Engaging High School Students with Technology

With their noses glued to their smartphone screens waiting for the next “LOL” or “CU L8R,” and thumbs flying effortlessly over tablets’ virtual keyboards, it seems we wouldn’t need to do much to engage high school kids with technology. But digital socializing with friends and learning, while not mutually exclusive, usually require different approaches.

“Technology, in and of itself, will not improve student engagement. However, the ways in which a teacher employs technology can have significant effects on student engagement,” says Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and an associate professor of English at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, MI. “For instance, many students enjoy the social opportunities of collaborative learning, and there are many tools available via the Web and apps that allow and encourage them to work together. By providing the appropriate structure, a teacher can use technology to get students emotionally invested in what they’re learning — potentially increasing engagement and achievement as well.”

Build Accountability

“I like to think of technology as a good way to improve student engagement because it makes students more accountable,” says Oona Abrams, a high school English Language Arts teacher for the School District of the Chathams in Chatham, NJ. “In my classroom, students use their smartphones to record pair-shares, take pictures of mind-maps, post to Schoology discussion boards or complete forms.”

But this type of technology integration requires careful management to avoid what she calls “screen suck,” or students getting off task while on devices, whether that’s smartphones, tablets or laptops. “I’ve found I need to be as granular as possible with students about how, when and why we use tech tools, but I’ve stepped away from policing mode. I make them aware of my presence, or I ask them an instructional question to cue them back to the task. I do my best to ask them questions about how they’re using time rather than saying, ‘You shouldn’t be on YouTube’ or ‘Sudoku isn’t on my syllabus.’ Those are dead-ends. But if they don’t want to partake in that accountability, their phones stay away.”

Encourage Exploration

“For me the challenge used to be students not caring to understand why math works the way it does and making connections among concepts,” Jennifer Wilson, a National Board Certified math teacher at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, MS, and recipient of the 2011 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

But technology, like the TI-Nspire graphing calculator, “helped the math come alive to students,” she says, advising other teachers to “start with great tasks and explorations, and then provide students with opportunities to model with mathematics.” For instance, students in Wilson’s class use TI-Nspire software and apps to import photographs to the calculator and explore the mathematics of real-world objects. Giving students meaningful opportunities to engage in the mathematics “happens with good tasks and appropriate use of technology for exploration.”

Create Integrated Experiences

Kris Schrotenboer creates projects that task students with using technology in different ways. “In my American Literature/History classes, my students conducted a Lost Generation Writers assignment,” she explains. “Each student received a writer to research. They then used technology, such as camcorders, to record and share a Google presentation about their findings to the class. My students and I continued to work with this technology over the year and it is culminating in their final projects, a digital reflection of their work in my classes over the school year.”

The project-based approach was a win for students, according to Schrotenboer, a Language Arts teacher at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, MI. “The most rewarding part of this is the change my students see in themselves. The students can track and keep every assignment and see their individual progress. They look back on their triumphs and struggles and realize what they learned about themselves as learners. For many of them, it's the lightbulb they have been waiting for since they started my class, certainly, and perhaps their entire educational careers.”

Use the Best “App”

Most kids are naturally engaged with technology — this is the first generation of “digital natives,” after all. But no matter how natural technology might seem to kids today — and will to future generations — smart, responsible, creative adults will probably always be the best “app” for academic success when it comes to directing kids’ learning. The big lesson for teachers is that technology does not transform poor teaching into great teaching; it amplifies great teaching to be even greater.

“Many educators think we are developing a generation of students that does not know how to communicate outside a cell phone or a computer. I disagree with that,” Schrotenboer says. “I think that through the use of these technologies we are giving kids a voice and opportunities to express themselves in all different ways. It's a totally different language and it works for them. Technology is not going to diminish or go away. It is our task to ensure that our students know how to use it to its optimal potential. In doing so, we’re ensuring their futures. By meeting them where they are and leading them to where they need to go, we are essentially setting them up to be responsible citizens — digital citizens — who will be ready to lead us on into the times to come.”

Steve Peha is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., a North Carolina–based consultancy specializing in innovative approaches to educational change. In addition to working in hundreds of schools and teaching in thousands of classrooms, he is also an award-winning writer and educational software developer. Follow Steve on Google+.

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