Keep It or Ditch It: A Litmus Test for School Technology

Sep 22, 2023

Walk through an expo hall at a major ed tech conference and you will see hundreds of vendors trying to convince you that the answer to education, the solution to creating student engagement, achievement, and success, is their new technology.

Or Google search ‘Learning Management System’ and see how many companies there are competing to be in your classroom, vying to be the system that manages all of your students’ activities, grades, and records.

Post on Twitter that you have banned cell phones from your classroom, and you will be met by a barrage of tweets that say that cell phones need to be in classrooms, and if you do not find a way to embrace them with your students, you are doing them a disservice.

The education world is swiftly becoming inundated with new technologies. In 2019, 40% of schools in America had a 1-1 device policy. In 2023, it's 96%. From the recent advent of artificial technology, to the furthering dependence on cell phones to operate in the 21st century, technology is woven into the school experience. As a result, teachers are having to shift their pedagogy to adapt. Teachers are constantly told, by way of articles, conferences, and administrators, that this tech needs to be utilized in the classroom in order for students to succeed.

The Flipside of New Technology in the Classroom

But most often, those conference vendors aren’t in your classroom when the WIFI goes out, and their brilliant app is useless for the rest of the day. The writers of those articles about embracing cell phones usually don’t have to manage 120 kids a day whose pockets are constantly vibrating because of text messages and Snapchat notifications. Administrators sometimes push new tech without considering what happens to that technology when they move to a different school and the new administrator wants to use different technology, leaving the instructional staff to learn a brand new system all over again.

Needless to say, ed tech can be messy.

Now before I move on, let me say this: of course we should be utilizing new technologies in the classroom. I strongly believe there is a time and place for cell phones in English class, that students should learn how to manage their time on laptops, and that teachers can use assessment tools like Kahoot to gamefy their classrooms and make quizzes competitive and fun. I am not anti-tech.

There, I got that out of the way, so no hate-emails, right?!

However, very often new technology is introduced to schools for what seems like the sake of having new technology. Whether keeping up with trends or following the attraction of shiny new tech, schools spend millions of dollars on tools they don’t actually need. And very often, this leaves teachers and students frustrated and distracted and does not actually increase student engagement. (It also leaves a bunch of Smart Boards on the walls that no one actually knows how to use).

This is why new tech that is introduced to schools should pass a litmus test before being implemented. Those hundreds of products in the expo halls may be great and exactly what certain schools need in order to engage students or make lives for teachers easier, but they should fit the following criteria first.

1. Teachers Receive Proper Training Before Implementation

Far too often, schools spend their budget on a new tech tool, only to have no money left over to train teachers in that tool. Therefore, teachers are expected to use their limited-if-any planning time, or time before or after school, to figure it out. I once was told by district administration to use a new multi million-dollar software to track student success in my classes. Great, will do.

But when I used the program, it was like trying to read hieroglyphics. I had no idea how to navigate the software, make changes, or even access the homepage. After many frustrated afternoons and what ended up being wasted time, I gave up. I stopped using it. So did the rest of the teaching staff, and the software was soon abandoned. I can only imagine how many books I could have purchased for my classroom library with the money wasted on that software.

The idea for the tech was great, and I’m sure it would’ve been effective if we knew how to use it, but there was no training. 

2. The Technology Increases Student Engagement

One of the key indicators for student success is student engagement. A highly engaged student is one who is eager to learn and grown. Technology in the classroom should serve the purpose of engaging students. This is one of the reasons some would advocate the usage of cell phones in class. Because students like being on their phones, why not take advantage of that and use them during instruction?

I couldn’t agree more!

But what often happens is that the phones lead to distraction, and therefore disengage students from the learning experience. There needs to be structure around the use of phones, and processes to ensure they engage students in the learning and not in social media. This goes for any ed tech tool. Does it engage students? Is it actually enhancing their learning or distracting them from it?

3. The Technology Teaches Transferable Skills

Let’s be honest, most of our students will never see a 3D printer after high school. Most will never edit a video using Adobe Premiere, nor will they use Google Tour Creator to map out their own museum. So if the purpose of teaching students to use these tools is just for them to learn how to use these tools, after graduation that information will be obsolete to them.

However, if by using these tools students learn new skills that they can use throughout their lives, then the tool serves a purpose. For instance, while most students may not become video editors, video editing is a great way to organize visual information and put it in an understandable sequence. From being a teacher, salesperson, or scientist, this skill applies far beyond video editing. Using an engaging video editing program can be a great way to teach students this skill. But again, if students learn and use this tool for the sole purpose of editing videos without highlighting the bigger picture, then it would not pass the litmus test for being allowed in the classroom.

4. The Technology Makes Life Easier For Teachers, Not Harder

Teachers perform time-consuming work with limited resources every day. From designing lessons to classroom management, the work is hard and complex. Ed tech should not be adding to the workload, but instead should be lessening it in some way. Of course with any new technology, there is a learning curve and a time sacrifice required, but at some point the new technology should no longer be frustrating.

And I mean not frustrating at all. If an entire staff of teachers do not like a grading app that they are required to use for whatever reason, then the app needs to be improved by the company or the school should find a better one. There is no time for ineffective technology. Developers need to receive pushback and make their products work for the specific people who are actually using them.

So let’s debrief: Education technology is good. Ed tech is worthwhile. Ed tech can serve a purpose.

Also, Education Technology can be pointless. Ed tech can be distracting. Ed tech can be a waste of time.

The trick is, we need to identify ed tech that works for teachers and students, and make sure there is proper training so that it works to its full potential. I’ve seen technology enable my students to complete work I would have never imagined when I was in school. I’ve also seen a bunch of unplugged Smart Boards with a coat of dust on their screens that cover lines of permanent marker from when the teacher forgot it wasn’t a dry-erase board (That was me...)

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