Can digital also mean low-tech? Yes, and it can enhance teaching

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Feb 20, 2018

With Digital Learning Day around the corner, many teachers may be inundated with research, how-to’s, and intricate tools, all revolving around the descriptor “digital.” But does digital technology need to be that complicated?  

When most people picture world-changing technologies, they immediately conjure mental images of rockets, computers, and smartphones. But when the word “technology” or “digital” is too closely associated with devices or software, we can easily overlook powerful technologies of a different sort–especially in today’s schools.

So what exactly is one of the powerful tools in today’s schools? One answer is low-tech, digital lesson plans.

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Technology doesn’t have to be synonymous with difficult

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen and his colleagues define technology as “the process that any company [or individual or organization] uses to convert inputs of labor, materials, capital, energy, and information into outputs of greater value.” When we broaden the term “technology” to this definition, we start to see that many important advances do not have screens, buttons, or mechanically motivated parts. New test procedures for quality control technicians, new surgical techniques for cardiac surgeons, and new lesson plans for teachers are all valuable forms of technology.

For example, a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that giving middle school math teachers access to lesson plans from the company Mathalicious resulted in a statistically significant increase in student achievement. Moreover, the lesson plans had the greatest impact in the hands of weaker teachers. Similarly, a study published by the Brookings Institution found that upgrading teachers’ curricula had a substantial effect on student learning.

Although not viewed as very high-tech, digital lesson plans and curricula are nonetheless valuable technologies for improving teacher effectiveness and student learning.

Low-tech, digital tools for better teaching and learning

Using low-tech, digital tools and resources, like digital lesson plans, in the classroom can help benefit teaching and learning in a few ways:

  1. By codifying complex teaching skills

In education, we expect teachers to have wide-ranging expertise—from content knowledge to pedagogical knowledge, to curriculum design, to classroom management, to designing and administering assessments, to managing relationships with parents, to overseeing non-academic activities. With so many complex tasks falling in teachers’ domain of responsibility, it’s no surprise that there is often wide variation in teachers’ skills and expertise and, as a result, in their impact on student learning.

But simple innovations, like digital lesson plans, that codify complex and intuitive teaching skills into simple instructions for teachers to follow can go a long way toward improving teacher effectiveness and student outcomes. As the authors of the Mathalicious study noted:

“In our model, lessons designed to develop understanding substitute for teacher effort on this task so that teachers who may only excel at imparting knowledge can be effective overall–simplifying the job of teaching. … Benefits were much larger for weaker teachers, suggesting that weaker teachers compensated for skill deficiencies by substituting the lessons for their own efforts.”

  1. By saving time for classroom management

Depending on the lesson plan, it can automate tasks such as logging assignments and checking multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank answers on tests and quizzes. Teachers will also change how they plan curriculum, units, and lessons as software can take care of some basic instruction.

As more classroom management functionality becomes automated, this frees up time for teachers to spend more of their skills and mental energy on more important things for students and their learning; such as tailoring learning to student needs and focusing more on individual and small group instruction than on managing large classes.

Schools looking for ways to leverage technology to improve student learning should note that some of the most worthwhile technologies may be low-tech lesson plans and curricula that turn complex teaching tasks into simple, rules-based practices with options for freeing up valuable classroom management time.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.