Is Technology a Tool?

toolsIs Technology a Tool? As a former math teacher I am convinced that I could teach math with chalk, a chalkboard, and a few $0.99 calculators. I am also convinced that by the end of the semester my students would show good scores and growth on their various summative assessments. So if I can arrive at the ultimate goal of improved student learning with minimal use of technology, why complicate my already busy life with a multitude of apps and devices? In other words, some people view technology as a means to an end. It is a tool that can help us achieve our goals in the classroom in relation to student achievement and growth. Like a hammer or wrench, some would argue that technology should be reserved for only when it is necessary. While the acceptance of technology in the classroom as a useful tool is a step above the rejection or the begrudging acceptance of technology, it is still a view that is many degrees removed from both what is best for our students in the short and long-term, and what is in alignment with our responsibilities as educators. Technology, and its implementation in the classroom should be viewed as an end in itself, not simply as a tool to achieve the delivery of information. When technology integration is viewed as being worthy to study along with the required curriculum standards then the initial resistance towards the front-loaded effort to gain proficiency in a specific program is lessened.

So, as a former math teacher, I certainly could teach with chalk and a chalkboard. I might even be able to show decent gains on standardized tests, maybe. But let’s take a look at what advantages there may be when one adopts the view of technology as an end, as a necessary proficiency, rather than simply a tool.

Differentiated instruction

Differentiated instruction has been one of the most difficult aspects of my teaching career to successfully implement. It is hard enough to teach one overarching classroom lesson, assign individual and small group work, and then evaluate and provide feedback to students. As teachers, it is not enough to provide duplicated lessons, delivery approaches, evaluation criteria, and feedback to our students. We are tasked with the often impossible goal of providing different students with multiple pathways to engage with the curriculum. That sounds really hard to do for one teacher surrounded by 20-40 students. For those teachers who teach multiple subjects or grade levels this means that each individual class must now have differentiated assignments.

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Last year I taught math to ELL students in grades 6-10. I had five distinct classes, each a different grade level. Within each of those different grade level classes there was a wide range in terms of math exposure and ability. If for each of these classes I modified the assignment and prepared for differentiated instruction that would mean essentially creating 10-15 different activities per night. With the use of an interactive math app that provided students with real-time feedback and modified question complexity based off of previous answers, students were able to learn at their own pace, and at the appropriate level of complexity. As a teacher I was able to monitor all students’ analytics simultaneously and make conscious decisions about how to group students for peer to peer support and where the best use of my time was to be spent. As a class we experienced a burst of efficiency and growth as the technology allowed me to essentially be in more than one place at a time.

Preparation for the modern world

Knowledge of the curriculum standards, regardless of the level at which our students understand them, is not enough without the ability to utilize them through the application of technology within a high-tech environment. The 21st century learning environment should mimic the one in which our students will be competing for jobs, contributing their expertise, and expressing their creativity. The complexity of many modern issues require collaborative teams of specialist who can analyze, problem solve, and communicate, through a technology-based medium.

Increased student engagement

The introduction of devices or apps into the classroom will not magically produce student engagement, at least on a sustainable, long-term level. Student engagement is largely a product of skillful teaching and classroom management. Similarly, the amount of screen-time that a student has logged is not equivalent to the amount of time they are engaged with their lesson. Students who are shopping for shoes and chatting on their computers can look just as engaged as the student who is working on their research project. With that being said, technology can be fun, quick, efficient, and informative. Technology integration in the classroom can help our students direct their own learning and research as well as develop and publish their finished work in a manner that is engaging to the consumer or reviewer.

Equity in learning

Technology integration into the classroom can help promote the higher levels of the Building Equity Taxonomy (Smith, Frey, Pumpian, & Fisher, 2017). Level three of the taxonomy (which rests on the foundation of physical integration and social-emotional engagement) is the Opportunity to Learn. This level is concerned with ensuring that students have access to challenging curriculum that is appropriate for their learning level. Ensuring the opportunity to learn means that students have relevant and interesting work that can meet them where they are and that has the potential to provide them with an equitable outcome. Technology based learning tools can help deliver the differentiated instruction in accordance with appropriate task complexity.

The next level up the pyramid is that of Instructional Excellence. Part of instructional excellence is creating a student-centered classroom in which collaboration ad independent learning are promoted. Teachers are not necessarily the oracle of information but instead are guides to help students navigate the complex web of information available to them.

Lastly, part of an equitable school and classroom is one in which there are engaged and inspired learners. The final measure of whether or not a classroom is an equitable one is not determined by the actions of the teacher but instead by the type of learning that is taking place. We want our students to be more empowered and to be creators rather than passive consumers of information and content. Technology allows them cost effective and creative ways to express themselves to audiences large and small. It provides students with avenues for participation and assessment beyond traditional standardized measures.

It’s part of the job

Integrating technology into our instruction is more than just a tool, it’s a critical element of our job. Rather than reach for it when we need it, like a hammer and nail, opportunities to involve technology in our instruction should be sought after as we work to create a 21st century learning environment. Integration of technology is in alignment with the Issaquah School Districts mission; “Our students will be prepared for and eager to accept the academic, occupational, personal, and practical challenges of life in a dynamic global environment.” In addition, the School Board created a list of Ends based upon input from various stakeholders. One these Ends is that; “Students will understand and apply current and emerging technologies to extend their personal abilities and productivity.”

The use of technology in the classroom is much more than a tool to achieve certain curriculum objectives, it is an end in itself.
Smith, N., Frey, N., Pumpian, I., & Fisher, D. (2017). Building Equity, Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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