How Technology Fuels Learning

San Francisco middle school students watch instructional videos on their school-issued iPads.
By Sara Nolan

What do today’s students need to learn to find success and fulfillment? In a recent report on the top ten skills that teachers think students need to learn, the belief that “the more things change…” was front and center: things like reading, writing, and critical thinking. While some squint selectively at recent reports on standardized test scores in tech-rich schools, common-sense use of technology in the classroom clearly presents opportunities for building up these essential skills. Here are just a few examples.

  • HOW TO READ: “Reading is the gateway to all knowledge,” wrote one respondent to the E-School News survey. And technology is a gateway to reading. Basic visual and audio components like books on tape in conjunction with text or any number of reading apps supports word recognition and fluency. More specialized technology like Highlighter gives students the chance to practice reading comprehension tactics, like annotating and questioning text, and allows them to start and share discussions about the text with classmates and even publishers. This kind of tech does more than help students learn how to read; it helps them read to learn.
  • HOW TO WRITE: In many traditional classrooms, writing instruction is more about product than process. Limited time, resources, and energy make it hard for even the most dedicated teacher to engage students in all the different steps of the writing process, including multiple drafts, meaningful peer and teacher review, editing, and proofreading – even formatting and layout. Using the premise of Web 2.0 – collaboration and peer-input – places the emphasis back on process. For instance, using Google Docs for writing exercises allows teachers to use time-consuming but valuable processes without limiting the exercise to a single 50-minute class period.
  • HOW TO COMMUNICATE: Walk into just about any classroom and you’re likely to find a list of school or class rules and expectations about behavior – including policies about negative comments, gossip, and bullying. Those same lessons can be taught in a way that’s relevant in kids’ lives by using social networking sites. This way, adults are able to guide students to respectful and meaningful communication – both online and off.
  • HOW TO QUESTION: Questioning has become a bit more complicated for this generation of students. One reader commented on a MindShift post about which rules are worth circumventing for teachers that his kindergartener was instructed not to ask the question “why.” It’s a different story altogether online. Though Google makes it simple to immediately find options for answers – plural – the process of thinking about the right question to ask and spotting the best answers in a long list of choices is what critical thinking is all about. (Read 12 Ways to Be More Search Savvy.)
  • HOW TO BE RESOURCEFUL: Ever since Mario and Luigi went after the princess in the tower, kids playing video games have known that the key – and the fun – is in finding the Easter eggs, those hidden nuggets that take the player and the game to a new level. In order to find them, players need to think like the game, creatively and with a firm grasp of both what information the game presents, and how to out-smart it. With low-risk consequences, they build their resilience to “failure,” and try harder to be more resourceful. Read more about how video games work as learning tools.
  • HOW TO BE ACCOUNTABLE. When students are held responsible for working together on online group projects and documents, there’s a noticeable shift of the center of responsibility for learning from the teacher to the students. And with responsibility comes accountability for themselves and their classmates.
  • HOW TO LEARN. One of the many reasons there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to education is because there’s no one-size-fits-all way to learn. Learning is a highly personal and individualized process that’s linked to who you are, where you’re from, what you already know and your learning style. At its best, and when used in smartly, tech tools help students to learn in ways that suit them best. And because they’re already comfortable and well-versed with the different media, the process of learning becomes more relevant in their lives.
  • HOW TO ENJOY LEARNING: Technology is no substitute for the human connections that help build a sense of well-being and satisfaction. But as all of the tech tie-ins listed above suggest, technology creates opportunities for students to explore, try different tactics, and exercise increments of freedom. It’s just one piece of the happiness puzzle, but it’s a piece every student should have the opportunity to find.
Sara Porto Nolan is a writer and Language Arts teacher who has worked with Bay Area students in high-need schools.

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