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What Are the Most Powerful Uses of Tech for Learning?

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Student produce a web show with tablets (Brad Flickinger/Flickr)
Student produce a web show with tablets (Brad Flickinger/Flickr)

When we talk about the digital divide in education, the discussions revolve mainly around two factors: lack of access to the internet and lack of knowing how to use that access in powerful ways that can fuel learning beyond consuming content.

There are a lot of powerful tools for change available to educators and plenty of creative, inspired educators working hard to put available technology to work in classrooms. A lack of excellence is not the problem in education; access to technology and guidance for participating in the digital space in powerful ways are much bigger challenges.

That is the message Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise and former head of the Office of Technology at the US Department of Education, is spreading around the country. “When we think about students who do not have access to these kinds of powered-up learning environments, that’s a problem,” Cator said at a presentation sponsored by SVForum, a non-profit that organizes ed-tech events. From Cator's perspective, the digital learning gap can be broken down into three parts: access, participation and powerful use.


“Anybody growing up today without access to the internet and to this learning opportunity, I kind of equate it to growing up 40 years ago without a library,” Cator said. “It’s as if you only had the minds of the people around you to learn from.” Digital Promise is working to change that by providing more internet at libraries and community centers, making sure there’s wifi in schools and workplaces and working towards a goal of 24 hour access to both devices and broadband for everyone.

Although that's being addressed with efforts like pilot programs that allow library patrons to check out wifi hotspots in  New York City and Chicago public libraries, providing access is not enough.


In schools, Cator asks, does access to technology offer students more voice, for example, or allow them chances to become content creators, not just consumers? And is technology use in classrooms giving students experience on the professional tools they’ll need for work outside of school?

“We need to help kids engage in deeper learning experiences,” Cator said. “We need to move from answering questions and these light uses to a deeper way of using technology.” In her travels throughout the country, Cator sees powerful technology use in classrooms regularly. As teachers to continue to connect around professional development online, they can learn and share these ideas with one another.

“The most powerful uses are where people are producing,” Cator said. “They’re answering questions that they are intimately involved with.” She gave an example of one social studies assignment to create a narrative for the Mississippi river. Students started at the headwaters in Bemidji, Minnesota and told stories of the people and places all the way down the river’s banks to the Gulf of Mexico. They used publishing tools to create multimedia presentations: “It’s something you couldn’t do very well without technology,” Cator said.

Another great example might be to dig into a thorny question like human water use and examine why it’s important to our lives (especially in states suffering from drought). Students could then work on ways to improve the school's water use, for example. This type of project could be done at any grade level. “There are so many questions associated with water use and then when they move into solutions they might do a campaign to conserve water,” Cator said. The learning would be relevant to their lives as students at the school, and technology facilitates the project, rather than being the central element.

Karen Cator, Digital Promise
Karen Cator, Digital Promise

Students can perform, compose and record themselves easily with technology, turning their work into digital products that can live on the internet long after students have moved out of the class. And students are now able to connect globally in ways they’ve rarely been able to do before. Teachers can help students visualize complicated concepts with digital models, and students can learn to code or make robots -- projects that might have seemed fantastical when their parents were in school. The internet has made access to data and information about the world is unprecedented, letting teachers challenge students to deeply engage with the world around them.

Most often these powerful uses aren’t coming from a textbook or even a digital platform that tracks analytics, although that could be a powerful way for teachers to use technology, too. “I think it does come from the hearts and minds of teachers, especially when teachers collaborate with one another,” Cator said.

To that end, Digital Promise is pushing a new initiative called “micro-credentialing” to give teachers something to show for the many hours of learning put in around topics of interest that often don’t qualify for district sanctioned professional development. A micro-credential could be for skills like effective team building and would be displayed digitally. The micro-credential would have metadata showing who submitted it, how that person earned the badge and the artifacts that demonstrate learning.

Slowly, this effort could help legitimize the work teachers are doing voluntarily to become more effective, energized teachers. And, it brings professional development more in line with the kind of demonstrated mastery that educators expect from their students.

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