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But I can’t because …

You can probably think of lots of good reasons why you can’t use digital technology in the ways we have been suggesting in the previous posts in this series:

  • We don’t have enough devices
  • I would have to totally change how I teach
  • I’m not very confident with digital technology
  • The students will be distracted from learning

We don’t have the resources and I’d have to change how I teach
Underpinning these sorts of explanations for NOT using digital technology are a series of assumptions. Many of these may not be true. For example, the vision at a school in Perth (Western Australia) was that digital technology should become invisible, like a pencil. Digital technology was being used extensively by the students and one student even explained that instead of buying paper textbooks they had calculated that it would be cheaper to buy an iPad mini with digital textbooks on it. So that’s what they did. Under the old way of teaching you can imagine the scenario:

Teacher:     Get your text book out
Student:     Gets out iPad mini
Teacher:     What do you think you are doing? Put that away and get out your textbook

But her teacher explained that this hadn’t been their reaction because she was quite happy for the students to use their own devices. This didn’t prevent her from doing what she had always done:

  •  input at the start of the lesson (I don’t mind if they take a photo of the interactive whiteboard and it makes no difference to me whether they take notes on paper or on a mobile device);
  • setting a task for them to do (I focus on the objective, and let them choose how to achieve it, so long as they provide me with the required output at the end which can be on paper or as a word document or other file);
  • having a plenary at the end to reflect on what we have done so we can plan our next steps.

In another class in the same school a literacy lesson was focussed on character and plot: the students had to create an artefact that encapsulated the key elements of Romeo and Juliet. Most of the students had chosen to make a video trailer. During the lesson groups of students were filming each other acting out scenes from Romeo and Juliet; discussing their scripts; and editing their trailers. The teacher circulated talking to students about characterisation and plot. Never once did he touch or talk about the technology the students were using. After the lesson he explained that as the students were using their own technology brought in from home they didn’t expect him to know how to use it. That meant that he could focus on the literacy objectives whilst they dealt with the digital technology issues.

In another school, a Year 5 class were asked to write about a recent trip, and some students couldn’t remember features of the town that they had visited. So, those students got out a laptop, opened up Google Street View and virtually re-visiting the town. They jotted down a couple of notes, put the laptops away, and then continued their written work. The teacher in this class was not digital technology confident, but knew that the students were so trusted them to use the digital technology appropriately. As long as the students focused their attention on the learning intention of that class, the teacher was happy for them to use digital technology to help.

The key things which underpin the examples above were that the teachers trusted the students and whilst the teacher focused on what the students had to learn they allowed the students to make decisions about how best to learn it (within the constraints of the particular task that the teacher had set).

Activity: What digital technology could our students have access to, that we don’t currently encourage them to use because of our own (lack of) confidence in using it? Do ‘we’ really need to know how to use it – could the students use it independently of us?

Key point: Giving students opportunities to choose how to do things in class doesn’t have to mean totally changing how or what you teach (but will change how and what they learn).

The students will be distracted from learning
This is one of the most common excuses for not using digital technology in schools. However, it seems to be more of a problem for teachers who don’t trust and empower their students than for those who do. That’s about classroom management, not digital technology.

In the previous examples the teachers were aware of issues to do with cyber bullying, accessing inappropriate materials, the need to manage online identities, and the risks of engaging with ‘strangers’ online. Their attitude was that it was better to work with students to educate them about how to manage these risks rather than just depending on blocking and filtering. The IT technician from the school in Perth encapsulated this by pointing out that the students in his school all had smartphones and access to free WIFI from McDonalds (which was accessible from the school playground) - he wanted the school WIFI to provide the students with the best possible Internet connectivity so that they chose to use it, because then at least he could monitor what they were doing.

When students are used to using digital technology, and when they are used to having the choice about using it whenever it adds value to their learning, they tend not to spend as much time using it as students who have less opportunity and access. Instead, students dip in and out of using digital technology as they see relevant. This was evident in a school in Scotland where teachers set tasks for the students but allowed them to choose how to tackle those tasks – whether to work alone or with others and what technologies to use – and students were observed choosing NOT to use digital technology for some activities.

Activity: Observe a number of classes – if possible within and beyond your own school. Look at how the students engage with digital technology – do they get excited about ‘the iPads coming out’ as if it’s a rare treat, or do they more fluidly choose and use different digital technology in the same way they might pick up a pencil or book? Ask the students what choices they have and how they feel this impacts upon their learning. What do they focus on – the tools, or the learning? What does that tell you?

Key point: normalising the use of digital technology can reduce the risk of it distracting students from the intended learning focus.

In conclusion
There are lots of excuses for not using digital technology but many of them are just that – excuses. You have much more scope to try things out in your classroom than you might think. There are lots of things that you can do in practice, many of which don’t require major changes. If you trust and empower your students they will reward you with their engagement and independence.

This series of blog posts was written by Fiona Aubrey-Smith and Peter Twining.

Posts in the series include:

1. Trust, Empowerment and Learning with Digital Technology
2. Trust and empowerment of teachers
3. What can you do in practice?
4. Trust and empowerment of students
5. But I can't because ...
6. In conclusion - expanding possibilities


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