teaching remotely, leaders in our district have emphasized the importance of finding ways other than technology to reach students. It’s something we’ve continued by returning to physical classrooms. For example, one of my favorite science lessons is about erosion. Once the students have learned the process from their teachers, I arrive with a sandbox and a bucket of water and show them what erosion looks like. Then they take on the role of the city’s engineers, in an effort to save their homes from being washed away.
In my work as an instructional technologist, I’ve heard teachers say that students’ time could be better spent on building math or reading skills than on the trial-and-error process of experimenting with software. I would say it’s not a binary choice. Content authoring tools are powerful vehicles for teaching core material while helping students become motivated, lifelong learners. Giving children the tools to decide what is meaningful and relevant to them has benefits that transcend the subject.
Kevin Rickard is an instructional technology specialist at Newtown Elementary School in Virginia Beach.
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