By Liz Kolb

A recent study by Elizabeth Zack and Rachel Barr highlights the role that human interaction plays when digital technologies are used with young children for literacy learning. The findings state the following;

Interactional quality between mother and infant plays an important role in making touch screens effective teaching tools for infants’ learning.”—Zack & Barr, 2016

This study contributes to a growing number of reports emphasizing the significance of person-to-person co-engagement with digital tools in order for learning growth to occur. This study and others helped me in writing “Learning First, Technology Second,” a new book published by the International Society for Technology in Education. These studies are noteworthy for any school using technology and particularly schools with one-to-one programs. Many schools have moved to a one-to-one approach in which children tend to use digital tools in isolation, for example, sitting alone with headphones on, swiping through drills and practice math software. The math software is supposed to “track” the student’s progress and to personalize to the student’s learning level. While individual one-to-one device use is often lauded as an accomplishment of school systems, it can be a detriment to learning.

In order for cognitive growth to occur, students need co-engagement with human-to-human contact when using digital tools. In other words, the student should not be completely isolated while working with a device, nor should the enhanced software be trusted to “teach” them in place of traditional teacher-led learning. Instead, we need to remember that learning is social and students need to use reflecting thinking strategies with someone else in order to better comprehend and self-monitor what and how they are learning. Instructional strategies, not specific technology tools, have been found to be the key to effective implementation and positive outcomes when using technology (Okojie, 2006). This means that the instructional strategies that the teacher places around the software, not the chosen software or device, determine if learning growth will occur. Therefore, to better leverage learning, teachers should consider including instructional strategies that build social interactions into one-to-one programs.

Some strategy examples include:

  • Purposefully Pairing Students: Have students work together on a piece of software and give them reflective thinking questions to help them co-monitor each other’s learning.
  • Reflective Thinking Routines: Ask students to occasionally stop their isolated activity in a piece of software and participate in a “turn and talk” or “think, pair and share.”
  • Self-Monitoring: Teach students how to self-monitor their learning by using visible thinking routines such as asking them to use “I wonder” or “I notice” as they navigate the software.
  • Modeling-Aloud: Model how to navigate the technology and what students should be thinking about as they manipulate the software to connect to their learning goals.

Learning First, Technology Second

More ideas for instructional strategies with digital tools can be found in the book “Learning First, Technology Second.”

Liz Kolb is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She is the author of several books, including Cell Phones in the Classroom and Help Your Child Learn with Cell Phones and Web 2.0. Kolb has been a featured and keynote speaker at conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada. She is the creator of the Triple E Framework for effective teaching with digital technologies, and she blogs at