August. Sweltering days, sultry nights, and the distinct feeling that summer is slowly reaching its inevitable close. With the first day of school rapidly approaching, preparations for the newest crop of students are well underway as lesson plans are readied and new materials gathered. Chief among them? The latest and greatest in educational technologies.

But with this year’s students entering even more tech savvy than the year before, the question remains. How do teachers continue to use these technologies to enhance learning?

Think about this: the way that we work and play influences how technology evolves. As such, new technology developments are more than a fancy tool to get a kid to pay attention. They reflect how we expect to interact with the world around us. And in learning, much like in business, consumer purchasing, or even a curated newsfeed, the focus has shifted to personalization and customization. The classroom environment has begun to take its cues from our changing world, a world in which freelance work and entrepreneurship is dominating the job market and the expectation is that you can create your own structure for your day to day life.

While teachers have striven to develop new and different ways to engage their students for years now, technology allows for a level of experimentation in new teaching models and learning spaces that scale easily and effectively that just didn’t exist before. And it’s opening some exciting doors for how we approach the classroom environment.  

One of the most buzzy of these new teaching models is “blended” learning, which uses traditional teaching methods part of the time, but also heavily integrates the use of learning through digital media. And to all appearances, it’s working. According to Project Tomorrow Speak Up, 50% of teachers using a blended curriculum feel their students are developing critical thinking and problem solving skills. When you compare that to the 34% of teachers in traditional classrooms that believe the same thing, it’s clear that the use of technology is allowing students who weren’t being reached before to engage and grow. Add the fact that 64% of middle school students believe that technology (when used correctly) makes their learning more interesting (which, really, is key for them to actually learn anything) and the whole concept becomes more instantly valuable.

By taking a blended approach to teaching, educators are able to use school as more than a place to learn facts – kids can learn what they maybe should have been learning all along: how to be a contributing member of society. And while a shift in teaching goals away from the ability to pass a test is hardly a new technology, the freedom technology has provided has allowed for more time in a day, time where things like professional development skills can be honed and explored.

For example, when a student listens to a lecture on their iPad as homework, they don’t need to spend the next class period passively listening… Instead, they can spend the time engaging with their fellow classmates in a collaborative project that dovetails with the lecture to dive more deeply into the subject matter. By using this approach, students are able to better learn how to work as part of a team, how to work with different kinds of people, how to communicate effectively, and, of course, are more greatly incentivized to engage with the content, which ultimately results in greater understanding of the subject matter.

Educationpage_LeftSideInBlueBoxPersonalized technology is also taking the “one-size-fits-all” teaching approach that many curriculums have been forced to maintain and turning it on its head. To state the obvious,  It has long been acknowledged that students learn differently and at different paces. In the past, this has led to educators (sometimes) needing to devote the majority of their attention to the minority of the class in an effort to get everyone on the same level. With adaptive learning, students are able to learn at their own pace, as the technology analyzes how well the student is comprehending the subject matter, and adjusts how it is presented appropriately.

And while adaptive learning is not by any means a new concept, it’s finally starting to reach a threshold that will allow for more widespread use. This is due, in large part, to the commitment of school districts across the country to decrease the ratio of students per computer, while increasing their connectivity at the same time. According to EducationSuperHighway, the number of school districts meeting the FCC connectivity goal has increased by 47% in the last two years, bringing the total up to 77%.The increased connectivity has allowed for more students to enjoy and benefit from the flexibility that technology provides.

In addition to personalized learning, if we learned anything this summer from Pokemon Go (for those who have been living under a rock, it was just about the most successful app launch of all time) it’s that you can make about anything fun if there’s a game involved. Parents who have been trying to get their kids outside and exercising can sit back and relax, because the game is doing it for them. Gamification gives kids the motivation they need to actually care, instead of just shifting their rapidly diminishing attention spans onto the next shiny object that their smartphone provides. Without the hook that a game provides, you could be the best teacher in the world and struggle to keep the children in your classroom actively engaged. By thinking like a game designer (in fact, major universities like Stanford are offering gamification as a major) and using your technology to bring that game to life, doors are opened that might actually result in….wait for it…. your kids getting excited about math. The use of gamification as a teaching method represents new and exciting opportunities for creativity to shine.  

The influence of changing technologies in the outside world can also be seen in the continued rise of coding programs across the country as well as the influx of 3D printing and virtual reality simulators into the classroom. The potential for these technologies is still largely unknown because of their relative newness, but some of the more immediate ramifications suggest how beneficial they can be to enhancing learning, especially for students who would traditionally be defined as kinesthetic learners. Of course, like any technology, the earlier that you can get a student to use it, the more long-term benefit is attached to the learning. So, while it may seem more practical to devote the resources to to older students that are studying highly advanced concepts, introducing 3D printing technology to first-graders with big imaginations that want to bring their favorite fictional characters to life might provide a bigger bang for your buck.

For all students, 3D printing has demonstrated the ability to better teach core STEM principles. Graphs and mathematical models can be

explored in real time and space, which helps to overcome the hurdle that many students face when it comes to trying to wrap their brains around mathematical concepts on paper. Science classes can analyze molecules and study life-size cross sections of real organs. Engineering students can create actual prototypes of their ideas. And of course, graphic design students can print out their work. Beyond the most obvious applications, however, the technology can also be applied in creative ways to add color and depth into other disciplines. History classes could reproduce replicas of ancient artifacts, while Art classes could add another medium with which students can express themselves. Really, the benefit of 3D printing is only limited by how creatively you can use the technology.

Virtual (or its sibling, augmented) reality, on the other hand, might seem so sci-fi at first blush, but it could be instrumental in creating a more active learning environment for students. At the risk of sounding clichéd, students attention spans are shorter than ever. Virtual or augmented realities provide the opportunity to circumvent these short attention spans by offering an immersive environment (thereby eliminating distractions) to help explain more complex or advanced topics. In addition, the engagement is immediate which means that you can quickly evaluate how well a student is understanding what they should be doing. If a student is missing a critical element of the learning, you can delve more quickly into what is unclear, preventing students from checking out in the future because they have holes in their understanding of the subject matter. Ultimately, virtual reality may be the best way to reach students who are increasingly reliant on technology to interact with the larger world around them.

Overall, it’s a pretty exciting time to be in a classroom learning environment. And while we can almost all agree that technology improves the classroom (91% of teachers surveyed in Edgenuity’s “Teachers’ Dream Classroom” survey believe that technology give them the ability to customize lessons to individual students while a whopping 93% of teachers already use technology in some form or another to enhance their teaching), actually using the technology provided to its highest and best ability can be a bit more of a challenge. Findings from the same survey indicated that teachers struggle the most with finding the time to properly integrate technology into their curriculums.

So how can you take advantage of these trends in your own classroom? We’ve assembled a list of suggestions to maximize the technology in your classroom.

Tip #1 Create a Gameplan

This is super basic, but critical to unlocking the full potential of technology in the classroom. Take the time to first ensure that you’re familiar with the technology that will be available to your class in the coming year AND that you are comfortable operating each of the features. If you don’t know, now is a great time to tap in a colleague to explain it to you. Secondly, think through what the highest and best use of the available tech is. For example, if your classroom has one computer and a smart board, your lesson plans will be different than in a classroom where each student has an iPad that they’re expected to use each day. If you don’t have a meaningful plan for the technology, the lesson might be eclipsed by the excitement of playing with a new toy.

Tip #2 Remember Technology Can Be a Major Time-Saver

Due to its inherent nature, technology will almost always be able to complete a rote task faster than a human being. Teachers spend, on average, a third of their days performing tasks that could easily be performed by technology like grading test and homework. By using programs for electronic lesson planners, gradebooks, even parent communication, you can allocate more time each day to other activities.  PreciouStatus, is saving teachers up to 90% of the time that you would normally use trying to communicate with parents AND result in higher parent-child engagement that leads to students being more engaged in their classwork. Which is really a win-win for everyone.

 

Tip #3 Work Hard, Play Hard

To quote the magical Mary Poppins, “You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game”. A little bit of fun (and even a slight element of competition) can make learning for students of all ages a lot easier. Even if game development isn’t your strong suite, you can still find fun and easy ways to gamify learning for your students. Something as simple as trying a Webquest or creating a PowerPoint jeopardy game that’s focused on the unit you’re teaching, can go a long way. In addition, apps like KaHoot offer a great supplement to classroom learning by assessing the students knowledge and teaching the gaps through games.

Tip #4 Smile For the Camera

If YouTube is any indication, kids love watching videos. After all, common sense would dictate that a phenomenon like Justin Bieber having one of the most watched music videos of all time probably means that a lot of parents were forced to listen to “Baby” about 40 times too many. Use that to your advantage by recording your lessons and making them available for students to review via programs like Ted-Ed. This allows students who might need some additional time to process the information that chance to learn at their own pace and review the content as necessary.

Tip #5 Go Far, Together

Collaboration in the business world happens all the time. Prepare your students with valuable life skills by creating environments where they can learn from one another and backchannel outside of school. Apps like Google Drive work especially well for group projects, whereas Twiddla and Tackk create great environments for chats and classroom knowledge repositories.

Tip #6 And remember…

…. To have fun! This is the start of another great year, filled with the potential for amazing learning and growth opportunities. The technology is what you make of it.