Digital education in the smartphone era

For much of the past two decades, educators have commonly referred to millennials as “digital natives.” Given that they are the first generation to grow up with access to personal computers, the descriptor seemed apt at the time. But today’s students–the emerging Generation Z–are demonstrating what it really means to be a true digital native.

Not only are these students growing up with widespread access to computers and the internet, they are surrounded by smartphones and other mobile devices with impressive computing power.

As a history teacher for nearly three decades, I have seen this transformation firsthand. As an AVID staff developer who provides professional learning to other teachers, I have learned that the way we teach students must change with their evolving expectations. Teachers must be prepared to embrace technology in the classroom, not as a shortcut, but as a way of fostering deeper learning among their students through methods that better reflect the world, they live in today.

They must incorporate into their lessons the sorts of digital tools that students will be expected to have mastered when they enter the workforce. To do so, of course, teachers must first understand these tools themselves–and without ever losing sight of their original educational goals.

I have been fortunate to work as a staff developer with AVID since 1999. AVID is a national nonprofit focused on college and career readiness. It provides professional development and training opportunities to teachers in a variety of subjects, or “training strands.” Today, those training strands have evolved to include digital teaching and learning.

Using education technology is not about simply learning how to incorporate specific tools into a classroom that can help make a teacher’s job easier. It is about becoming proficient in digital teaching and learning, creating an environment that meets students where they are and deepens their learning. It requires more than learning how to operate a specific piece of technology; it requires a shift in mindset. AVID’s digital teaching and learning training aim to help educators make this shift, keeping the focus on learning, not the tools.

Instead of just showing teachers how to use new technology, professional development must demonstrate how to meaningfully integrate technology into a classroom in ways that increase rigor and bring their teaching into the 21st century. Gone are the days of having to memorize large amounts of information. Most answers a student needs are now just a Google search away. A teacher proficient in digital teaching and learning knows not to discourage students from using the tools around them, and instead encourages them to use those tools as a springboard for further learning.

Good note-taking, for example, is no longer limited to highlighting the most important pieces of information with a yellow highlighter. Students can now easily organize and revise their notes with the click of a mouse, and they can hyperlink specific passages to informative websites, videos, or podcasts, furthering their knowledge and connecting what they are learning to the vast world around them.

This is just a small example of what can be accomplished when teachers rethink the role technology can play in their classrooms. Digital teaching and learning are not about shortcuts, or about impressing students with the newest piece of tech. It’s about weaving technology into a classroom in ways that deepen–not distract from–learning.

And it’s about helping students learn in an environment that better reflects the world they know–and the world of work they will one day enter.