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Learning Library Blog Lifting Student Engagement Through Smart Tech Use
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Lifting Student Engagement Through Smart Tech Use

By Nicholas Provenzano
July 13, 2023
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Rule number one is to make learning active.

Learning during the pandemic showed that teacher-led direct instruction and rote memorization are not the best way to engage students. Fortunately, many schools during that time, shifted to more project-based learning (PBL) and toward learning activities (and pace) directed by students themselves. This shift allowed educators to offer a wide variety of technology to support learning and help students become more actively engaged in gaining knowledge and skills, as a 2021 study by Hira and Anderson showed.

While there were certainly students who struggled with online learning, that wasn't the case for all, and Hira and Anderson's research shows that using PBL in online learning is valuable for many students.

Now that students and teachers are back in the classroom, it's important not to backslide into old habits that don't allow for enough active learning. Educational technology plays a role here. Getting the most out of edtech can allow students with a wide variety of learning profiles to be successful and more fully engaged in class. And tech-based activities or learning approaches can fit into all curricular areas if teachers have time to make this happen and the leeway to try new ideas and fail at times.

As a makerspace director and technology coordinator at a K-12 school, I've helped teachers in various disciplines use edtech in more meaningful ways. I've learned there's one thing educators need to keep in mind in such efforts: The use of technology needs to promote active engagement. Students don't need to sit and consume more content from their teacher, even if it's presented through cutting-edge technology; they consume content all the time. Students' ability to create content through active engagement is the ultimate testament to an immersive learning experience. While teachers can provide valuable content a student might not discover on their own, exploring, learning, failing, and succeeding on their own is tremendously valuable to students — and happens more regularly when they use technology that lets them become independently engaged in their learning.

Regularly reinventing lessons (and infusing edtech elements into them) so that they're more active and engaging to an ever-changing student population can be exhausting. But it's not a challenge teachers need to take on alone. There are many resources available that have been vetted by experienced educators focused on edtech, who have done the heavy lifting for the average teacher who's just beginning to use tech-enhanced approaches. Allow me to describe a few resources (all freely available) I've seen teachers use in my school during and after learning went remote.

The Power of Stories: Combining Writing and Coding

One comment I commonly hear from educators is that there is a big push for STEM skills, like math and coding, in the classroom, but that STEM doesn't fit in their content area. A sixth grade English language arts teacher I'll call Ms. Flexer thought this — until we collaborated to get her students engaged in the writing process by using Python code to create a text-based game.

Interactive fiction, meaning a text-based computer game that requires players to enter text commands to advance the game and story, is one of the original types of computer games. For early versions of interactive fiction games like Zork, developers lacked the ability to generate serious graphics, so they relied on text to drive the narrative a game revolved around.

To create a text-based game, you need strong writing skills, an understanding of how plot works in a story, proofreading skills and basic coding. In our sixth grade ELA curriculum, students learn narrative writing skills, how to craft a plot, proofreading and other components to writing a story. When their teacher added coding elements, students worked on those writing skills while creating a game they could share with friends and family.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has an excellent lesson on how to create text-based games. With a few tweaks, it can be turned into a full-scale lesson for students to write their very own game that draws on stories they've written.

As Ms. Flexer walked her students through the tutorial on how to code the game, they added elements of their own stories. As the students dug into the code, they started to ask questions about how different parts worked and whether they could change the code to something different in their game. The students and Ms. Flexer worked together to learn more about the code so the games they were creating could do all the things they wanted.

While adding more elements to their games allowed the kids to personalize those games, it sometimes led to problems: If you want the code to do more, you need to write more code, and when you write more code, you're going to have more bugs crop up. One of the most important parts to coding anything is making sure the code is bug-free so it runs smoothly. All it takes is one improperly placed indent or comma and the whole thing comes crashing down.

As students worked on their code and their stories, they willingly spent a lot of time proofreading their work and the work of others, making sure they found all existing errors so the game would work.

Ms. Flexer was astounded by how committed the students were to writing and proofreading their code. Like most ELA teachers, she'd had trouble getting the students to spend time on traditional writing assignments. When the work was reframed around writing code for a game, her students worked on proofreading and other writing elements in a way that was engaging for them — and gave them a taste of text-based coding.

Interactive fiction games are only one way to bring gaming into learning. For instance, Gimkit is a highly engaging tool that enables collaborative learning through gaming, and Kahoot! allows students to review content through playing a game.

Teach computational thinking to all students in all subject areas. Explore the ISTE book Creative Coding.

The Power of Showcasing Work

Another way to leverage edtech for greater engagement in the classroom is to find digitally supported ways for students to organize and share their work. Teaching during the pandemic led to a greater use not only of project-based learning, but also of digital portfolios. Students learning from home could share their work using digital tools that both teachers and parents could access. When students know they will share their work, they are more engaged because they want to showcase something that will reflect well on them.

Two tools many teachers used successfully toward this end were Seesaw and Adobe Express.

Seesaw is a student-driven digital portfolio and communication platform that lets teachers easily engage with students and their families, facilitating personalized learning and sharing of multimedia assignments, progress and feedback. I worked with teachers who would post a learning activity on Seesaw that provided all the details students needed to complete the activity. Students would complete the learning activity on Seesaw and then use Adobe Express to create an additional artifact — such as a digital poster, short video or website — to further demonstrate their understanding.

Adobe Express gives students access to a wide variety of tools for creating high-quality work, such as adding text to graphics, creating simple websites for presentations and more. This free tool helped students showcase their creativity while presenting something that highlighted what they learned.

I've found Seesaw to be a helpful tool for students, teachers and parents because it gives all stakeholders access to the work a student has completed, allowing parents to engage with the work. Students store their products in a digital space where teachers or parents can provide feedback and students can reflect on their progress. The material a student publishes to Seesaw can be kept private, to be seen only by the teacher, student and their parents, or it can be made public to all students. This is helpful because some portfolios might be designed for specific feedback from a small group and others might just be used to collect student work.

I've found that pairing a creativity tool with a portfolio tool helps get the most out of students.

While Adobe Express and Seesaw need not be used together to work well, I've found that pairing a creativity tool with a portfolio tool helps get the most out of students. Other good tools that enable students to create and share digital products include Flip from Microsoft, Canva for Education, and Book Creator. Now that schools are in-person again, there's no reason teachers shouldn't continue to use tools like these to motivate students to learn and create.

The Power of Leveraging What Kids Love

Another great way to engage students is to meet them where they are by using activities students already know and enjoy. For many students, that would be Minecraft.

Minecraft Education, a crafting and building program that lets students create massive "worlds" on their computers, has been a huge hit with students and teachers for years. This program can be used across multiple disciplines. It engages students who are itching to envision and design possible societies, cities or buildings or to simulate scientific experiments.

I've seen students use Minecraft in social studies to build countries, establish borders and trade, -- teaching them social studies concepts and the value of collaboration.

In science class, teachers are giving students virtual access to volatile substances through the safety of Minecraft Education's chemistry workbench. Students can freely experiment with what happens when they combine various elements; if something blows up in Minecraft, it's harmless.

Students in math class can explore ratios by deciding how to place blocks within the program and dive into scale sizes by building houses.

Minecraft isn't the only digital program that lets students virtually design and build things while they learn. Other good options include CoSpaces Edu (a virtual reality and augmented reality creation platform) and Tinkercad (a free, web-based 3D modeling and design tool that provides an interface for students and educators to create, prototype, and explore design ideas). Scratch is a visual programming language and online community designed for beginners, especially children, to learn coding concepts by creating interactive projects.

Teachers are often amazed by how engaged students are and how hard they work when given an assignment that uses Minecraft Education or similar programs. And it's no problem if the teacher is a novice; students love to showcase their Minecraft skills and will support the teacher or any student who is struggling to place their first block.

Students can use the program differently to develop whatever skill they're most interested in. Some will use the coding feature to automate tasks; others might teach themselves how to build pointed roofs by watching videos on YouTube. I've seen students spend hours exploring the content needed to create their perfect virtual worlds. They learn to collaborate to build elaborate town centers, shops, amusement parks and whatever else pops into their mind, gaining valuable design skills.

Need PBL ideas? Discover real-world projects for real-world classrooms. Read ISTE's book Reinventing Project-Based Learning.

Taking the First Step

It's a reality that teachers need to continue to innovate to find ways to engage students, and some of these new ways will involve edtech. But don't be overwhelmed or think you immediately need to change everything you're doing to incorporate more tech in your teaching.

Go at your own pace, and realize you are going to fail from time to time. It's easy to give up when you try a new lesson with a new piece of technology and it doesn't land the way you had hoped. But consider how many traditional lessons you have created that flopped. Why should a lesson that uses technology be thought of differently? Be open with students when you try a new lesson involving edtech. Tell them they are going to be "Beta testers" for your new lesson and give you feedback that will help make the lesson better for the next group of students. Move forward with the hope that failure will teach you a valuable lesson and provide experience that will help you improve.

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, "The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step." Take a deep breath and identify one thing you think will engage your students and start there. Exploring ways technology can make learning more immersive and experiential is a pursuit that will involve failures, but also big wins for students. Seeing smiles on your students' faces will let you know when you are heading in the right direction.

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Nicholas Provenzano is a technology coordinator and makerspace director at University Liggett School in Michigan. He is also a speaker, consultant and author of the best-selling book, Your Starter Guide to Makerspaces. Read more about his ideas on his blog

This article is from the special edtech issue of ASCD's membership magazine Education Leadership. Download this special summer issue for free to find more great articles about using technology for learning.