Helping teachers design appropriate and engaging technological experiences

Young children are growing up in technology-rich environments, and come to school with different experiences using technology. As a result, teachers need to be prepared to design responsive learning tasks which capitalize on contemporary technologies. More than learning how to use technology, teachers need professional learning that helps them to develop effective practices, and to adopt appropriate technologies for learning in their classrooms.

Particularly for early learners, employing technology in ways that is both developmentally appropriate and intellectually engaging can be a challenge. Effective technology use for young children should encourage them to design, create, play, and invent, rather than being used to simply deliver information. Supporting teachers in making this pedagogical shift, and evaluating its effect on student learning, was the focus of a two-year study by Drs. Michele Jacobsen, Sharon Friesen, and Barb Brown.

Teacher Learning

As part of the study, professional learning experiences were provided for 45 teachers in four school districts over two years. The experiences focused on the design of rich, inquiry-based and technology-enabled work for learners in kindergarten to grade four. The teachers participated in a research community of practice, attended professional development sessions, and received online mentoring support and collaboration.

The researchers’ assessment indicated that the majority of teachers showed evidence of designing worthwhile tasks and appropriate use of technology ‘some’ or ‘most’ of the time. Technology was used to make the students’ learning more visible – both during and after the tasks – and helped the teachers provide formative feedback to students at different levels.

Some of the design criteria included:

  • Authenticity and Academic Rigor – i.e. using real problems or ideas that are meaningful for the students
  • Learning in the World – i.e. mirroring the kinds and ways of working an expert or practitioner would perform
  • Fostering Deep Understanding – i.e. requiring significant intellectual investment and innovative thinking
  • Appropriate and Creative Use of Technology – i.e. using technology in a way that is essential to accomplishing the task, with students making sophisticated use of various media
Student Learning

To investigate the effect on student learning, the researchers carried out classroom observations. During three different stages, the team looked for characteristics of student engagement on a scale of 1 to 4.

  • Level 1 – Disengaged – inattention, off-topic, misbehavior
  • Level 2 – Ritualistic compliance – working, but without enthusiasm or investment
  • Level 3 – Academic engagement – on-task behaviours, with attentiveness and initiative
  • Level 4 – Intellectual engagement – a deep, personal commitment and absorbing, creatively energizing focus

Level 4 (intellectual engagement) was seen in 8 of the 16 classrooms by the middle and end of the lesson. These higher levels of engagement were commonly seen when students were working in pairs or groups and using a range of technological resources. Intellectual engagement was also connected to 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, self-direction, and teamwork applied in real-world processes.

Level 2 (ritualistic compliance) was consistently observed in 3 of the 16 classrooms. In these classrooms, students were often not given opportunity to self-direct or think creatively, they used technology in a prescribed manner, and learners worked individually on a step-by-step, teacher-controlled task. Ritualistic compliance was also observed when students spent the majority of the time listening to the teacher lecture, or watching the teacher use and demonstrate the technology.

Worthwhile Learning

Teacher participants noted that the opportunities for collaboration, and the quality professional conversations, were key drivers of their own learning. The pervasive access to technology, the increased time working and talking to colleagues, and the connections with teachers outside their jurisdictions helped teachers to design and analyze effective learning tasks.

The teachers described that worthwhile learning was personalized, connected to students’ lives, encouraged problem solving, and prompted reflection. Appropriate use of technology for early learners helped to make student learning visible, removed barriers, made students’ work mobile, and made the work more real for students.

The teachers identified the need for more opportunities to network, for mentorship, and for time to learn collaboratively with other teachers in order to continue their professional growth. Future sessions could continue to focus on developing rich student tasks and technology-enabled work, to help teachers and young learners benefit from the meaningful and purposeful use of technology.


See more from Dr. Michele Jacobsen on her profile

See more from Dr. Sharon Friesen on her profile

See more from Dr. Barb Brown on her profile


Connected Citations

Jacobsen, M., Friesen, S., & Brown, B. (2017). Teachers’ Professional Learning Focused on Designs for Early Learners and Technology. In D. Polly, T. Petty, & A. Good (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Innovative Practices in Teacher Preparation and Graduate-Level Teacher Education Programs Learning. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.