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August 22, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 34

Keeping Learning Social in the Digital Classroom

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Instructional StrategiesTechnologySocial-emotional learning
I recently walked into a 2nd grade classroom where each student was quietly engaged in an adaptive math learning application on an iPad. The students sat for 20 minutes using the math application without saying a word. As educators, we know learning is social. But here there was no talk, no discussion, no questioning.
It's no surprise educators are concerned that one-to-one technology in the classroom is removing the social aspect of learning, but those fears don't have to be realized. Technology does not have to isolate learning; social learning can be integrated into technology use. Understanding the research behind what is effective and ineffective when using technology in learning will help educators make better instructional choices that support social learning with technology tools.

When Digital Is Detrimental

With the uptick of virtual learning, online course credit recovery, adaptive software, and screencast tutorials, it is easy to assume these digital environments are just as or even more effective at supporting learning than face-to-face experiences. However, the current research in education technology emphasizes the need for social learning to be built into digital learning experiences. Researchers have found that human interaction is almost always a better choice than only digital for instructional learning.
For example, in a recent study of algebra students in North Carolina, the students who took algebra online fared much worse than the students taking it in face-to-face classes. In a study of 85 schools in Costa Rica, where there was one control group (no technology) and four experimental groups (all had some variation of technology use), the students in the control group out-performed the students in all the experimental groups.
Researchers have also considered if the amount of student time spent on a computer affected overall learning outcomes. The 2015 OECD survey of students in 70 different countries found, "Students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after controlling for social background and student demographics." Daily computer use at school seemed to have a negative effect on reading, math, and science outcomes. Studies have also found that the current achievement gaps between white and black students, females and males, and low- and high-income students are often exacerbated in the online classroom.
Does this mean that teachers should not be using technology for learning? Not necessarily. In Araya, Arias, Bottan, and Cristia's 2018 study of students in 24 different schools in Chile, the students using technology scored much higher on the standardized tests than the students in the control (nontech) groups. What made the difference? In many uses of technology, the technology is meant to replace the teacher (such as with adaptive software or online lectures). In the Chilean schools studied by Araya and company, the computers were not trying to replace the teacher; rather, the devices helped to support what the teacher was already doing in class. The Chilean teachers were using social learning strategies in conjunction with the technology and used the computers to further the learning goals, not replace the teacher or the social learning experience of the classroom.

Conversation, Reflection, and Community Are Key

It is important to understand that not all digital learning experiences are created equal, and often the experiences that integrate social learning have more positive outcomes. For example, a recent study of online learning found the quality of interpersonal interaction within a course relates positively and significantly to student grades. Researchers who have studied at-risk students and online learning found at-risk students benefit from social interactions and teacher mediated supports that create a more blended approach in their online learning environment. Thus, creating or choosing online learning opportunities that harness social conversation, reflection, and develop a sense of community are better choices than an asynchronous course that lacks these features.
A 2018 MIT study looking at back-and-forth direct conversation versus a person talking at a young child, found the back-and-forth conversation boosted literacy learning, in particular for lower income children. This is significant for technology and learning because many applications for literacy learning focus on low-level remediation skills (such as multiple-choice questions) and provide little or no time for children to reflect on their learning with another person or to have a conversation about their learning. That's why, when using technology, teachers should find creative ways to employ back-and-forth conversation with students, even if the technology only allows for one-way conversation.
A 2016 study discovered that prekindergarten children learned best when a human, not a computer, demonstrated a task. The children were able to transfer their learning of a task from a human into the real world with more ease than. This provides another reminder that as much as possible, a human should be part of the digital learning process and blend online or digital learning with social learning.
To summarize, the big takeaways from research for educators who want to maximize the beneficial effects of technology in the classroom are as follows:
  • Technology that tries to replace the teacher is often unsuccessful.
  • If given a choice, face-to-face interaction is optimal for providing direct instruction or demonstrating new concepts or tasks.
  • At-risk students need more human support and scaffolds in a digital learning environment.
  • Teaching at-risk students through technology should be done in conjunction with face-to-face discussion and reflection activities.
  • Fully online education is often less successful than face-to-face learning.
  • Back-and-forth conversation and reflection should be integrated into all technology-based education.
  • Personalizing digital technology experiences can support learning.
Even as the tools for learning change, never forget that all learning is fundamentally social. Let research be your guide for the smart integration of digital tools in the classroom.
References

Berlinski, S., & Busso, M. (2017, July). Challenges in educational reform: An experiment on active learning in mathematics. Economic Letters, 156, 172-175. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165176517301854?via%3Dihub

Bettinger, E., & Loeb, S. (2017, June 9). Promises and pitfalls of online education. Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/promises-and-pitfalls-of-online-education/

Heissel, J. (2016, August). The relative benefits of live versus online delivery: Evidence from virtual Algebra I in North Carolina. Economics of Education Review, 53, 88–115. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272775716302357?via%3Dihub

Huckabee, S.B. (2010). Environmental and psychological factors contributing to student achievement in a high school online mediated credit recovery program. The Learning and Technology Library. Retrieved from: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/123039/

New, J. (2013, February 21). Online courses could widen achievement gaps among students [blog post]. Wired Campus. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/online-courses-could-widen-achievement-gaps-among-students/42521

OECD. (2015). Students, computers and learning: making the connection. PISA, OECD Publishing. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en

Slavin, R. (2018, September 20). Rethinking technology in education [blog post]. Robert Slavin's Blog. Retrieved from https://robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/rethinking-technology-in-education/

Trafton, A. (2018, February 13). Back-and-forth exchanges boost children's brain response to language. MIT News Office, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from http://news.mit.edu/2018/conversation-boost-childrens-brain-response-language-0214

Zimmermann, L, Moser, A., Lee, H, Gerhardstein, P., & Bar, R. (2017, November/December). The ghost in the touchscreen: social scaffolds promote learning by toddlers. Child Development, 88(6), 2013–2025. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cdev.12683

Liz Kolb is a clinical professor at the University of Michigan School of Education where she works with preservice and in-service teachers on integrating technology into K-12 teaching. She is a former middle and high school teacher and is the author of numerous books and articles related to educational technology, most recently Learning First, Technology Second: In Practice, published by ISTE.



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