Taking a ‘human-centred’ approach to edtech in the classroom

By Lillian Flemons, NFER Research Manager

Monday 11 December 2023

Lillian Flemons, NFER Research ManagerThis blog post was first published in Tes on Monday 4 December 2023.

A recent rapid literature review by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) about the use of multimedia tools for teaching maths and science suggests that human mediation may be just as important in determining a tool’s effectiveness for improving learning outcomes as the technical design of the tool itself. But how can teachers ensure that they are bringing a human-centred approach to the technology they use in the classroom?

Guiding student interaction with edtech

Given the technological capacities of much of today’s edtech, it can be tempting to feel that the teacher’s role is simply to facilitate learners’ access to the technology. However, teachers also play a crucial role in mediating how students engage with the content. One US study (Li et al., 2020) of primary school pupils found that teachers implemented even such simple edtech as a suite of science videos in a range of different ways, each with a particular effect for student engagement. For example, one teacher reported viewing the videos as a class to be more effective than students viewing them in small group using a co-viewing guide. Other teachers in the study reported using the shorter song-based videos to support smooth transitions between activities, as background music for related activities, or encouraged children to sing and dance along to them. Another approach that may spark students’ interest is finding opportunities to ‘gamify’ how pupils engage with the content, whether as part of the edtech or through teacher-facilitated activities. For example, one teacher in the study described above reported creating a scavenger hunt to increase student engagement with an eBook that students had shown a tendency to simply click through without necessarily taking the time to read all the content.

Ensuring you choose edtech that meets the needs of your specific learners

Not all edtech is created equal. Nor is its usefulness universal. Teachers are ideally placed to select not only edtech that is of high quality in itself, but also that is most suitable to the needs of the particular learners concerned. For example, using storylines and characters to convey content has been found to help younger learners (ages 6-7) remain motivated to learn early mathematics (McCarthy et al., 2018). Characters and storylines have likewise been found to help children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) or English as an Additional Language (EAL) to engage in discussions around the content of science lessons, even where they may not yet fully understand the concepts (Li et al., 2020).

In addition, ‘emotional design’ features, such as face-like shapes and warm colours, were found to support mathematical understanding for younger learners (age 5) (Chiu et al., 2020). The authors hypothesised that these features created a ‘fun environment’ that encouraged learners to ‘invest more effort in learning’. This is likely to be particularly important for the youngest learners because of their lower levels of self-regulation (the ability to control one’s behaviour).

This same study found, however, that even slightly older children (age 7) did not demonstrate the same benefits from this design, leading the authors to suggest that, where higher-order thinking (such as critical thinking and problem-solving) is involved, the additional cognitive load (or mental effort) created by these features offsets any benefits for engagement. More is not always more when it comes to edtech, and the teacher plays an important role in ensuring appropriate design is selected for learner needs.

Using edtech to facilitate ‘teachable moments’

Edtech can play the role of ‘provider of knowledge’, so that teachers can focus instead of being facilitators of learning. One Australian study (Mills et al., 2019), for example, found that one of the key benefits of older learners (ages 13-14) constructing stop-motion animations to learn about geology was the ‘teachable moments’ it created (for example through teacher-prompted questioning), which deepened learners’ conceptual understanding through teacher-learner dialogue.

Optimising for edtech’s strengths

Finally, it is important to remember that some teaching scenarios will benefit from edtech more than others. A recent meta-analysis (Ran et al., 2021) suggests that edtech is most beneficial for maths performance when used to promote ‘a collaborative and communicative learning environment’ or to support problem-solving and conceptual development. Edtech is also beneficial for monitoring and assessing students’ learning but may bring fewer benefits when used in this way in isolation.

There is no doubt that the benefits technology can offer to the classroom are manifold, but the teacher continues to play a crucial role in maximising its impact. When introducing edtech into the classroom, evidence suggests that teachers should reflect carefully on WHY that specific tool will add value to the learning experience of the target audience, HOW learners will engage with tool (intellectually, not just technologically), and WITH WHO the learners will be able to refine their interpretations and understanding (this can, but does not have to be, the teacher) to maximise the potential benefits.