Like the newest iPhone or model car, emerging apps in digital education are the shiny new toys constantly updating and difficult to keep up with. The EdTech market in particular continues to balloon evolving into a multi-billion dollar industry. Neil Selwyn, a social scientist who has written about digital technology and education for the last 25 years, points out that EdTech continues to be future-focused and fails to critically examine the present; EdTech scholars need not reinvent the wheel (Selwyn & Jandrić , 2020). As Selwyn claims, “the levels of venture capital investment are off-the-scale in comparison to other areas of education… [with] Covid-19 prompting the resurgence of a lot of dominant tech-fulled ‘corporate education reform’” (Selwyn & Jandric, 2020). My post is not intended to discourage educators from utilizing technology to increase the capacity of learning in their classroom. Instead, I think it would be useful for myself and others to take pause and act on Selwyn’s advice to critically examine the present rather than relying on the hype of future EdTech.
My research began with considering Selwyn’s and Peter Jandrić conversation about postdigital living during Covid-19. Selwyn ends his conversation with Jandrić with a hopeful imagination that the current pandemic crisis would produce “more communal, collective forms of digital engagement” (Selwyn & Jandrić , 2020). Inspired by this, I looked into online learning communities and the impact of student-student relationships had on engagement and achievement. My research focused on strategies to develop multicultural learning utilizing technology that included case studies published in educational journals. Additionally, it was important for me to consider some of the current challenges our students are currently experiencing in remote or hybrid learning environments. My own school district recently went 1:1 machines for students 6-12 however, many families report that their students continue to experience access issues. There is a tremendous struggle around access to synchronous learning times when adults and students are online at the same time; not to mention the physical space needed to focus along with a myriad of other considerations.
ISTE Standard and Objective I aim to address:
- ISTE 7a: Inspire and encourage educators and students to use technology for civic engagement and to address challenges to improve their communities.
- Course objective 4. Model and promote diversity, cultural understanding, and global awareness by using digital-age communication and collaboration tools to interact locally and globally with students, peers, parents, and the larger community.
- How can technology be leveraged to broaden students’ cultural understandings, global awareness, and inspire civic engagement?
- What are some equity considerations for this kind of work?
My research took me to pedagogical strategies that had long predated this pandemic. To address issues and learning around social justice, civic engagement, and multicultural learning, we need to provide and scaffold authentic opportunities for our students to have healthy discourse while being mindful of the technological challenges that many of our students face. E-Pals, the digital equivalent to pen-pals, and co-classroom project based learning can be effective in engaging students around authentic learning opportunities through social interaction. This interaction can be powerful at any scale whether it’s occurring between schools within the same district or schools in different nations. An added benefit of E-Pals is that it offers great flexibility of access for our students. These digital interactions are not bound to particular time-slots and students have more freedom on when and how much they would like to interact. Consider the following digital tools and strategies to maximize the learning potential of these interactions:
Make learning authentic and relevant:
Set parameters to challenge your students to engage in learning activities that tackle current real-world problems or issues. If possible, support students in identifying these topics themselves and choosing which one interests them the most. If collaboration is happening locally, consider political or social issues shared in both communities. By sharing their experiences and considering the experiences of others, we are supporting our students’ development of empathy and perspective. This can be powerful both on a local and global scale.
Utilize digital tools to develop a flexible and safe learning community:
As much as possible, use your district monitored and supported tools already available. Collaborate with your district’s legal and technical support teams well in advance to secure proper permissions. Include families in these learning communities by intentionally designing assignments that require their input or participation. Consider too that students may choose to communicate with each other outside of district approved technology. It is important that you make families aware of this before their student opting in/out. When partnering with another teacher and class, sharing the same digital tools is a big advantage to consider. These are a few digital tools to consider using:
- School Email – great for flexible and secure asynchronous communication. You may need to communicate with your school/district to adjust permissions
- Flipgrid – great for both co-classroom projects or E-pals; this is a secure tool that can bring these relationships to life! Students can record and share their thinking and learning with peers. This is a more accessible, flexible, and reliable platform than say your school/districts communication platform. If you have a family who has opted their student out of this work, this is a great tool you can use to still foster an opportunity to hear others’ perspectives.
- Communication platforms (Zoom, Teams, Skype) – Microsoft markets Skype in the Classroom to help connect educators all over the world with each other to partner their classrooms on projects. You school’s preferred communication platform can be used by both students and teachers to connect during synchronous or asynchronous times, but be conscious of technical challenges.
- ePals Global Community – an educational online community where you can find and partner with global classrooms. There are language translation tools built-in as well as opportunity for teachers to have direct oversight of the student-student communication.
Incorporate cooperative and collective learning opportunities:
Design learning assignments that center collaboration between student pairs. Intentionally create space for students to share their individual input as well as reflect upon their partner’s ideas. Thinking routines and protocols can help scaffold this cooperation. When students are engaged in heterogenous and cooperative learning interactions, learning is more meaningful and authentic contributing to higher social and collaborative activity. It is equally important to deprivatize this learning so that it is shared with the rest of the classes. Students may have direct communication with one student, but they also need the opportunity to expand their readership to the entire class to broaden their global perspectives.This provides accountability and acts as a safeguard for students to access cooperative and collective learning if there are challenges with their E-pals.
It is critical to support students in building relationships with the peers they are communicating with before critical examinations of their topics begin. Conversations should be genuine and authentic where students have some choice over what to communicate to their peers. Scaffolds are needed to ensure that communication is productive towards a collective or cooperative goal. Set clear expectations and model effective communication in different mediums (video calls, online discussions, email, etc.). By modeling communication with the other teacher, you are modeling transparency and effective communication. Building a healthy relationship will allow for richer dialogue and engagement from the students. Be sure to communicate regularly with your co-teacher to prepare contingencies for potential challenges that may arise.
Lean on culturally responsive talking structures, protocols, and thinking routines to guide respectful and rich thinking and communication. Communication will most likely occur when you’re not around, so providing this scaffolding will help make the interactions among students more productive. If you have read any of my previous blog posts, I will continue to recommend the work of Zarretta Hammond, Project Zero, Making Thinking Visible but other resources like EduProtocols by Marlena Hebern and Jon Corippo and The Digital Learning Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie provide examples and ideas for how to scaffold these interactions.
Publicize student learning
A staple of PBL, authentic audiences to share student learning will increase engagement. Allow for some student choice in how students want to demonstrate their learning. Student work can be shared within their own learning community, but it can be much more meaningful if learning is tied to authentic issues with appropriate audiences. Consider local organizations, institutions, politicians, businesses, etc. There will be much more meaningful engagement if there is a purpose for the learning and interaction.
Neil Selwyn and Peter Jandrić, “Postdigital Living in the Age of Covid-19: Unsettling What We See as Possible,” Postdigital Science and Education (2020).
Fridell, M., & Lovelace, T. (2008). Create a digital world: Five steps to engage students in multicultural learning. The International Journal of Learning, 15(1).
Lui, Ping (2002). Developing an e-pal partnership a school-based international activity. Childhood Education, 79(2), 81-87. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2003.10522774