The impact of technology on kids’ learning

Technolgy learning

Technology has become a seamless part of students’ lives in and out of the classroom, and schools must find ways to integrate it. This is one of the conclusions in a report by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), which states that policymakers at the highest level need to understand the trend and form a cohesive course of action for schools to follow.

“Our kids are digitally savvy when it comes to gaming, texting, and social networking, but when it comes to information, even the best students can be digital doofuses.”

Up until now, much of the enthusiasm for education technology, blended learning, online courses and other digital aids in the classroom have come from teachers themselves. In fact, many ed-tech companies are pursuing a teacher-first strategy, opting to hook the educator and avoid the complicated bureaucracy of selling to school districts. That has left a patchwork of tools and uncertainty among some teachers who would like to take advantage of new tech tools, but aren’t sure how to get started.

“State boards of education along with their state education agencies are key to providing the leadership on education technology issues our school systems need to ensure students are ready for life and work in a digital era,” wrote the NASBE study group tasked with investigating emerging tech trends. At the same time the report acknowledges that the current landscape is a “wild, wild west” of various products and approaches. “Because of their formal responsibilities, state education systems are the only entities able to offer a sustainable platform for aligning these promising—but still fragmented and rapidly changing — forces,” the report said.


Much has been written about the cohort of students in school today, who are generally considered digital natives. Commentators frequently point out how these children have always lived with computers in their homes, cell phones in everyone’s pocket, and hundreds of channels available on their televisions. They easily adapt to every new piece of technology that arrives in the marketplace and can text as easily and quickly as adults can talk. They are constantly “plugged in.” For this generation, there is no divide between “technology” and their daily lives.

Ideally, we need school leaders who help communities think very carefully about what learning goals they have for their students, their faculty, and themselves, and then look at how technology tools can support those learning initiatives. It’s not about “using more tech” or even about “using technology to boost engagement,” since what is engagement without direction? The fundamental issue is how do we think about the kind of learning experiences that will prepare people for work, for our democracy, and for a well-lived life, and to what extent can technology support those kinds of learning experiences. – Justin Reich, Education Week

Today the combination of immense portable computing power, digital communications, and the Internet presents education with an enormous number of opportunities, challenges, and imperatives. There is the imperative, for example, that all students be digitally literate, which will require educators to meet students in the technological world where they now live in order to bring them to a new place. There are the challenges that come with ensuring students are good digital citizens—that they understand the potential consequences, negative and positive, of anything they put out on the web, understand plagiarism, and how to harness the power of technology safely, respectfully, and responsibly. Finally, there are the vast opportunities technology brings as a vehicle for enhancing the learning process through greater personalization of instruction—something leaders may need to address through policies that provide the flexibility and incentives needed to allow educators to take advantage of these opportunities.


•Today’s students have never lived in a world where the internet wasn’t in their homes and cell phones weren’t in everyone’s pockets. For them, there is no divide between “technology” and their daily lives.

•“Our kids are digitally savvy when it comes to gaming, texting, and social networking,” one expert told state board members, “but when it comes to information, even the best students can be digital doofuses.” In other words, just because they have a more intuitive grasp of how to make technology “work” doesn’t mean students automatically know how to use it as a tool for learning. Students still need to be taught foundational research skills and processes that can be enhanced by technology use. This means students—and educators—need to understand that doing research is more than just sorting through what pops up via online search engines.

•Internet information often does not have the ordered structure provided by textbooks or other resources for students. Educators need to be sensitive to this, and to their students frame of reference in regards to online searches, when integrating technology into their lessons.

•With increased access to many different types of tools for learning and socializing and ever-increasing multitasking, it has become even more important to teach students how to focus their attention.

•One of the great advantages of technology is its potential for personalizing instruction. Students are used to being able to personalize how they receive information—and when schools don’t present information in the same way, they sometimes become bored and disengaged. Instruction should be designed to take advantage of each student’s personal style of learning.

•Because online problems can cause disruptions at school, there is a role for schools to help students learn to be safe, responsible, and respectful digital citizens. But in order to do so, school teachers and staff have to be prepared and equipped to monitor and instruct students in safe environments that are close to what they will experience once the filters and monitoring are removed.


1.Address digital citizenship and digital literacy. These are relatively new areas for education leaders to address through the creation of policies and programs. It is important for policymakers to realize that every school community is different and each is starting at a different place. Some will be ready to institute integrated curricula, while others first need to create common definitions. The study group recommends that state boards urge their districts and schools to address the critical areas of digital citizenship and digital literacy and ensure that the state education department is prepared to offer resources and guidance for these discussions.

2.Design instruction to take advantage of how each student learns now. It is time to revisit what “school” is and how education policymakers can ensure that their decisions create a learning environment that best fits current learners’ needs. Policies at the state and local levels should be responsive to student’s lifestyles and behaviors at home and in the classroom.

3.Create policies that allocate resources based on data, student needs, and student, parent and stakeholder voices. These key stakeholder groups understand the complexities of the issues involved, and can provide the most accurate feedback about what solutions might work best. Additionally, providing access to student performance data to parents and students can also help them serve as an informed partner in ensuring that student study habits, methods and schedules are most conducive to learning outside of school hours.

Sometime ago, I witnessed students that were taking computer-based classes. It surprised me that they were passing their tests with ease until I figured out what they were doing. They had two screens open — one was the computer-based course and the other screen was Google, Wikipedia, or Ask Jeeves. When they ran across a question they did not know, they just looked up the answer on one of those other sites (we had to shut that capacity down in a jiffy).

This incident made me think a bit. What do teachers have to offer students when students can learn anything they want from searching for it on the Internet? Why should a student sit in class (or classes) all day long when they can find all the information they need instantly? With so much knowledge everywhere, aren’t we trying to sell a product they already have?

Come to think of it, I’m no different than those students in the computer-based learning class. When I wanted to install radiant barrier insulation in my attic all I had to do was go online and look it up. Hundreds of videos, websites, and resources popped up. I read through a few, saw that they were selling more than explaining and I went on to others. I watched a couple of how-to videos that seemed to know what they were talking about and so I used them as my model (disclaimer: installing the radiant barrier is not as easy as the videos make it appear). Voila! So with a little bit of research, I became an instant expert on something I did not know anything about previously.

Here’s another example. The other day in class, I couldn’t remember how to spell a word and before I could turn around and find a dictionary, a student had already looked it up on her phone. I had it right, but it got me thinking again. How is the instant knowledge (that is available almost everywhere) changing how students learn and view education? Deep stuff. We are not quite to the point of the science fiction concepts of instant knowledge, though rapidly science fiction becomes science fact. It seems to me that we are in a transition period, primarily because we still have a huge digital divide — some students and schools have access to technology resources, while others do not.

Even if the technology were ubiquitous (I really like that word) in school and out of school, the answer to that question is simple: Instant knowledge has changed how everyone learns because the questions we need to have answered are just a few clicks away, and this brings up more questions—Can I trust the answers? How can I double check for accuracy? What information is missing?

In the Classroom

With so much knowledge available, good and bad, for students, it boils down to a consistent focus on what they need to know. What is the role of a teacher in such a scenario? Well, we need to put aside the traditional knowledge acquisition model, “You need to know this just in case” to a new model, “You need to know this in order to (build, create, resolve, discover…) that.” The main effort of teaching shifts to designing learning environments that enable the students to realize they “need to know” certain things in order to accomplish others. How do we do this? Let me illustrate:

In my Spanish II classes, I create scenarios that motivate students to learn Spanish. For example, in order to have a reason to learn the vocabulary and phrases for travel, we recreated a hotel and the students were the employees and the guests. They created the registration forms, brochures, letter head, menus, television guides, and most importantly they researched, designed, and practiced the interactive dialogues that typically occur in hotels across the Spanish speaking world. This learning environment gave them an authentic reason to learn the verbs and the Spanish phrases that pure book-work could not provide.

The same kind of thing happens in an English class when they create newspapers, or publish books, and in social studies or history when they role-play the armistice of World War I, or the debates between Lincoln and Douglass. Science teachers do this when they design inquiry lessons about the nature of salt, or experiments concerning plant growth and fertilizer. Math teachers create rich learning environments for students to practice their skills when they set up a bakery business and students have to make financial decisions that can make the shop successful or can make it go out of business.

When the micro-computer came into vogue in schools, doomsday prophets predicted the demise of the public school teacher. Now, we have so much more technology in schools and student’s pockets, and we still have teachers. What then, will be the role of the teacher when each student can look up every answer on their wrist phone, or with their eyeglasses? My answer is that we will always need great teachers. The teacher’s role will be to motivate and inspire the students to want to learn, but for this to happen, the teacher must first provide a compelling answer to the oft-repeated question, “Why do I need to know this?”

How do you create learning environments that motivate students to learn? In my opinion, the best learning environment is beyond the 4 walls of the classroom. It is important for students to learn by experience. If they are made to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the environment around them, people will learn to appreciate nature when they have seen it first hand, are amazed by it, and that’s when they start to care about it.

We’ve just launched our organization, but we’ll be running our first Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program this summer on an arctic expedition. In my view, that is just about the best learning environment. We get students engaged using a unique approach – we teach students how to take photos and videos and teach them how to use those to create their OWN visual presentations about their experiences and about environmental preservation. On the smaller scale on which I’ve done this before, kids are so much more engaged by this full-on experience. And teaching them to use technology to communicate is a great way to help kids to express themselves, tell their stories and share their experiences. When you combine this with inspiring them to care about the environment, kids become passionate about nature conservation.


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