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Deeper learning demands deeper justification from edtech tools

/ Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad

There is a tendency, by both edtech vendors and users, to excitedly describe technology tools in terms of product features and benefits, faddish jargon and technical fireworks. When the conversation turns to the educational value of edtech tools, questions raised tend to be answered by positing a connection between the edtech tool to specific curriculum requirements or standards.

For school and district administrators responsible for ensuring that money being spent can be demonstrated to impact educational goals, this response is likely too imprecise for comfortable decision-making. What is needed are clear guideposts and frameworks that move the conversation beyond rhetoric to demonstrable correlations between edtech tools and stated education goals.

The Myth of “Connecting” to Educational Goals

Consider the following example of a content standard that is typical of the sort to which an edtech tool might claim a link:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.7.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.

It is one thing for an edtech vendor to claim that this standard is “covered” by their tool, as in “yes, students can use our product in completing this sort of project.” Of course, the same could be said of pencil and paper.

The educational value of a tool must go beyond a tangential connection to content standards. Additionally, the platform or tool must go beyond a substitution of ineffective practices (passive consumption of information). An effective tool is one that supports students in deeper learning and facilitates their application of concepts at a higher level of learning. We would also expect such a tool to be intrinsically motivating and exciting to students in a way that previous techniques cannot fulfill. What decision makers need, therefore, are proven, calibrated yardsticks for measuring the real utility and effectiveness of a given tool as a means of empowering students to demonstrate deeper learning.

Applying Trusted Education Research to EdTech Evaluation

Bloom’s Taxonomy is among the most well-known of cognitive research theories about learning. Bloom proposed that learning can be categorized by six levels of cognition (thinking). Each level reflects more complex engagement than the last. The bottom of the pyramid represents remembering—basic recall—while the top of the pyramid represents creation—actively using knowledge and concepts in the creation of new work.
Bloom's Taxonomy
Source: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

The Rigor/Relevance Framework builds upon Bloom’s Taxonomy. The vertical axis represents the six levels proposed by Bloom’s Taxonomy. The horizontal axis is the Application Model, which demonstrates in specific detail methods by which knowledge can be put to use in meaningful ways. Quadrant D represents the highest degree of effectiveness, where knowledge and skills are used to create something new to solve complex, real-world problems that students care about.

Rigor Relevance Framework
Source: International Center for Leadership in Education

Applying the Rigor Model to Video Creation

Below is an example of how the use of video creation within the context of a specific curriculum objective, can be evaluated for meaningful impact as a learning experience through the use of the Rigor Relevance Framework. In this example, students have been asked to research the issue of the poaching of elephants in Africa. The chart maps a variety of approaches one might consider using to have students demonstrate learning, from simple written summaries to more complex, multi-dimensional, and collaborative solutions.

Quadrant C — Assimilation:
Students extend and refine acquired knowledge to automatically and routinely analyze information, solve problems and create unique solutions.
Students research the impact of African elephant poaching on local communities, the international ivory trade ban, and the history of ivory and its uses. Students propose solutions to prevent poaching. Students use Google Hangouts to chat with other students in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa. Students create a powerpoint/Google Slides presentation of their findings and potential solutions.
Quadrant D — Adaptation:
Students think with complexity and apply knowledge and skills to unpredictable situations.
Students extend on Quadrant C. In this scenario, they work with the World Wildlife Fund and are creating a documentary video (using WeVideo) based on their research and conversations with students in African countries. The video will contain clips taken by students locally and in the communities that are impacted by elephant poaching. To raise awareness they include cinematic elements and post to YouTube.
Quadrant A — Acquisition:
Students simply recall and possess a basic understanding of knowledge.
Students look up multiple sources of research about African elephant poaching. Students write a summary of their research.
Quadrant B — Application:
Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions and complete work.
Students work in collaborative groups to discuss solutions to solve the African elephant poaching problem. Using multiple sources of research, students will write a paper describing their solution.

In Quadrant D, students are challenged to think with complexity as they evaluate solutions to the problem. They must analyze multiple sources of data from research and from locals. They then create a deliverable using an iterative process, in this case video creation, that involves multiple steps each with their own demands. The video creation process—storyboarding, editing, finding and creating content, narration, revising, and sharing their videos for assessment and/or peer review—reflects the sophistication represented by Quadrant D.

While video creation requires the use of technology skills, the approach puts the focus squarely on the meaningful work of the students, the learning acquired through the relevant tasks, and the collaborative and creative process. When used in this way, the tool becomes a means of effective teaching and learning.