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4 tips for choosing the right edtech tools for learning

By Liz Kolb
December 20, 2016
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There are over 100,000 apps labeled “education” in digital app stores, and yet, more than 70 percent of them have little or no empirical research on how effective they are for growth in learning, according to a report called “Getting a read on the app stores” from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

The overwhelming number of digital tools and the lack of research makes it difficult for teachers to know which tools are the “just right” choices for improving learning in their classrooms.

The one area of clarity in edtech research is that the learning objectives should guide the tool selection, rather than allowing the shininess of the tool to take control of the lesson. Researchers have also shared these four practical characteristics of effective learning with technology that teachers can look for when selecting a tool:

Social use of the tool: Co-use or co-engagement

Learning is socially constructed. This is important to remember when working in a 1:1 school where students are sometimes isolated with their own devices. Look for tools that allow students to co-engage with others through the tool. For example, my daughter’s teacher recently had students synchronously share their fiction stories in Google Docs with parents and other collaborators. This allowed the children to get immediate feedback on their writing.  Here are some other tools to use for co-engagement:

Collabrify. This tool allows synchronous collaboration on mindmaps, documents and other files for data collection and analysis.

SoundTrap. This free website lets students work synchronously with others to create music.

Drawtime. This site allows younger children to share drawings – instead of just talking – during a video call.   

Higher-level thinking: Avoiding drill and practice

While the majority of educational apps and websites have a drill-and-practice element to them, research shows that students learn better when technology helps elicit their higher-level cognitive skills, such as reflective thinking, analysis, creativity, inquiry and focusing on the process of learning. Look for tools like these that allow students to learn through inquiry rather than rote memorization of facts and figures:

Write About. This website helps students focus on the process of writing through a collaborative learning environment. 

DocentEDU. This app allows teachers and writing experts to weigh in on student work in real time.

Lure of the Labyrinth. Students can think through ideas like a mathematician by connecting the game content directly to mathematical concepts.

Value-added: Scaffolds, differentiation, supports

Technology can help teachers differentiate learning based on students’ learning levels or needs. Choose tools like these that meet students where they are:

Tween Tribune. Students can read the same content but at different Lexile reading levels. This is something that would be much more difficult to accomplish without technology tools.

Formative. Teachers can set up “just right” leveled activities in any content area for students and provide real-time feedback while monitoring learning. This also allows opportunities for scaffolded feedback.

Authentic context: Connect students’ everyday lives to content learning

Knowledge construction happens best when situated in authentic contexts and doing authentic tasks. Look for tools that allow students to bridge their everyday lives with school learning to help them better make meaning out of the content. Some examples:

Discovery Education. Take your students beyond the classroom walls and into some of the world's most iconic locations for rich and immersive learning experiences.

Skype in the Classroom. Visit experts in the field all around the world.

Thrively. Connect students with virtual mentorships.

Goosechase. Create mobile scavenger hunts that allow students to document their learning 24/7 inside and outside of school. Teachers can scaffold the hunts on field trips to keep students focused on making connections between academic learning and real life. 

Liz Kolb is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She has written several books, including Cell Phones in the Classroom and Unleash the Learning Power of Your Child's Cell Phone. 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

Get more tips on how to identify effective edtech tools appropriately apply them to instruction in Liz Kolb’s new book Learning First, Technology Second: The Educator’s Guide to Designing Authentic Lessons.