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The Pros and Cons of Digital Tools for the Classroom

The Pros and Cons of Digital Tools for the Classroom

These strategies will help you find a balance with using technology in the classroom.

Today's kids are spending more time looking at screens than reading books—and not just at home. Modern technology presents a plethora of digital tools for the classroom, and teachers must figure out the degree to which they want to incorporate these tools into their teaching practice.

In some classrooms, "edutainment" using digital resources is seen as a way to keep kids engaged in learning. But some teachers argue that in the real world, learning isn't all fun and games. They worry that students' reliance on technology may diminish their ability to concentrate and think through complex issues.

Beyond the Book

Many teachers see Minecraft, a computer game heavily focused on player creativity, as a useful educational tool. Joel Leven, a computer teacher in New York, New York, uses Minecraft in his classroom because it's open-ended and his students must follow the lesson plan he lays out for them. Minecraft teaches kids to "share resources, take turns, work together, and frankly, be nice to each other," he said.

Teachers College Scholarships

Society often perceives video games as having a negative impact on kids, but some disagree. John Velez, professor of journalism and electronic media at Texas Tech, insists that even video games like Fortnite Battle Royale, a popular free-to-play game, can have social benefits because it requires players to work together toward a shared goal.

Some teachers have adopted gamification strategies for their classrooms using game-design strategies to engage kids in classroom lessons. Instead of grades, students accumulate game points for reaching various goals. Teachers can gamify their own lessons or utilize gamification products from various publishers.

Further Reading: Quiz: Are You a Tech-Savvy Teacher?

Simply engaging with students' interest in digital media, even if you aren't allowing them to play games in the classroom, can be key to capturing their interest. Rebecca Young, a middle school teacher in Lafayette, California, told Education Week how she reacted when her students started coming to class tired and without their homework because they were staying up late playing Fortnite: she led a class discussion about the similarities between Fortnite and The Giver, a novel the class was reading. Young said that relating classwork to what kids are doing outside of school makes kids more interested in her lessons.

Digital Downsides

Education Week surveyed more than 500 school administrators regarding students' use of digital devices. Ninety-five percent said they thought students spent too much time on screens and not enough time interacting with people face-to-face. And a Gallup poll of 500 teachers found that only 41 percent believed digital devices to be helpful to education.

In a Washington Post article, Michelle Harmon, a seventh grade English teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools in Washington, D.C., said she thinks kids are a lot more anxious now because of easy access to smartphones and tablets. The "constant bombardment of news from Twitter, Instagram, texts, information, ideas—that's a lot for developing brains to process," she said.

Harmon says the biggest change she sees in her students today is how much trouble they have thinking through problems. "Everything is so instantaneous to kids, and they expect answers to questions right away," she said.

Jennifer Goodstein, a sixth-grade science teacher quoted in the same article, thinks that moderate use of digital tools for the classroom can be useful, but not if kids are using them as an escape. "I think it's affected their ability to think, to reason, to have a higher order of thinking," she said.

Further reading: Make the Most of Your School's Technology Budget

I spoke with a couple of high school students in my community, who gave a troubling perspective on the dangers of an over-reliance on digital tools. One student said of an English teacher, "We really don't know her. She just has us watch videos or listen to stories on tape. Then she puts her notes on the screen and we copy them into our phones. Or she sends them to us." Another student added, "That's why I almost never read the books. Plus I found the test my teacher used for the last book online before she gave it."

Finding a Happy Medium

Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, said in an Education Week article that there is a problem of "screens versus interpersonal interactions," and that "there are benefits and there are costs."

But Andrew Lindsay, an assistant principal at Owen Intermediate School in Belleville, Michigan, said in that same article that the problem might not just be with students: "Teachers are analog natives at this stage of the game, and our students are all digital natives," he said. "The learning curve for use of technology is all at the teacher level."

Maybe so, but even teachers adept at using digital tools in the classroom may worry about substituting technology for face-to-face interactions. As one local high school teacher put it: "Yes, I use video clips and YouTube, and my students use the computer for research and writing. And I just started using Seesaw as a digital portfolio for student work. But what really matters to my kids isn't the tech, it's that I know them and I care about them."