Why teachers should embrace digital devices in the classroom

It doesn’t matter what tools you have, it’s about how you use them to teach, says education expert.


France’s recent decision to pass a law banning the use of cellphones, tablets and smart watches at school for children under 15 is just the latest example of moral panic around new digital technologies, according to a University of Alberta education researcher.

Suzanna Wong, an adjunct professor in the Department of Elementary Education, said digital devices are subject to the same backlash provoked by everything from the printing press to ballpoint pens, based on the reflexive distrust of a paradigm-shifting tool.

“It doesn’t matter what tools you have, it’s the pedagogy. How are you going to use that tool? How are you going to teach with it?” Wong said.

“I can see [a smartphone] as a very powerful teaching and learning tool. You have a camera so you can do video, you can document what you’ve learned, you can share what you’ve learned, you can explore what you’ve learned. I think teachers have to think of it that way, rather than as a disruption.”

Wong said many students are bringing some level of technological savvy to school with them, and not building on that existing knowledge would be a missed opportunity for teachers and learners alike.

“I think we have to do a mind shift here. Teachers used to be the knowledge keepers standing at the front of the classroom. I think now you have to collaboratively learn with students,” she said.

Wong’s research involves finding out how children are using digital devices in their daily lives in order to develop effective ways of integrating them in classroom learning. She also works with elementary education professor Linda Laidlaw in her Makerspace Literacy Lab, where they provide opportunities for future and current educators to explore how the multimedia functionality of these devices enables what she calls “multi-modal expressions of learning.

“Pre-service teachers need those kinds of introductions, and in-service teachers in their professional development need to have playing time to see how you can use iMovie to make a book report or to share what you’ve learned,” Wong said.

She added that, though they may be in the minority right now, she knows many teachers who are doing innovative work integrating digital technology into their daily lessons.

“I know a young Grade 2 teacher who actually taught her students to use a cellphone to record what they were thinking about their math lessons, about their writing, and to send the message to her, because she couldn’t always get to every single child while working in a group. It was amazing.”

Wong recently returned from an early childhood educators’ conference in Budapest, Hungary, where she said she heard many colleagues express concerns about the addictive aspects of mobile technology. Though she agrees these may be legitimate concerns, she said she doesn’t think they should outweigh the potential educational benefits. Integrating digital devices into classroom learning would also offer an opportunity to instil in students the critical thinking they’ll need to safely navigate the digital realm.

“As a teacher, I would be really keeping an eye on where students are getting their information from,” Wong said. “I would need to teach them critical literacy skills. What are you reading and how do you know if it’s true? That’s really lacking in the classroom, and I’m not sure how many teachers are confident with those critical literacy skills.”