Jeanette Salinas, M.S., Ed.D.
The Technology Trap - Ed Tech Tools
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
The 21st-century classroom model is filled with smart screens, mobile devices, and a variety of other technologies. Educational website companies boast about real-time analytics and immediate feedback offered to students and teachers. And every school year, companies upgrade applications to provide more data for teachers to track. Although it is excellent for teachers who collect data between classes or after school, the looming question is, does it distract teachers from helping students in “real-time”?
Schools are becoming so bogged down with finding ways to afford and purchase “smart” technology and licenses for applications that they seem to neglect one of the smartest assets in the classroom, the teachers. The hole left in this process creates a domino effect of leaving out the most important consideration in the classroom: the learner.
There are countless ways that technology can enrich learning in the classroom. Still, it is crucial to consider how teachers supplement technology while being thoughtful about the teacher/student learning interactions to avoid the pitfalls of educational websites.
Educational tools and motivation
Intrinsic motivation is an internal energy that leads to self-initiated behavior, which stems from the enjoyment of a process and feelings of competency and success once the process is complete. Extrinsic motivation is driven by receiving a reward or avoiding punishment for participating in a process. While the resulting behavior of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may look the same in the classroom setting, there are very real consequences for students who do not develop intrinsic motivation toward task completion. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation often decreases when using educational websites because motivation often becomes intertwined with the reward, games, or point systems built into the website or application. While the student may start the activity and sometimes complete their assignments, they may not participate in activities unless an outside motivation is attached to the activity, which robs them of the opportunity to build a sense of pride in their work and their accomplishments.
Introducing an educational website or applications into the classroom can be a carrot for many students, leading to self-initiation. The self-initiated, intrinsically motivated student will likely not face as many issues with the educational websites. Still, the student struggling with efficacy will face many challenges when using a website or application tool. Like any other school activity, educational technology tools still involve curriculum content. Students struggling to learn a particular math concept will continue to struggle when learning the content on a website or application. If the student is left alone to struggle, this further compounds the experience and can lead to resistance, opposition, or dysregulation. Some students will be motivated to get started because they are motivated by the gamified components but do not have the coping skills to persist through mistakes, the loss of points, game time, or a virtual reward.
The gamified scores, reward boards, and medals not only decrease intrinsic motivation but can be a distraction for students. And, instead of helping students connect to the skill they are learning or their mastery goal, they become consumed with collecting the virtual rewards and medals. Students already struggling with task management will be further consumed with avoiding the assigned activity by finding the non-educational distractions or games built into the educational technology tool.
Educational websites and efficacy
Albert Bandura describes efficacy as the person’s belief in controlling their behavior to execute a specific action plan. Efficacy is essential for task completion and a vital factor to consider when understanding underlying reasons a task is not completed by a student. A self-efficacious learner will typically be a self-starter and persist for more extended periods, and have logical expectations for themselves, their abilities, and the amount of effort a task will take to complete. Initially, a slight exaggeration of their ability can be helpful in motivation and help them self-initiate but doesn’t support them persist through challenges that arise, which means they may fall short of task completion. Some students have a “gross miscalculation'' between efficacy and performance, leading them to inaccurately gauge the amount of effort required to complete academic activities. The student’s perception of success and failure can be so skewed that they engage in self-destructive behavior, like negative self-talk when a perceived failure does occur. For instance, when they answer a question incorrectly, they might say to themselves, “I am dumb.” They might even engage in catastrophic thinking like, “I will never graduate,” even when they are just learning arithmetic in kindergarten. A student with low self-efficacy will struggle to self-initiate or give up when faced with any internal or external challenge.
Two commonly used educational technology tools
Most educational websites focus on performance metrics, mastery goals, and grade progression. IXL.com proudly shares that 1 in every 5 students in the US uses their tools and that Texas schools with IXL outperform schools without it on the STARR exam. IXL provides all the bells and whistles: real-time analytics, standards-based lessons, adaptive learning, a reward board, and a proprietary algorithm known as the “Smartscore.” The Smartscore is an algorithm that IXL Learning has developed to define mastery, but some students view the Smartscore as a quantified indicator of their ability and intelligence. Unfortunately, like many other application and website designers, IXL falls short of thinking about the student’s experience and focus because they are too focused on the metrics. One major hurdle that interferes with self-efficacy is the varied point distribution difference between getting a question correct and answering one incorrectly. Another frustrating element in the design is limitless attempts and time to “master” a skill which can frustrate a student if the teacher doesn’t put time limits or attempt goals in place or encourage them to move onto the next skill once they reach a proficiency score. For concrete thinkers or perfectionists, these types of design elements can become roadblocks for moving forward.
While many educational website and application designers fall short of being mindful of a student’s experience, one company has a thoughtful design, MobyMax.com, designed to close learning gaps and support teachers in differentiating learning. It provides a K-8 full curriculum to support teachers to differentiate learning by providing simple ways to diversify assigned grade-level content. It also integrates a system for students to earn game time for time spent completing the activities. The earned game time is an external reward that reinforces the student’s feelings of success after completing the assignment (instead of attaching a number to their ability and intelligence as they are working through the task). In turn, this can help build sustained internal motivation in task completion after the student experiences a “job well done” in their earned game time. The interface of MobyMax is simple, and it provides opportunities to correct mistakes before moving on to the next question, which is one of the most supportive features for students who are learning to master a skill and may still be struggling with a sense of self-efficacy. There is an option for the text to be read aloud, which is helpful for students who are still learning how to read. The one downfall is that it is text-heavy, offers few images and no videos. On the other hand, teachers can create and integrate videos to enrich any assignment and upload them directly to MobyMax.
Find the balance
Before leaving a student alone to complete an educational tech activity, there are three things to consider. The first consideration is to explore the website or application (whether you are a parent or teacher). When you do, make sure to explore how the app responds to incorrect and correct answers. Identify the distractions on the interface. Is there a running score, badges, or tally system? How easy is it for the child to exit out of the assigned activity and play a game?
Now that you have done reconnaissance work, you are ready to prepare the student for the activity. Preparation is a critical step that often gets overlooked, but it will help set the student up for understanding the upcoming activity goals and expectations. Prepare the student for what they will see when they get a right or wrong answer and how they might feel when that happens. And point out the distractions, like the score or gameboard. Suppose they end up playing a game instead of completing the work. In that case, prepare them for how that might end up prolonging the activity time, possibly missing out on something else they want to engage in, like socializing with a friend.
Finally, find the right balance between giving students room to independently work while providing them enough support to persist through challenges. As the students are learning to master the content and develop self-efficacy, here are some helpful tips for supporting students:
acknowledge on-task behavior,
remind them of the assignment goal when they appear to be off-task,
help them put words to their feelings if you notice they are frustrated or disappointed,
collaborate with them to make a plan for a break when needed,
praise their effort, and
help them connect to their feelings of success when they show proficiency and mastery.
Educational technology tools have come a long way. Still, they are not sophisticated enough to understand students’ varying levels of motivation, self-efficacy, and prior experience before each task; this is where the teacher trumps any device or tool. And, by front-loading support, teachers learn pivotal information to better support self-efficacy and motivation, allowing students to really feel those moments of success and build their internal sense of self-efficacy.