March will mark two years since schools had to switch to remote learning, district leaders frantically bought education tech products and teachers scrambled to make them work with their lesson plans. Today, as the Omicron variant spreads across the U.S., many schools have returned to online instruction, at least temporarily.
The result of this infusion of education technology is that it is now a permanent part of the K-12 instructional landscape, not only virtually but in the physical classroom. Some young learners, like the second- and third-graders I teach, have never known school to be anything other than tech-centered. Whether they’re at home or in an actual building, they turn on a laptop or tablet, log in to a content management system and start exploring instructional games, puzzles or videos. Every time I walk into a classroom, I’m reminded that COVID-19 has turned a generation of kids into full-fledged consumers of ed tech content.
Now they’re ready for the next step: creating that content themselves.
Today, students can make their own movies, design their own graphics and power their own robots. At Newtown Elementary School in Virginia Beach, kids have used Wixie to create language arts presentations, Dash robots to learn coding and BrainPOP to create their own animations about weather. Not only do children love using these types of tools, but research shows that active, hands-on learning can lead to higher retention rates and increased academic performance. Technology that gives students control over their education also has the potential to promote agency, the process where students begin to lead their own learning, adapt when things get tough and believe they can succeed.
Here are three tips for transforming young ed tech consumers into content creators:
1 Make students the teachers
Four years ago, my school started a program called the Hour of Power. Teachers nominate students to join me for a 45-minute lesson each month to become familiar with an ed tech tool that promotes active learning. Afterward, they go back to their classrooms and teach their peers how to use the tool. Some students are so excited to share what they’ve learned that they ask to present to other classes. It has become a huge hit with the kids, who are building enthusiasm for content creation while showing their classmates that they’ve mastered a subject.
There’s also a side benefit to the Hour of Power: Once students are comfortable with the technology, teachers are more likely to incorporate it into their lessons.
2 Don’t rescue students when they’re floundering
Many tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley say that their greatest failures led to their greatest successes. The same is true for young learners. I’ll sometimes see teachers start to “rescue” students who are struggling, whether it’s with science, STEM or a tech tool. “Hang on,” I tell them. “Let them figure it out on their own.” Learning becomes more powerful when children discover the solution themselves. For that reason, I never teach my Hour of Power learners all the features of a new tech tool, though I sometimes hint that there are “Easter eggs” hidden within. When they find them, the wide grins that spread across their faces tell me everything I need to know about teaching and learning. Then they get to share with their classmates.
3 Balance technology with other forms of learning
During remote instruction, our district’s leaders stressed the importance of finding ways other than through technology to reach students. That’s something we’ve continued as we’ve returned to the physical classrooms. For example, one of my favorite science-based lessons is on erosion. After students learn about the process from their teachers, I come in with a tub of sand and a bucket of water and show them what erosion looks like. Then, they take on the role of city engineers, with the goal of preventing their houses from washing away.
In my work as an instructional technologist, I’ve heard some teachers say students’ time could be better spent building skills in math or reading than on the trial-and-error process of experimenting with software. I’d argue that it’s not a binary choice. Content creation tools are powerful vehicles for teaching core subject matter while helping students develop into self-motivated, lifelong learners. Giving children the tools to decide what is meaningful and relevant to them has benefits that transcend subject matter.
Kevin Rickard is an instructional technology specialist at Newtown Elementary School in Virginia Beach.