Make a prediction: how would you think a student today would answer these questions?

  1. If you were creating a classroom, what would it look like?
  2. If you could introduce more technology to your school, what would it be?

In early August, I attended the JET conference at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. This week-long whirlwind conference explored practical technology applications for educators as well as more theoretical ideas about the intersection of education and technology. As part of the conference, groups of teachers had the opportunity to interview middle school students about their use of technology and what they envisioned for themselves as learners in a classroom.

So what kind of answers would we expect? More technology, right?

The past five years have seen our classrooms and curriculums saturated with technology. One would be hard-pressed to find a professional development conference for teachers or a school staff meeting that didn’t at the very least mention some way of incorporating technology in the classroom. Despite this ubiquity, however, it’s important to remember that this revolution is in its nascent stages, and no consensus has been reached as to how exactly to implement educational technology. For example, some educators use technology that is a replacement of old technologies; paper and pencils have given way to word processing. Other teachers are redefining the way we think about education and student learning.

We’ve been told that in order to prepare students for the 21st century -- for jobs we can’t yet even imagine -- we need to incorporate technology into our practice at all available opportunities. Some feel that we have to communicate using students’ preferred methods (Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr) or we won’t reach them. If we don’t find a way to engage them in class like the way a video game engages them, this line of thinking alleges, they won’t be able to learn. Is this true? Do they want more technology? Let’s ask the kids.

But, They Want to be Offline, Too...

In a previous article, we explored the idea that labeling this generation of students “digital natives” is problematic. But given the emphasis that the education world is placing on incorporating technology as much as possible into our classrooms, we thought that this was reflecting a trend in the way that students wanted to operate. We hear about 21st century brains, and how these students process information differently; therefore, the reasoning goes, we should therefore change our teaching styles accordingly. When I asked middle school students the questions listed at the beginning of this article, here is an example of the responses I received from this small student sampling:

  1. If you were creating a classroom, what would it look like?

It would be interactive and have a lot of activities. It should be half and half activities and lecture. I do like when it’s more open, but it is important for us to know what lecture looks like because we might have to do that later. The tables should be set up in a circle so we are all facing each other and talking.

  1. If you could introduce more technology to your school, what would it look like?

I guess I’d put a new modem. Maybe fix the Smartboards. They don’t work too well. The colors get super messed up; sometimes the screen just flashes red, blue, and yellow.

Many would view these students as lucky. They come from a school that has numerous educational technology tools already in place. These students are not wanting for technology access. Since these students grew up with technology never much farther than an arm’s length away, we were expecting to hear responses like, “we should play on more iPad apps during class,” or “social media should be used more in school.” It turns out, however, that in this group of students, many talked as if they craved more human interaction, and wanted to unplug more during class. In our classroom, too, many students prefer to take tests and notes by hand rather than on a computer. In fact, our students and these students we interviewed have been around technology so much, that when they were asked questions about technology, they had a hard time understanding the question (what do you mean, technology?). Technology isn’t technology for our students--it’s just part of their lives.

As Ito et al., (2008) explained in their study about social media and children, students are extending their offline relationships to the online social media world, learning important rules about socializing and cultural norms. What the interview with the students suggests is that students need that offline time to build those friendships--and that the classroom is one of the important times where some offline social learning occurs.

If Tech is not Available, Students Want it

We were wondering how much these students’ responses reflected the fact that educational technology was not a novelty for them. Would they have the same “take it or leave it” attitude toward technology if their school (and their home lives) did not provide them with this high level of access? We asked our colleague Aaron Brock, who works with eighth graders in the Compton School District; his students have very limited access to technology both in the classroom and at home. Many of his students said that they wanted more technology in the classroom (more iPads, computers, Smart TVs, access to their SmartPhones). One student talked about why he or she wanted more technology: “It would be iPads so you can send your homework through the iPad and if you need help finding a word you can just search it up on the Internet on your phone.” Everyone else said that learning would be better with more tech.

These students want technology because they believe that education with technology will be better. And it can be-- technology can allow students to engage with information in new ways, and students should have the resources of the Internet, the creative outlets of apps like iMovie, and the improvements to written and visual expression that technology allows. Ultimately, they ask for it because they don’t have it; likely they realize that technology can help streamline the education process and allow access to a wealth of information. Conversely, students and educators alike begin to notice technology’s educational limits once they have experience using it. The students who already have easy access to technology have realized that the tech tools can help you to actualize ideas more efficiently, but ultimately, the classroom is the place where those ideas are created - in conversation with others.

This was not an exhaustive study. We simply asked the same two questions to a small handful of students who have had differing levels of access to technology throughout their education. However, their answers may be indicative of a larger trend among students: those who are accustomed to technology in school may realize its shortcomings, and want more face-to-face interactions; those who are not accustomed to technology may think that education is simply better with technology access. We will need to do further research in order to substantiate this, but if it is true, it has interesting implications for the future of educational technology.

Incorporate Tech Meaningfully, Not as Simply a Vehicle for Engagement

We are proponents of meaningful technology use in the classroom; we have a paperless classroom where curriculum is accessed online, where students can watch videos of instructions and skills demonstrations, where students can check their assignments and grades online, and where students use tech tools like Prezi and iMovie to convey their knowledge. We have used Skype and other forms of remote connectivity. We come from the school of thought that the access to information that technology grants is freeing and allows the students to approach new learning more critically--and that this access should be available to all students (lack of access to educational technology is a terrible symptom of much larger educational problems which we haven’t even touched here). Yet, we underestimated the value that the students find in connecting with their teachers and peers.

Educators say not to incorporate technology for technology’s sake, but more often than not, it is assumed that a new tech tool will effectively engage students. We need to look at the purpose of the learning, and then look to see what role technology plays within that purpose. We can't assume that our students will be more engaged just because technology is involved. As teachers, we shouldn’t be taking away real opportunities for students to engage with each other and simply replacing those opportunities of connection with technology. We are all human. We all want to connect face to face---even the “digital natives.”

References cited:

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Herr-Stephenson, B., Lange, P., ...Robinson L. (2008) Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning, November 2008.

Photos: from