Why should we make use of digital tools at school? According to the curriculum, we shall ‘be responsible for all pupils completing primary education in terms of their ability to use modern technology’ as a tool for knowledge, communication, creativity and learning.
To gain a greater insight into the field of ICT at school, we agreed on reading the book Lyckas med digitala verktyg i skolan by John Steinberg, Ph.D. in the science of education.
We processed the book by reading it and having learning conversations about its contents. In this article, we want to highlight the topics we think are the most important and the lessons we have learned from both text discussions and the learning conversations.
Our goal is to put these ideas into practice in order to implement digital tools in a proper way and with a good educational plan behind so that it benefits the students in their learning process. This knowledge we have gained in the learning group should also be reflected in the school’s IT plan.
The author emphasises throughout the book that you must have a well-thought-out educational idea behind everything you do at school, and this also applies to the use of digital tools. Whatever result we get depends on the view we have on the pupils, on epistemology and on the approach to learning schools and colleges have in place. Digital tools in an environment without a proper methodology will not lead to increased quality and effectiveness.
An exciting model, the so-called SAMR model by Ruben Puenteduras, clearly illustrates how to work with digital tools at different levels to achieve different degrees of quality in the learning process. (SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition.) We embraced this model and decided within our learning group to try to design our instruction in accordance with the model. To a greater extent than ever, we try to reach the higher levels of the model.
We consider ourselves in relation to the evaluation by the Swedish National Agency for Education of the use of digital tools in Swedish schools from 2013, which shows that the vast majority of teachers have not reached a level higher than Level Two of the model. This means that the digital tools used usually involve replacing paper and pencil, or they are used for processes that were also previously possible but made the approach somewhat easier. Reaching Level Three requires that you think about and find new ways of teaching and looking on student learning based on a different approach. Technology enables different dimensions of learning that could not have been realisable in the same way with other teaching methods. The last and highest level of the model involves using digital tools to create new methods/tasks to achieve a higher quality of student learning previously unattainable. An example of such approach consists of pupils saving their work using shared cloud services such as Dropbox. The advantage of this procedure is that the pupils can see one another’s work, thus allowing for peer-to-peer feedback and making progress in their learning. As teachers have all of the pupils’ work gathered, it becomes readily available and one can continuously provide feedback during the working process. That way, you can more systematically monitor the pupils’ learning process.
We believe that the mentioned model is clear and shows the use of ICT in a good manner. We think that we, as regards our own teaching method, are mainly at Levels One and Two of the model. In this group we try to enhance our teaching styles to reach a higher level of the model and thereby enhance the pupils’ learning. To merely teach at the first and second levels does not mean it cannot be stimulating to the pupils. We do not quit utilising that way of teaching as it is clearly seen in our classrooms that pupils often think it fun to use digital aids, rendering them more motivated to learn. We have had discussions in the group about how to reach higher levels of the model. In the end, we decided with our German partners to perform a ‘mirror example’ to be able to evaluate if the pupils are fortified in terms of motivation and learning via a new way of using ICT in their lessons. We found out very soon after reading the book that reaching the higher levels of the model demands that you have a different approach to teaching, different time frames and another way of preparing your lessons. For example, you need time to check out the applications being used to ensure they are functioning, up to date and serving the purpose, among others.
The author mentions several common pitfalls that schools can easily become victims of when trying to teach using ICT. These are lacking infrastructure, lack of education, lack of purpose in the use of ICT, more single pupil work with less teacher support, classroom logistics and the way the teacher interprets their mission as a teacher with reference to the use of ICT. We acknowledge ourselves within these and are aware that we need to work actively to resolve these issues and avoid the abovementioned pitfalls. Because of this we need to have some time to discuss these topics with the entire college and be given the opportunity to devise a method to avoid these pitfalls, after which you may already start using ICT with fewer problems.
Perhaps the most important point in the book, at least from the author’s point of view, is that all teachers must realise that the use of digital tools will alter the view on how to learn. We cannot control what the pupils are learning and school does not have a monopoly on knowledge and on how the pupils are learning. It is how you learn and not always what you learn that counts. The author points out the importance of keeping the pupils physically close to one another in the classroom when using ICT so you can monitor and coach them throughout the entire learning process. To do so is especially important until you can assure yourself that the pupils are able to work more on their own and shoulder responsibilities. According to the author, letting the pupils loose on their own is reprehensible and leads to the opposite effect for their learning. Queries made by the Swedish National Agency for Education found that one of the most influential factors in the declining results of Swedish pupils is that they are in general left to do much work on their own without sufficient support from their teachers. This is something you need to keep in mind when working with digital tools for your method of education.
The book also points out the importance of teachers’ observance of the pupils’ entire learning process and not just the final products. We have to make sure that the pupils develop all their abilities while using ICT. During pupil work, the saying ‘freedom when responsible’ is applicable. It demands teachers to have clear rules, maybe even more than during other free classroom tasks, when using ICT. They must be around to help the pupils needing help and be able to clearly guide and coach the latter to attain learning. The purpose, the goal, and the evaluation process must be clear when using ICT. Only when such is true from the pupils’ perspective will we see enhanced quality in their schoolwork using digital tools.
Another important thought from the book is that pupils need help through digital tools to have a chance to practise other abilities like cooperation, communication, problem solving, critical audit and entrepreneurial skills. This means that ICT is not only a tool to search the Web, to write with or to count with but also a tool for the pupils to train and develop more general abilities.
We also discussed the ethical aspect of using ICT in our teaching. We believe that it is very important for the pupils to also be part of this discussion so that everyone is aware of the ethical aspects of using ICT at school. Discussion topics would be about copyright, source criticism, critical audit and laws regarding cyberbullying and other types of violation. We think that it is better if the pupils know these ethical rules so that they will learn how to deal with using digital tools in a responsible way instead of us imposing rules and restrictions on their usage or limiting the possibilities in using digital tools. We want them to learn for life and not only for the moment. Even the author thinks that this is the right path to take to successfully implement digital tools at school.
One of our tasks as teachers is to lead our pupils into the methods and processes that have a deeper purpose than just searching the Internet for facts. This makes our conscious aim of training the pupils in abilities other than what they regard offhand as even more important and wish to have. Our job is to teach the pupils for the future, by which time school should have given them the opportunity to practise skills such as people skills, ethical and moral reflection and source critical abilities.
Another important lesson drawn from the book is that we can help students in a more personalised way with digital tools. The author points out that digital resources can help teachers individualise instruction based on the students’ learning style and needs. It may involve such things as receiving spelling or sentence construction assistance in writing tasks, being able to take pictures on the whiteboard, receiving homework reminders as well as being able to watch videos from YouTube or conducting flipped classrooms when it suits the students. If these are used in the right way, we believe that digital tools can facilitate our mission to individualise our teaching.
Much time is wasted, as we all know, in managing digital technology that is not working properly. It can range from being unable to log on to the network to computers being uncharged. All these can be a significant waste of energy for us educators and accordingly, a good, elaborate structure around the management of digital tools is needed. It is required for someone or some people at school to be, in particular, responsible for the structure and order of the hardware and its maintenance.
It can be anything from booking and charging capabilities to repairing faulty units. The book notes that access to a wireless network is a prerequisite to obtaining digital technology that functions properly. For this reason, it is imperative that the municipality ensures that we can provide this for a successful outcome. When it comes to the ability to save work and documents that our pupils create, the author asserts that cloud services should be used to an increasing extent in our schools (such as Dropbox). Discussions must be conducted at schools around what strengths and limitations such cloud services can mean for pupils’ safety and privacy.
The importance of proper teacher training before using ICT is very strongly emphasised in the book. A piece of advice given for the successful use of digital tools is that the school management and the college must discuss together the underlying pedagogy (purpose and goal) before coming to the discussions on the type of technology to be purchased or used.
The author supports schools prepared to ask a lot of questions, which we think are very good to use as basis for these initial educational discussions. We think that these questions are very good and relevant to use, and we have annexed them to this article. These questions can also be used for the quality review of our ICT use at school. A common mistake, according to the author, is that schools do this in reverse order (buy first and then discuss), and afterwards often realise no success. The most important question you should ask yourself before actively starting the use of digital tools is: ‘How can digital tools enhance or improve the quality of teaching?’ It is only when this fundamental question is answered that we can move forward in the digitalisation of the school.
You do not always need to ‘cross the brook for water’ when it comes to teacher training in the area, but you should first try to find out what skills are already within the staff. View one another as resources and learn from one another’s experiences and successes, says the author. After that you could invite external experts should the need arise. The author also claims that it can be an advantage if you are planning the teacher training at school so not everyone gets exactly the same skills. You should rather try to spread the skills at the college so as to have many different skills available at school.
The author also believes that our schools should have a well-thought-out model of collaboration and follow-up on how to use ICT. A dedicated group of teachers should continuously and systematically work with such issues in order to achieve the best possible results for our students and their learning. Our learning group has a similar task and purpose. Therefore it is very important that the lessons we have learned from this book as well as in our cooperation with our German project partners do not only stay within the group but are shared with our colleagues and school leaders of the schools involved in the project. This way, our lessons can be implemented in the various activities of our respective schools.
Moreover, the author believes that the leader of the school, the school principal, must act aggressively and actively in terms of the digital development of the school. It is important then that the digital development is systematic and not just executed in a piecemeal fashion. The purchase of digital tools must be monitored and evaluated as mentioned above. The key is to constantly ask yourself: ‘In what way does this way of working facilitate and enhance my pupils’ learning?’
In the book you can also read about how the local culture at school could possibly affect the overall environment for learning. The author strongly emphasises that the existing culture at school will affect our learning greatly regardless of what training we receive. The best and most favourable school culture, according to the author, is that of curiosity in which people dare to try new things. When colleagues encourage one another and suggest new things, they indeed try new things to a greater extent. It is therefore important to consider what kind of culture exists in our school. If we do not think a curiosity culture is prevalent, it is a good idea to think about how you can work together to create one. The author argues that a curiosity culture is facilitated by a clear structure in the organisation with well-functioning subject teams and working teams at the school, which are working groups in which there are clear work purpose and goals.
The author then presents in the book a variety of teaching methods or approaches. We note quickly that most of the time we use a method called ‘process pedagogy’. The author argues that this method is the pedagogy that can contribute best to good results because it works in a more project-oriented, interdisciplinary, problem-based and entrepreneurial manner. The process is as important as the content itself, and this provides more time for studies based on the students’ own questions while the teacher takes on a more active role to guide, counsel, encourage and make sure the demands placed on the pupils are at a sufficient level. What is important in the ‘process pedagogy’ method is that the students are active co-creators, meaning the pupils are directly involved in shaping their education. This method is also completely in line with our governing documents. Based on these governing documents and the lessons we have learned from this book, we have decided within our learning group to make use of this pedagogical approach in our work. We therefore deliberately had this in mind when we planned and performed our ‘mirror example’ in the project.
Another thing the author emphasises is the importance of trying, to a greater extent, to find new ways to be able to communicate the pupils’ projects to other recipients. Having a recipient other than just the teacher, inside or outside the class, strengthens the pupils’ sense of meaningfulness. When pupils feel they have done something meaningful, it often promotes their motivation and thus also boosts their learning. We have therefore discussed how we can be better at spreading pupils’ schoolwork to other parties. At present we primarily use cloud services like Box and Dropbox for this purpose. We can clearly see the benefits of these cloud services as they facilitate the reading of work and make peer-to-peer and teacher feedback easier. Just to disseminate pupils’ work to others and to create value for others is something even our governing documents advocate in the form of host-building activities and entrepreneurial learning.
The author concludes his book by summing up that all of the staff and management of schools must be involved in the efforts to use digital tools in teaching if we are to achieve a successful outcome. For the successful use of ICT at schools, we must first ask ourselves the big questions about the purpose, approach to learning, perception of quality and how these tools will affect our methodology and our everyday interactions with students, parents and colleagues. It is only when we seriously take hold of these issues can our exciting journey of exploring digital tools in the classroom start.
The author stresses that you need to follow the working process in classrooms at all times and learn from one another’s experiences. Analyse your experiences together and then look for relevant research. Have others arrived at similar results? If not, what caused the different results in that case? You should also help pupils to develop an analytical approach in themselves. Help one another to initiate such an analytical approach in the classroom. Keep a watchful eye on the processes you start, and note that how well you are doing contributes to both the knowledge and development of your personal responsibility for their learning. Finally, we may, within our learning group, note that our work in the Comenius project is in line with what the author thinks relating to how one should work with digital tools at school. It feels very good to have scientific support backing us up when we come to grips with the new challenges in the digital world.
Petra Gilliusson, Per Lundholm, Marianne Hellberg Olsson, Sofia Holmbom