7 ways you can use technology to engage with students

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It seems that no sooner has the world of education come to terms with one concept than something comes along which turns the concept upside down. In this case, the concept is blended learning.

Blended learning has been around since the late 1990s and most students and teachers have been using it informally for years. Basically, anyone who attends a physical lesson and then does some work online connected to that lesson is using blended learning – but what has changed more recently is that now the physical and the online seem to be happening in the same place and at the same time.

This change has been enabled by a growing range of high-powered digital devices capable of connecting to the internet from the classroom and a new generation of students for whom constant connectivity is the norm.

Many teenagers, like my own daughter, inhabit parallel realities – being simultaneously present in the physical world while also maintaining a constant relationship and interaction with their social group and virtual lives through their mobile devices.

For any educator who grew up in a world where information was scarce and difficult to access, the possibilities offered by this combination should be a revelation. Edtech enthusiasts have long been predicting the miraculous impact that technology will have on education and yet research studies continually show the minimal impact large investments in technology have had.

The problem is that the emergence of these technologies in the hands of students in the classroom has created a power struggle. The students now have in their hands a source of information that is vastly greater than a teacher and which they control themselves. For many teachers this is hugely challenging. Not only is their role and status as source of knowledge being threatened, but their control of the classroom and students’ attention is being undermined.

It is in part the response to this threat that has undermined the potential impact that technology could be having in our students’ education. In many schools the use of mobile devices during lesson time has been banned and in some cases students have been asked to leave their devices at home. I recently observed a class in which the teacher asked a group of teenage students to leave their mobile devices in a box as they came through the classroom door. This attempt to isolate the students from their virtual lives in order to control their attention was in no way successful. As the lesson progressed the well-trained teacher continued to struggle for the students’ attention and they were in no way less distracted than they would have been if they had their devices. The only time the teacher really successfully gained their attention was when she played a video on the interactive whiteboard.

So, if restricting access to these devices isn’t the answer, how do we address their presence in the classroom and use these devices to engage rather than disengage students’ attention? Here are a few suggestions…

Create a backchannel

One of the fundamental enablers of engaging students in the classroom through their devices is a backchannel.

A backchannel is a simple chatroom that you create for your students join. Once in the back channel your students are able to communicate with you and each other using text during the lesson. This makes you part of the virtual discourse and you can use the backchannel to share links to digital resources with students (choose a chatroom in which URLs appear as live links), elicit responses from the whole group and reinforce task-setting.

Two useful platforms for creating backchannels are TodaysMeet and BackChannel chat.

Push responsibility onto learners

Instead of coming to the classroom with information and content that you want students to understand, bring questions and problems that you want them to solve. Give them time to use the internet to search for the solutions to those problems and then pull together the information they have found in the class. You can still fill any gaps that you think remain and help the students understand how some of the information they find may not be valid or correct. Pushing the initial responsibility onto the students can give them a much stronger sense of responsibility and empowerment: the skills that they are learning in searching for and solving the problems are just as useful as the answers they find.

Make writing collaborative

Developing the ability to collaborate on tasks and the creation of content has been identified as a key digital skill for future employability, so we can use digital tools to get students creating text together and peer editing the text simultaneously. Tools like Google Docs or the simpler PrimaryPad enable students to work synchronously on the same text from different devices while in the classroom and you can watch and monitor as they write through your own device. Tools like these also record the versions and edits as students write and enable you some insights into their writing process.  

Crowdsourcing and brainstorming ideas

You can use brainstorming tools to collect students’ ideas and get them to share and respond to each other’s ideas before you start to teach. This gives you the opportunity to access what students already know about a topic and start your input from what they don’t know. Another great tool, Tricider, is a great tool for collecting students’ ideas related to a problem. The students can input their own ideas to the questionnaire, see and add pros and cons to each other’s suggestions and vote for the ones they think are most effective. This is a great tool to prepare students for debates and discussions or for discursive essay assignments.  

Brainstorming vocabulary

You can get students to brainstorm and share vocabulary on any topic using a simple digital tool like AnswerGarden. Just create a simple questionnaire and then share a link to it with your students through your backchannel. They can then add words they know related to a specific topic and these can be displayed on your board as they are added. AnswerGarden also allows you to export and save these as a word cloud, so students can then have their own colourful vocabulary record.  

Use QR codes to share materials

Most teachers use word processing tools such as MS Word or Apple’s Pages to produce their worksheets or materials before printing them for students. You could take this a step further, though, and put those materials on a cloud-based service that provides you with a link to the material. Take the link and then use a QR code generator to create a QR code that your students can scan with their smartphones to get a digital copy of the materials onto their device. QR codes are very easy to create, just go to https://www.the-qrcode-generator.com and paste in the URL and this will create a code that you can add to any presentation or paper-based materials.

These are just a few ideas and tools that can help to keep your students engaged and to utilise the power of their digital devices in a more positive and productive way. Using tools like this can be challenging and it requires that we as teachers make changes to our classroom practice. But, we have to accept that if we want to educate our students in a way that will continue to engage and prepare them for their future lives, we need to let go of some of our own past habits and be prepared to learn new techniques alongside our students.

Further reading on my blog


Share your innovation for a chance to win the Pearson ELT Teacher Award
We’ve just launched a new Pearson ELT Teacher Award! Aiming to recognise and celebrate teachers, the Award is open for any English teacher who has developed innovative ways of teaching in their classrooms. You may have used technology or digital tools in unique ways or re-invented traditional tasks. The Award encourages teachers to enter who can show that their ideas are not only unique but have improved learner engagement, motivation and success.

Prizes include all-expenses paid trips to IATEL or TESOL. Deadline for entries is 1st January, 2017 so enter or nominate a teacher today!

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