A recent rapid literature review by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) about the use of multimedia tools for teaching maths and science suggests that human mediation may be just as important in determining a tool’s effectiveness for improving learning outcomes as the technical design of the tool itself.
But how can teachers ensure that they are bringing a human-centred approach to the technology they use in the classroom?
Guiding student interaction with edtech
Given the technological capacities of much of today’s edtech, it can be tempting to feel that the teacher’s role is simply to facilitate learners’ access to the technology. However, teachers also play a crucial role in mediating how students engage with the content. Indeed, one US study of primary-school pupils found that teachers implemented even such simple edtech as a suite of science videos in a range of different ways – each with a particular effect on student engagement.
For example, one teacher reported viewing the videos as a class to be more effective than students viewing them in small groups using a co-viewing guide. Other teachers in the study reported using the shorter song-based videos to support smooth transitions between activities, as background music for related activities, or encouraged children to sing and dance along to them.
Another approach that may spark students’ interest is finding opportunities to ‘gamify’ how pupils engage with the content – whether as part of the edtech or through teacher-facilitated activities. For example, one teacher in the study described above reported creating a scavenger hunt to increase student engagement with an eBook that students had shown a tendency to simply click through without necessarily taking the time to read all the content.
Choose edtech to meet the needs of specific learners
Not all edtech is created equal. Nor is its usefulness universal. Teachers are ideally placed to select not only edtech that is of high quality in itself, but also that is most suitable to the needs of the particular learners concerned.
For example, using storylines and characters to convey content has been found to help younger learners (ages six and seven) remain motivated to learn early mathematics. Characters and storylines have likewise been found to help children with special educational needs or English as an additional language to engage in discussions around the content of science lessons, even where they may not yet fully understand the concepts.
In addition, ‘emotional design’ features, such as face-like shapes and warm colours were found to support mathematical understanding for younger learners (age five). The authors hypothesised that these features created a ‘fun environment’ that encouraged learners to ‘invest more effort in learning’. This is likely to be particularly important for the youngest learners because of their lower levels of self-regulation.
However, this same study found that even slightly older children (age seven) did not enjoy the same benefits from this design. The led the authors to suggest that, where higher-order thinking is involved, the additional cognitive load created by these features offsets any benefits for engagement. More is not always better when it comes to edtech, and teachers plays an important role in ensuring design is appropriate for learner needs.
Using edtech to facilitate ‘teachable moments’
Edtech can play the role of ‘provider of knowledge’, so that teachers can focus instead of being facilitators of learning. One Australian study, for example, found that one of the key benefits of older learners (ages 13 to 14) constructing stop-motion animations to learn about geology was the ‘teachable moments’ it created. For example, teacher-prompted questioning deepened learners’ conceptual understanding through dialogue.
Optimising for edtech’s strengths
Finally, it is important to remember that some teaching scenarios will benefit from edtech more than others. A recent meta-analysis suggests that edtech is most beneficial for maths performance when used to promote ‘a collaborative and communicative learning environment’ or to support problem-solving and conceptual development. Edtech is also beneficial for monitoring and assessing students’ learning but may bring fewer benefits when used in this way in isolation.
There is no doubt that the benefits technology can offer to the classroom are manifold, but the teacher continues to play a crucial role in maximising its impact. When introducing edtech into the classroom, evidence suggests that teachers should reflect carefully on why that specific tool will add value, how learners will engage with it (intellectually, not just technologically), and who the learners will be able to refine their interpretations and understanding with to maximise its potential benefits.