A few years ago, I was at an event run by a UK training provider when I found myself reflecting on digital use around the room. Almost every delegate had one or two electronic devices (such as a laptop, phone or tablet), and they were busy using them whilst the speaker was talking.
Some delegates were using their devices to take notes and to follow up references from the speaker. However, a quick glance around the room suggested that most people were checking their emails. Just in the same way that we might complain that technology is distracting our students, technology is also distracting us. This raised a lot of questions for me. For one thing, if we genuinely believe as teachers that we can listen intently and check our emails at the same time, why do we stop our students from doing the same thing? Is multi-tasking of this kind possible, or are we demonstrating bad practice ourselves? Should we develop our own listening skills by putting devices away if we can’t use them properly? Were the delegates at that event missing out on key learning points because they were unable to put their mobile devices down?
These are interesting questions but the questions do not stop there. The particular talk I was attending did not invite audience participation. It was not delivered in an engaging manner and it repeated information that most delegates had heard several times before at previous events. The speaker did not choose tasks which promoted active thinking and learning, and did not consider the prior learning of the ‘students’. Had we not had our devices, we might not have looked so obviously distracted, but we may not have listened to any more of the presentation.
When the next speaker came to the stage, she could not have been more different. She was engaging, covered relevant and highly thought-provoking subject matter, and posed a lot of very interesting questions for consideration. The atmosphere in the room changed at once. All emails were put aside and the only use of technology I saw was frantic note-taking or live-tweeting in order not to miss a single word that was said. Our use of technology was meaningful. It added to our experiences because we had easy-to-read notes which we could store effectively and share easily with colleagues. In other words, a more engaging speaker or teacher will often encourage greater focus and a better use of technology.
However, great learning is about much more than being entertained. In 2015 I attended Cambridge Schools Conferences in Dubai and Cambridge. At these events technology was used to enhance learning in a forward-thinking way through use of the conference app. During the plenary sessions I took part in thought-provoking discussions with other delegates. The speakers were engaging and interesting, and we were not simply being entertained. Instead, we were thinking actively about what was being said and adding to a rich debate by making contributions to digital discussions. We were even ‘joined’ by a colleague back in the Cambridge office who was following our discussions through the app. When we broke into smaller groups we carried on using the app, sharing our findings with other groups, raising questions, debating the answers, and highlighting further reading. We were recording what we heard as well as thinking about how we applied what we heard to our own thinking and learning. Technology was being used in a powerful way to develop our learning. Even after the conference, delegates were using the app to share how they had applied some of what they’d learnt back in the classroom.
As teachers, we need to be aware that our students can be distracted by their electronic devices. We need to help them understand the importance of self-discipline, and we need to reflect on our own practice to see if we are challenging student thinking sufficiently in our lessons. However, I believe that we should also be thinking about how we can use technology in a meaningful and creative way. Technology does not have to be a threat to learning. As teachers, we want our students to think. We want them to ask questions about what they are learning, to consider how it connects to what they already know, and to think about what they will do with this new knowledge.
What are your experiences of using technology in the classroom? What effect has it had on your teaching and your students’ learning?
Image: Cambridge Schools Conference delegates engaging in discussion on the conference app.