The National Study of Student Engagement has over the last three decades gathered information on the connectedness of students with their schools, and how this relates to their success. The long-term findings are solid and convincing: the more they are engaged in their work, the better they like school and the more they succeed. Other studies on a smaller scale have measured student engagement at the classroom level and found it to be a positive predictor of desirable outcomes: graduation rates, grades, satisfaction with school. So the question for this week's column is, how do we employ technology to increase student engagement?
The dictionary is full of synonyms for engage, and most of them find easy application in a classroom setting. We all want to occupy our students with arresting academic work, to grab their attention, snag their curiosity, and draw them into the key concepts of our discipline. We search for ways to attract their minds, win their loyalty, and captivate them with our courses. We hope they will commit themselves to hard work, pledge themselves to quality results, and interconnect with ideas and fellow students. We want to engage them in first gear, let go the clutch, and watch them shift forward until they are running through our curriculum at full speed.
Can technology help us accomplish this mission?
Some say no, that many of the technologies we use in school are in fact disengaging. We scan electronically multiple-choice exams so that no human being has to involve themselves with the answers; we watch our students copy down faithfully the text of our PowerPoint slides instead of engaging them in a class discussion; we post self-correcting online tests from our textbook publishers directly to Blackboard, the results of which post automatically to our gradebook, sight unseen; we produce podcasts that require from our students nothing more than passive listening.
And others say, yes, the flash and dash of technology can attract their attention and spice up their studies --- but only for a moment, and seldom leading to deep and serious engagement. In fact this kind of momentary electronic attraction tends to distract them from meaningful work.
But a small and growing minority are finding ways to build deep engagement with serious subject matter by employing technology in carefully crafted presentations and assignments. These teachers report increased commitment and stronger interconnections among students and their subject matter. I see them spelling engagement with five Ps.
The math teacher plots the equation y=sin(x) with a graphing calculator on the SmartBoard. "What is the sine function about?" she asks the class. They agree it's a ratio derived from the length of the sides of a triangle. "Where does it cross the x-axis?" she asks next, and the students after a few moments of work on their own laptops find that it crosses at 3.1416, or pi. "What's pi about?" asks the teacher. "It's about circles," responds the class. "So why does a function from triangles mesh with a ratio from circles?"
This teacher uses technology to ask a serious of questions that provoke intense observation and engender interesting curiosity. And the students will follow up this intellectual provocation with more applications of technology, as they work to understand this puzzling phenomenon. They are engaged with math in a manner not easy to produce with textbook and chalkboard.
The second-grade students photographed for the second time the mealworms they had been keeping in the back of the classroom. Each group displayed last week's digital picture next to this week's. They zoomed in on key details. The teacher led the discussion as the class concluded that the wiggly creatures had indeed become longer, fatter, and darker. Now the teacher shows four pictures to the class as she asks, "What do you think your photos will look like next week?" One shows a longer, chubbier mealworm. The next shows a centipede, another a fuzzy chrysalis, and the last a mealworm very much like the ones in front of them. The groups retreated to their tables for an intense discussion. Arguments and explanations flew back and forth. The voting was about even for all four photos. And the explanations embodied both creative thought and scientific reasoning.
This teacher understands the cognitive power of prediction, and lets students deploy the technology to prepare for and produce the sequence of images that form the core of the exercise. They use digital photography to go back and forth between reality and representation, to preserve data from the past, compare it with the present, and predict the future.
Provocation and prediction set the stage for the next stage of engaged learning -- preparing. Students at this stage use technology to prepare themselves to answer the questions inherent in the provocative and predictive exercises above. They prepare by researching (the history of the concepts of sine and pi, for example, or the life cycle of the moth) in a variety of online sources, organizing their findings in a digital document or database, extending their enquiries by posing new questions and finding new paths of discovery, and finally sequencing their results so as to tell a good story. Students do just about all of this on their computers, working for the most part in small groups, sometimes in the classroom but more often in the living room, library, or dormitory room.
The engagement at this stage does not appear by accident -- the teacher carefully crafts the assignments and tasks and groupings that form the acts of preparation. And what they are preparing for are the productions and presentations that form the next two steps in the process.
Wise teachers understand that coming up with the answer is not the goal of this process. Instead, she wants the students to put together the facts and illustrations and opinions they have found in such a way as to tell good story. And she hopes not all of the stories will be the same. The open-ended nature of the provocation, and the growing array of resources available online, combine to increase the probability of diverse reports from the students.
And they tell these stories in different forms. One group uses Flash to develop its animation of the triangle-circle-pi-sine dance; another use Geometer's Sketchpad to produce theirs. Another focuses on a narrated montage of masterful mathematicians, accompanied by music of the period of each discovery, produced with iPhoto (or PowerPoint or Keynote or QuickTime or Garage Band -- it's not the software tool that matters, its the power of the story they tell with it.) Even the second-graders with the mealworms have learned to use a variety of programs to create their stories.
No matter what the age of the students, the experienced teacher makes sure they follow a logical process as they produce, beginning with a clear definition of the audience; a storyboard of key concepts and media; a script for the narration or labels; and a series of drafts, reviews, and revisions.
The old technologies of pencil and paper and books restricted students to producing one copy and handing it in to the teacher -- a monomedia presentation to an audience of one, hardly a high point for student engagement. The new digital multimedia technologies free us to present to larger and more varied audiences using the media most appropriate to the subject at hand. Student-produced stories can appear on a big screen in the classroom, download to web pages around the world, distribute to the iPod in your pocket, or copy to DVDs for everybody's TV. Or on all of these at once. Teachers engage students in the process of determining the best mode of presentation for the content and the audience, and then in using the best technology tools to produce and present their work. The same story can be told in many different ways, and reach many people in many modes.
Consider an assignment you plan to give in the next semester. Now rethink and retool that assignment by rebuilding it on the five Ps of student engagement. For more ideas on employing digital technologies to engage students, see Pedagogy in Action from Carleton College, or The Power of Images in this series.