Ch. 21 Learning with Digital Tools

Clinical Assistant Professor; Liz Kolb; School of Education; and University of Michigan

A group of students using technology
In this section of the course eBook we are going to look at using technology in K-12 schools. The main takeaway for this chapter is “Learning First, Tech Second”.
Much of the content is derived from a massive open online course (MOOC), LEADED501x Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning from the University of Michigan, School of Education, Ann Arbor Michigan.

The technology integration section of the MOOC, Learning with Digital Technology Tools is presented by  Liz Kolb, Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, School of Education

Included will be videos and abbreviated versions of the video transcripts. In this first section we will look at some basic guidelines for using technology for learning.

Watch the video lecture (19:48 minutes). What is Ambitious Learning Through Technology Tools?

LEADed501x Leading Ambitious Teaching & Learning. (2016, Nov. 14). MCHLATLX2016-V001500. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Technology integration is driven by good teaching practices and not fancy tools.

There’s almost this assumption that the technology magically creates these amazing learning gains in the classrooms and new cognition. That does not happen. Instead, often we will see classrooms where students are all over the classroom when they have their laptop or their tablet. They look like they’re engaged because they’re excited about having it. But, we have to be careful that they’re actually learning through the technology.

We tend to make the mistake of giving children a one-to-one device thinking one-to-one is the ultimate solution for learning and then step away and assume that the technology, the app or the software’s going to do the rest of the work for us.

We need to bring in those good, effective teaching methods and strategies. When we look at effective literacy learning strategies, none of them say, just give a child a book and they will learn to read. So, we shouldn’t assume, just give a child a tablet or a mobile device and suddenly, they’re going to learn through it. We need to integrate the effective practices.

Added Value

Technology should be the last piece of the instructional sequence. It should be something that is going to be adding value to those good literacy or good mathematical instructional practices rather than just something that’s exciting and fun.

It’s important to make sure that math is connecting to students’ everyday understanding and their world. That doesn’t mean a story problem where it talks about apples or bicycles, which are relevant to the children.  It means connecting their everyday life, what they see and do around them, to mathematical strategies and understanding. Notice a lot of these effective strategies have to do with collaboration, authenticity, collaboration, and inquiry. Using some of those higher-order thinking skills or higher-cognitive thinking skills are important in learning. These are the things we want to bring into technology learning.

When we look at the research over the last couple of decades, the research does not say we should be isolating students. They should not be using a bunch of what we call drill and practice software which is where they do a lot of multiple choice type questions. Instead, we need to do what we do in mathematics. We need to ask students to inquire, to analyze, to synthesize, to hypothesize.

It’s not so important that they’re just consuming content and answering questions really quickly or swiping to get to the game, which sometimes has negative learning gains. Instead, it’s important that we are adding value to the learning.

Key Takeaways

Research on Effective Tech Use in Learning

  • Elicit higher-order thinking around content over consumption of content. (Wenglinsky, 2006)
  • Quality over quantity (Wenglinsky, 2006)
  • Avoid “drill and practice” in isolation. (Wenglinsky, 1998)
  • “Value-added” element to the learning (Means et al. 2009)

We’ve learned that we need to avoid drill and practice software despite the hundreds of thousands of pieces of educational software that are drill and practice. Because those rarely have learning gains, and often, they are negative learning gains. In addition to that, it’s quality over quantity.

What we’ve learned is that children who use technology every day have no better, and sometimes worse, learning outcomes as far as their standardized test scores and other assessments, than children who use technology less frequently but with higher quality applications, that reach those higher order thinking skills. These are important things that we need to consider.

We need to focus on the time-on-task, and learning goals must come first. We need to make sure that the software is meeting those needs and not distracting from those needs.

Key Takeaways

Research on Effective Tech Use in Learning

  • Focus on learning goals (Linnenbrink & Printrich, 2003)
  • Time-on-task active engagement (Wartella, 2015)
  • Co-use or joint media engagement (Darling-Hammond, et al, Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015, Guernsey, 2012)
  • Connect learning to authentic experiences (Vaala et al., 2015, Guernsey, 2012), Wartella, 2015)

So much software has many bells and whistles, and as I mentioned, games and exciting features for the students. But often, they don’t meet the learner’s needs when it comes to what we want them to comprehend and understand.

A huge part of using technology comes down to a big piece of literacy learning practices, which is this idea of co-use or joint media engagement. Students should be working together, rather than isolated in a corner. Co-use could also be a parent to a child, it could be a teacher to a child. It doesn’t have to be child to a child.

Technology should bridge school experience with everyday life and the world around the student.

The technology should bridge students’ school experiences with their everyday lives, the world around them, and the things that their hearing in the news. The technology should connect students and teachers to experts and the real world through the technology in meaningful ways.

When we’re using the technology, it’s important for the teacher to say, this is why we’re using this app or software. It is also important with asking children to work collaboratively.

We know learning is social. When using technology for learning in any content area, students should be co-using the device. They should be working together. They should be co-constructing, rather than isolated. Read alouds and think alouds are a great way to show that students are understanding.

To make their thinking a little more visible, students using technology devices can participate in what we call share-alouds, where they share what they’re doing at different moments with other students, with teachers in a written format.

Children need to have their learning monitored. Monitored comprehension means the teachers should be checking in and monitoring with the devices. They should be sitting down with the children periodically if they’re in a one-to-one classroom, rather than assuming that the software is doing the work and is doing it correctly.

Children need to be reflecting, questioning, retelling, predicting, and these are things that students can be doing through the software. Again, eliciting some of these higher-order thinking skills, making sure the software isn’t drill and practice, but it’s actually software that allows this creativity in unique and innovative ways.

Modeling and Guided Practice

Finally, the idea of guided practice. Teachers should be showing students how to use the software. They can do the, I do, we do, you do, format. When they’re doing that, and not just modeling how to navigate the software, but in particular, how to think as they’re navigating the software.

Make sure that you are teaching students how to think about the cognition and the learning as they’re navigating the software.

What do we mean by eliciting higher-order thinking skills?

Blooms Taxonomy

Screenshot from the video lecture

We want to make sure that the learning through the technology is happening in the higher processing areas. One of the things that we’ve learned from the research over the past couple of decades is when the learning happens in the drill and practice programs, we just don’t see learning gains and effective outcomes.

The more students use the drill and practice programs, the less effective the learning outcomes. We really want to look for software that elicits those higher processing skills.

Key Takeaways

We know that technology should engage learners.

We know that technology should enhance learning. It should add value to it.

We know that technology should be extending learning beyond the classroom in unique ways.

Technology Should  (Triple E)

Engage Learning Enhance Learning Extend Learning
  • Time-on-task learning
  • Focus on learning goals
  • Co-use and Co-Engagement
  • Social
  • Less distractions
  • Value added to learning
  • Scaffolds and supports
  • Could not do with Traditional Tools
  • Personalized
  • Differentiation of learning
  • Bridge School Learning and Everyday Lives
  • Help Students Make Sense of the World TODAY
  • Connecting Existing Knowledge with new Knowledge

What is Engaged Learning with Technology Tools?

Well, it’s really important that the focus is on the learning goals, this idea of time-on-task, and that the technology is not distracting from the learning goals which it can easily do and a lot of software does.

The software is really motivating the students with different types of scaffolds to get them interested and invested in the learning goals.

One of the most important pieces is this idea of having an active learner. They’re not passive and just consuming knowledge. But, they’re productive, that they’re innovative, inquiring, hypothesizing, and using those higher-order thinking skills. They are not doing it isolated, rather they’re doing it in a very collaborative way through co-use and co-construction.

When we look at time-on-task, we know that technology should be helping students focus on the learning goals. It should allow opportunities for students to learn with less distractions.

Co-use and joint engagement compared to individual use. When we consider co-use, we want students to build a collaborative and shared understanding around content. They should be working together.

If you have a one-to-one classroom, I highly recommend that you take away a few devices occasionally and make it one-to-two or one-to-three, so that students can collaborate and work together, because it’s much more difficult to build a shared understanding when they’re isolated with their devices.

Another benefit of co-use is there’s just more opportunity to inquire and co-analyze and just kind of check for understanding together. Again, when it’s individual use, we just don’t see those opportunities arise as much because all the students are working in their own isolated piece of software.


  • Do you notice co-use or joint engagement in different ways? Either students working collaboratively with devices or they’re choosing apps and software that is collaborative for students, so they can work on it together?
  • How are the teachers monitoring and checking in with the students?
  • Are they modeling how to navigate the tool, and comprehend the content with the tool?

What is Enhanced Learning with Technology Tools?

What the video lecture 3:20 minutes

LEADed501x Leading Ambitious Teaching & Learning. (2016, Nov. 14). MCHLATLX2016-V001300. [Video File]. Retrieved from

Now that we’ve had a chance to look at what engaged learning with technology tools is all about, let’s look at the characteristics of an enhanced learner using technologies.

Often the words engaged and enhanced get thrown about together, but they’re very different when it comes to technology tools. There are three different things we want to be looking for an enhanced learner.

Technology should add value to the learning goals

 First, we want to look for this idea that there’s a value added. That somehow, students are able to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the content learning goals because of something that’s happening with the technology.

Technology includes supports and scaffolds to help make learning more attainable (accessible)

Technology can often bring in scaffolds, or supports, for the students, whether it’s feedback, whether it’s a way to differentiate instruction through leveled learning, that would help the student understand the learning goals better.

Do we need the technology?

If the task is something that we can easily do with traditional tools, then we don’t need to use the technology. But if it’s something that we can’t do with traditional tools, then that’s where the value-added is realized.

Technology absolutely should be something that integrates, supports, and scaffolds to help make learning more attainable. Making sure that there is this value-added is an important element we should be looking for.

A few examples of that would be such as differentiating learning or personalizing learning, which again two terms that are often thrown around but very different.

When we’re differentiating learning, we’re looking at students who are learning at different learning levels. An example of differentiating learning would be software that allows students to read the same article or read the same book based on their Lexile level of reading. If a student is at a lower Lexile level, they can read the same article that another student is reading, but just the text looks different and it’s formatted differently for them, so that it meets their learning needs. Newsela is an example of a program that provides multiple Lexile levels of the same news article.

Personalizing learning software, is software that allows the teacher to actually create different activities for different learners based on their interests and the way that they like to learn. While the students are learning, the teacher can weigh in during the process of learning by seeing what the students are doing and putting in comments or even drawing on the student’s screen. Google docs is an example of a program that can be used for personalized and collaborative learning.  That would be a value-added element to the learning and notice that there is co-use woven throughout it as well.



  • Reflect on your own experiences using technology in the classroom, think about how the learning is enhanced or value is added to the learning process through the technology tools. Look for scaffolds and supports for the learning that’s provided by the technology, and notice if there’s any differentiation of instruction or personalization that’s happening through the technology.

What is Extended Learning with Technology Tools?

Now that we’ve looked at the characteristics of an enhanced learner and an engaged learner using technology tools, it’s time to look at the characteristics of what an extended learner needs with technology tools. This is an exciting piece of learning with technology tools, because it’s something that was much more difficult to do prior to having access to digital technology in schools.
How can technology make learning authentic?

It allows students to look at the world around them in a different way, in a very unique way. For example, being able to help solve real world problems through technologies, tools, and the different strategies and methods they’re learning in school.

The things we tend to look for are the ways that technology can help students connect and create this bridge to their everyday lives.


  • Bring experts into the classroom virtually.
  • Skype, Google Hangout, with pen pals from across the globe so students are able to learn new languages, and learn new cultural norms from other students.
  • Livestream to connect with literacy experts, such as a favorite author.
  • Social studies: students collaborating with others using Minecraft


  • If you would like to watch videos of teachers in the field, talk about how they extend learning with technology, go to , search for “Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning”, and enroll in the MOOC.Reflect on your own teaching with technology, look for evidence that demonstrates extended learning.
    • Does the technology help the learners connect classroom learning to their everyday lives.
    • Is the technology helping to connect the prior knowledge and interest of the students in the classroom learning, and then bridging that back to their everyday lives?

Triple E Resources

Liz Kolb as developed Triple E Evaluation Rubrics to use when:

Evaluating the connection between the technology in a lesson plan and the learning goals of the lesson. 

Evaluating Apps and Websites for  Learning Potential.

Instructional Strategies to help meet the Triple E Framework.

You can learn more about the Triple E Framework at
and on Twitter @TripleE

Other Resources for Evaluating Technology

Kerry Gallagher (@KerryHawk02) and Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) posted a blog on EdSurge on April 21, 2016 , ” Should I Download that App? A Ten-Question Checklist for Choosing Tools Worth Your- and Your Students’- Time”   They suggest asking yourself these ten questions before tapping GET, INSTALL or BUY.  Please read the full article that includes their rationale behind each question.

  1. What content do we want students to learn?
  2.  What skills will our students practice or refine when they use this app?
  3. Will our students be consumers or creators when they use this app?
  4. What are my students’ needs, and can this app meet them?
  5.  Is there a better app that achieves the same purpose?
  6.  Is there a comparable/better app at a cheaper price?
  7.  Is there an app on your devices that already does the same thing?
  8. Does the app promote our school and district “best practices”?
  9. How will we inform everyone else?
  10. Have we talked to the app creators?

Gallegar K, and Cooper, R. (2016, April 21). Should I Download that App? A Ten-Question Checklist for Choosing Tools Worth Your- and Your Students’- Time. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Course Technology Evaluation Tool- click on link to access the evaluation tool.


  • As an assignment you will use the technology evaluation tool to evaluate an application/program that supports learning in the content area of mathematics.

You may have a new program at school or you can borrow one from another teacher. Explore the program thoroughly. Deliberately make  mistakes to see how the program will respond. Find out what kinds of software personalization options are available. Does the program teach the skill it claims to teach. How would you use this program in your classroom? Describe your overall experience with the tool. Would you recommend it to others? Why or Why not?

Paula Lombardi, Granite State College, School of Education


MichiganX:LEADed501x Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning. (2017). (an Open edX MOOC). Module 2: Ambitious Learning with Digital Tools (CC NY NC ND)

In text citation: (MichiganX:LEADed501x, 2017, Module 2)




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Ch. 21 Learning with Digital Tools by Clinical Assistant Professor; Liz Kolb; School of Education; and University of Michigan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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