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I’m approaching the twenty year mark since I graduated to become a teacher in Northern Ireland. I haven’t taught exclusively for that time – I went out to work in scientific equipment sales (family business for three years), and then web development (working for a marketing company and then freelancing for 3 years) before returning to education to work in the FE sector, before moving to a post-primary grammar school. In that time, technology has changed dramatically. When I started teaching, data projectors and interactive whiteboards where the big ticket items. The iPhone was still a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye. Steve Jobs was still alive. Now it’s all Microsoft Surface Pro and hybrid learning. The technology will always change, but good teaching will always be good teaching.

Simply putting technology in front of students isn't going to engage them in your lesson.

While I am a great supporter of using technology in teaching, I am also a cautious supporter. In my last job, our department manager got us a 3-D printer and a VR computer. All very exciting, but being honest, the 3D printer was used once a year when students completed a startup business project, until the lecturer who ran this project left, then it sat in my room as a futuristic ornament. The VR computers were even more disappointing – none of us had time to learn what we could do with it or how it could be applied to our modules, so it also sat as an even more expensive ornament – a testament to the spend-it-or-lose-it nature of college budgets, unused and unloved.

IT hardware needs to have a clear purpose in its use. If it’s not clear to the teacher, then chances are (as with the two examples above) the hardware will not be used to its full capacity.

Is There a Better Way to Use Tech Hardware?

If we can find out what types of technology students are using at home or outside of school then we have a window into what types of hardware will result in engagement with digital tools in classrooms. Do they enjoy digital drawing? Music-mixing tools? Storytelling apps? Coding or programming? Making/editing movies or designing games? Schools might not be able to guarantee the budget for exactly the same technology, but there may be more cost-effective alternatives with similar features (compare Adobe Photoshop with Photopea or Pixlr as one example) that will allow us to introduce the topic to them in school and help develop their love for the subject, which could become an option for study in university or a future career option in later years.

Tinker and Play to Develop Confidence

The first part of this point is specifically for school management. When given a shiny nice new toy to use in the classroom, teachers need time to figure it out and learn about what we can do with it. The key factor here is time. By giving teachers time to work out what they can do with new hardware, you allow them to build their confidence and competence using the technology and they will figure out ways to include it in their teaching. Teachers will also begin to think about how to use it in new ways that enhance learning for the students.

Offer Opportunities for Collaboration and Production With Technology Tools.

Going Digital Should Enable Collaboration

Twenty-first-century skills frameworks all feature the need for developing collaboration skills and producing a product. Technologies like Google Docs, Forms, Slides, and Draw are easy ways to encourage collaboration in the classroom. Technologies like Tinkercad and SketchUp are interesting choices for designing or engineering prototypes, which are inherently production-centered tasks.

Offering pupils opportunities to produce movies, comics, podcasts, and presentations require planning, and there are a host of collaboration and storyboarding apps that can help teachers guide students through the planning and design phase. But the benefits of these types of tasks can ignite new interests for pupils. Using technology in conjunction with a physical activity, tangible learning, or “making something” often serves to enable students make deeper connections in learning.

Critical Questions to Ask

We need to be capable of asking the hard questions – but in a way that doesn’t seem like an attack to the person leading or that we are being problematic. Were we are talking about using technology, it needs to be meaningful and clear for the teacher – sometimes it isn’t entirely clear and so asking questions to remove the doubt or difficulty is required.

Here are three questions we should ask about everything we do in the classroom:

  1. Is there evidence of its positive impact on learning?
  2. Does the gadget/tool do the work of the brain?
  3. Do all students have access to this technology?

These questions are designed to make teachers think about the why. Why are we using this tool – what can it offer that enhances the task or aids pupils to learn more about the subject? What skills are being developed by using the tools?

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get excited about new tech toys – we’re all (mostly) the same. My latest thing is looking at cars with digital dashboards – there is something that excites me about customisable data. Who knew that being able to see navigation, speed and lane assist (rather than my rev counter) would be so interesting?

The point here is exactly the same as in the classroom – what extra value does this add to my driving? How does technology help you to achieve your learning aims with your class? How does technology provide a more engaging learning session? Without careful planning, learning design and clear intentions the lesson with technology might be no more engaging than without it. And if technology cannot offer an improvement in how you teach your classes then why bother?

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