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Do your EdTech Tools Really Innovate Student Learning?


In 2009, after a brief hiatus to stay home with my young children I returned to the classroom. I taught a 6th grade gifted integrated English language arts and social studies program. Right out the gate, I asked students to write a narrative essay describing the theme of their life. I used this piece as both a baseline assessment of their writing skills and an opportunity to learn more about my students as people. While the assignment helped me accomplish my goals, my learning was much greater; by giving this assignment I also discovered Google Docs.

No one taught me about Google Docs. I didn’t hear about it in a training. I didn’t read about it on Twitter.  My students and I “found” Google Docs by conducting a Google search for “share papers without printing or emailing.” My students and I had a problem. We were equally frustrated with the tedious process of printing or emailing essays back and forth as attachments. So, we found a solution.

No one in my building had even heard of Google Docs. Moreover, some of my colleagues (at the time) questioned the safety and integrity of using a web-based medium for student assignments. Nonetheless, my students and I pressed forward with using Google Docs. Initially, (and by initially I mean for an entire school year) we used Google Docs entirely wrong. I had all students log into my account and create documents with their names, rather than create accounts and share with me. But, this was a start. 

Google Docs (now G Suite for Education) continues to revolutionize innovative possibilities for both teaching and learning. I could write a blog post on this alone. However, with the quantity of EdTech products of on the market (2174 available products to be exact) I find too often that anything “technology” is oftentimes considered to be an “innovative” learning tool, and frankly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Basically, I see that there are three types of EdTech tools:

1) Tools that allow for student and teacher innovation (examples: movie making tools, blogging tools, infographic makers, Google Apps for Education)

2) Tools that can make the tasks that surround student learning more efficient (adaptive assessments, student performance platforms, Google, YouTube)

3) Tools that make teaching more efficient (automatic grading programs)

There is absolutely a time and place for all types of tools.  But, I caution all educators to ask themselves:

“Are your EdTech tools innovating student learning or are they trying to replace the teacher?”

Specifically, is there a tool that you are using to make your job easier but adds little or no value for students?

I think back to my impetus for using Google Docs. My students and I had a mutual need; we wanted to be able to collaborate on the same document, we wanted to be better able to manage drafts of papers, we wanted to avoid printing issues. We found a tech solution that met that our need in Google Docs. Google Docs enabled more effective and efficient collaboration methods and feedback capabilities. However, it still allowed me (the teacher) to gain insight about my students and discover their passions. Having this information was critical for me. I needed this knowledge to help students pursue their passions (view examples here).

Teachers and students will always have needs and will always look for solutions. For example, I recently saw a tweet from an educator who asked for recommendations for the “best app or program to grade essays and short answer questions.”  Many people responded with suggestions, but it seemed that even more offered words of caution about using a tech tool for a skill that really requires the human brain:  sentence length can cause erroneous scores,grammar errors that are actually correct are highlighted as being wrong, no ability to understand student voice or inflection. Regardless of the disclaimers, apps that have been created to grade student writing may make teaching more efficient but they certainly do not promote innovation or help foster a growth mindset in our students. In fact, due to the lack of appropriate feedback and removal of the human relationship piece that is vital to learning, I believe tools like this may be detrimental to promoting creativity, which is a key component of innovation.

I do realize the problem automated grading systems solve: having to physically grade.  In the traditional sense of the word, grading takes a lot of time… for the teacher. Writing can also take a lot of time…for the student.  Time is an extremely valuable commodity, but so is learning. If a tech tool only makes teaching more efficient it really isn’t an innovation tool at all- it’s simply a way to remove the teacher from the assessment process.  Of course, there are times when this can be helpful (i.e. multiple choice items, true/false questions, etc.).  But when students are being asked to share their thinking through writing, a computer algorithm just can’t do what a teacher can do with regard to critical feedback or feedback beyond spelling and grammar check.

Think about it. This may not be a popular notion, but it’s true. Some tools may solve a problem only for teachers which is totally fine. But, some of these tools do so at the expense of student learning.

Therefore, I caution educators to give great consideration to the Edtech tools that are used with the intention of helping increase student learning. Instead of looking to tools to solve all issues, reach out to your PLN for potential solutions which might not involve technology, but will require a true innovator’s mindset- solving a problem in a way that, at first, you didn’t realize was possible.

I’ll get the ball rolling, besides using automated grading systems, what other methods have you found helpful to efficiently give students adequate feedback? Please share.

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