Fall 2018

Technology and Student Engagement

What Educational Leaders and Teachers Need to Know

It is amazing to me how in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education. . . we ignore the most fundamental of causes. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. . . . an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. . . .  the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology. (Prensky, 2001, p. 14)

Prensky made this statement over seventeen years ago, and it is equally relevant today. Digital technology is ubiquitous in the lives of our students, both in and out of the classroom. In an effort to keep up with today’s generation of learners, we bring technology into our classrooms and schools as a means to communicate, to share information, and even to attract student attention due to its perceived novelty and variety (Dietrich & Balli, 2014). We do our best to mirror technological “trends in youth activities, attitudes, and behaviours” (Mesch, 2009, p. 50), despite the fact that many students “have more technology in their bedrooms than they are often allowed to use in today’s classrooms” (Dieker & Hines, 2014, p. 47).

As educators, we use technology because we believe that it gives our students a competitive edge. We rely on technology to prepare students for the future (Tucker, 2012), to increase opportunities for collaboration and communication (Dede, 2014; Sawang et al., 2017), to expose them to different perspectives and the global world (Bidwell, 2014; Dede, 2014), to enhance self-efficacy and student control over learning (Dietrich & Balli, 2014), and to create increasingly complex and dynamic learning environments (Callow & Orlando, 2015; Wright et al., 2013).

But is technology really worth all the hype? Or have its consequences been under-examined (Morozov, 2013). Some research indicates that technology results in increased cognitive load on students (Moreno, 2013), “‘‘infomania,’ a condition of reduced concentration and mental performance” (Rose, 2010, p. 42), perpetual interruption (Friedman, 2006), struggle to concentrate and contemplate (Carr, 2008), and the erosion of long-term attention (Marks, 2000).

The bottom-line? While technology is one of the most important resources available in the 21st century (Okwumabua, Walker, Hu, & Watson, 2010), the research literature is inconclusive about its consequences and its relationship to student engagement.

There is a “commonplace assumption . . . that all learners are excited” by the use of technology (Gibson, 2001, p. 38). To explore this assumption, we immersed ourselves in the culture and social dynamics of an Ontario Grade 11 English classroom, situated in a technologically-inclusive school, with an experienced teacher. We equipped ourselves with possible consequences, and as ethnographers, we deeply hung out (Coles & Knowles, 2001). We asked about, observed, and reviewed the use of technology by students and teacher trying to understand the link between technology and student engagement (Wolcott, 1992).

What do we mean by student engagement?

Student engagement is an active process that permeates students’ experience of school (Oblinger, 2004). Engagement includes participating in class discussions and learning activities, asking questions, responding orally or in writing, emailing or posting responses or comments, bringing questions and problems to class, and probing deeply into research problems (Garrett, 2011). It requires that students know that they have been heard and that their voice matters (Wilms, 2011). Engagement happens when students are informed and empowered to speak their mind and give feedback on learning learning (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2018).

What does the research have to say about the role of the teacher in technologically-rich classrooms?

The role of the teacher is critical in any classroom (Wilms, 2011), but even moreso in a technologically-rich classroom (Yildirim & Kiraz, 1999). Teachers of 21st century learners need to be digitally resilient, willing to take risks alongside their students, recognizing that their students may have more expertise with technology than they do. They need to have effective leadership skills knowing when and how to let students take the lead in the use of technology; they need to effectively model appropriate and acceptable technology use. They need rich world experiences that allow them to understand that technology is not a quick fix, but simply a tool that supports the teaching-learning process. They need to have positive attitudes towards inclusion and the many ways that technology can support this goal while being wary of its potential to detract from it. Finally, they need to listen in to what students are saying in words and in action with regard to technology.

In particular, teachers in technologically-rich classrooms do the following things:

Recognize the link between their pedagogical beliefs and the use of technology in the classroom.In addition to designing instructional materials or delivering lessons, technology needs to be effectively and meaningfully integrated into teaching and learning (Gorder, 2008). Technology use needs to be guided by sound pedagogy and the overall purpose or goal of learning, not simply used for technology’s sake (Bull & Bell, 2008). New technologies will require innovative pedagogies.

Use technology in ways that support constructivist pedagogies. Students engage with classroom technology when it allows them “to create meaning [and] make connections” (Singer, 2014, p. 173). Technology should be part of knowledge creation not simply provision of information (Lambropoulos, 2009). It should not isolate students but involve them in collaborative and constructive communication. If we want to truly engage our learners, we need to move beyond didactic toward more constructivist pedagogies (Taylor & Parsons, 2011) that allow them to “explore different applications for the knowledge and skills they have learned” (Scott, 2015, p. 4).

Negotiate effective and productive use of technology. Rather than “decid[ing] for our students; we must decide with them” (Prensky, 2001, p. 3); the voice of the learner should be part of the process of curriculum design and implementation (Jagersma & Parsons, 2011). Importantly, they need teaches who effectively model appropriate, acceptable, effective, and productive use of technology. Finally, students require a balance of unstructured, structured, and directed learning situations to develop functional technology skills that emerge from an understanding of what students want and need to engage in the classroom.

What do the students in this inquiry have to say about the use of technology, both theirs and that of their teacher?

Over the course of the semester, we attempted to figure out what motivates and engages students (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012); students participated in focus groups, conversations, surveys, and ongoing classroom work. Engaging 21st century learners with, or without, digital technology is increasingly complex; there is no one-size-fits all approach. Students in this inquiry, however, offered the following insights about the use of technology:

Leave the teaching to the teacher.Students indicated that if they wanted to learn through technology, they would have taken an online course. In their opinion “teachers should be physically teaching” and technology should not be used to “giv[e] information to regurgitate and retain.” Some were in favour of excluding technology from lessons, preferring a talk and interact format, using it only for “fun activities” that allow for practice or reinforcement of a lesson.

Use technology in interactive and collaborative ways. In students’ opinion,technology is engaging “if it is used right,” and offers “two-way” opportunities to interact, collaborate, explore, understand, and share ideas with each other and their teacher. Technology allows them to connect with their peers, the teacher, and the global world; this makes it  “easier to recollect and retain information” and “say ‘here’s my idea, and here’s what I’ve put in to your work.’”

Use technology to support our learning styles. Students report that technology allows them to have “multiple things open side-by-side;” they like being able to research, work on assignments, and/or listen to music all at the same time. English language learners report that technology is helpful in understanding the text because it makes way more sense,” thus supporting their understanding of classroom concepts, texts, and ideas.

Take note of how and when technology distracts us. Students recognize that technology “is a distraction” that often gets “annoying,” but they are unwilling to give up the “privilege of constant access” to their personal technology. They would rather learn life strategies to manage their technology both in and outside of the classroom; these putting the phone “in [a] backpack”, ensuring it is “on silence”, and “turning [the phone] over and not looking at it.”

Recognize that inappropriate technology use might mean that we need help. Students report that playing with a cell phone might look like they do not want to do the work, but that is not a fair assumption; it might mean that they need help. Technology may act as a way to disengage when a task is too difficult or when they encounter a struggle or obstacle; the distraction is better than looking “dumb.”

Guide us to use technology appropriately and responsibly. Students know that living in a digital world means that they need to learn how to responsibly use technology, but they struggle with unclear expectations and inconsistent rules. They realize that even in a school with policies, the teacher is the ultimate gatekeeper for what is appropriate and acceptable and what is not. They appreciate gentle guidance and redirects that help them “get back on track” and realize “how much time has been wasted.”

Plan for us to unplug. When students are offered legitimate opportunities for movement, talk, and collaboration, they resist the allure of technology and engage fully in classroom tasks. Tasks that require them to plan and brainstorm with pen and paper, allow them to “think more openly,” “see more clearly,” and develop “more complex ideas by drawing and making physical connections that tap into the creative part of their brains.” Some feel a great sense of accomplishment when producing work in writing.

Concluding Remarks

There is no doubt that technology can be a tool to support engagement, but there is also no doubt that it has the potential to distract and detract from learning as well; it warrants careful and thoughtful use (Frazier & Bailey, 2012) and ongoing discussion with students. Technology alone does not give students a competitive edge, but it is instead the skilful integration and negotiation of technology with the teacher that makes the greatest difference. Setting our students up for success requires teachers who openly discuss preferences for learning, negotiate technology use for learning, and attend carefully to what students are saying and doing. Technology is not a panacea to education; it is simply one more tool that allows us to meet students where they are and enhance their overall learning experience (Saunders & Gale, 2011).

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Sunaina Sharma is a secondary English teacher and department head. She is a recent graduate of Nipissing University’s PhD in Education (Educational Sustainability) program. Her research explores how digital technologies engage and disengage students. By listening in to what students say and don’t say, she strives to cultivate a learning environment that engages, challenges, and informs her students.

Michelann Parr is professor in the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. She currently teaches in the PhD program at Nipissing. Over the years, she has researched the inclusive use of technology in the classroom with a focus on text-to-speech and speech-to-text technologies; from students, she learned that the use of technology is about the right to choose when and where, the right to use without question, and the right to refuse.

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