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Learning First, Technology Second: How we know if technology is doing its job in our classrooms.

Did you know that over 77% of the websites and applications created for education have little or no empirical research on how they directly impact student learning (Cooney Report)? The 23% of tools that do conduct research focus on the esthetics or ease of navigation, having nothing to do with actual learning growth or cognition.  The overwhelming number of digital tools (over 100,000 in the app stores) and the lack of research makes it tough for teachers to know which tools are the right choices for leveraging learning in their classroom.

While, it is clear there is no magic bullet when it comes to technology in learning, over the past decade, education research has uncovered some significant findings. First, the learning objectives should guide the tool selection, and not allow the tool to take control of the lesson. Second, technology best leverages learning when social, joint-engagement is involved (human to human contact). Third, technology enhances learning when higher-level thinking skills, such as reflective practices are built into or around the use of the tool. Finally, tools should help to extend learning to bridge student’s everyday life experiences and their academic learning.  

The University of Michigan, School of Education has developed an open source and simple assessment tool, based on the aforementioned research, to use when developing and evaluating lessons that integrate technology. The tool is called the Triple E Framework and is featured in ISTE’s latest book, Learning First, Technology Second.  Below we take a look at the three pieces of the framework (engagement, enhancement and extension) and what the elements of this framework look like to leverage technology in K-12 classrooms.

Technology should foster engagement in learning goals

Learning is socially constructed, in particular from human to human contact when using digital devices (Zach & Barr, 2016). This is extremely important to remember when working in a one-to-one school, where students are sometimes isolated with their own device. Look for tools that allow students to co-engage with others through the tool. For example, asking students to synchronously share their fiction stories in Google Docs with parents or real life editors. This allows the children to get synchronous feedback on their writing (co-engagement) and stay focused on the learning goals (editing and adding detail in writing). Or experiences such as the Michigan Student Caucus, where students throughout Michigan are collaborating and working together on proposing actual legislation for the State of Michigan. In Bullis High School in Maryland, students used Facebook to co-engage in a virtual salon, where they became historical figures and had robust synchronous dialogue. Beyond co-engaging through software, students can work together on a piece of software in the classroom, such as in this language arts lesson where students are working in teams to research Puppy Mills and creating a PSA.

Technology should enhance or add value to learning goals by eliciting higher level thinking, adding scaffolds and avoiding drill and practice

While the overwhelming majority of educational software has a drill and practice element to it, research has found that students learn better when technology helps to elicit their higher-cognitive skills such as reflective thinking, analysis, creativity, inquiry, and focusing on the process of learning. Look for tools that allow students to learn through inquiry rather than on rote memorization of facts and figures. For example in this poetry lesson, the teacher is able to use technology to help differentiate learning and provide multiple forms of representation and expression of poetry. Another example is this social studies lesson where students are using Google Earth and Ancestry.com to locate better understand where their ancestors came from and the journey that they took. The mathematical game Lure of the Labyrinth allows students to think through ideas like a mathematician by connecting the game content direct to mathematical concepts.

Technology should extend learning by helping to create an authentic context for academic learning.

Knowledge construction happens best when learning is situated in authentic contexts and students are doing authentic tasks. Look for ways that tools can help students bridge their everyday lives with their school learning, in order to make useful meaning out of the content. For example, this classroom in Ypsilanti Michigan has students use technology tools such as Google Maps and travel websites to create a road trip based on specific mathematical and geographical criteria. This 2nd grade classroom in Arizona partners with another 2nd classroom over 2,000 miles away by using Google Hangouts, Google documents and other synchronous tools to collaborate on poetry and sharing local cultural norms. Many websites now provide synchronous virtual field trips such as Discovery Expeditions, Field Trip Zoom, or Skype in the Classroom.

For more information, please check out the Triple E Framework website and ISTE’s book Learning First, Technology Second. The open source Triple E Framework rubric tools will help teachers and administrators measure lesson plans to make certain the technology tools selected for lessons actually help students to engage, enhance or extend learning goals.


(@lkolb): Clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Education Technology and MACUL Board Member.