Getting the most out of digital learning

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Helping children to avoid distractions in digital learning.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll think about a task you need to do, grab your iPad or phone, open the relevant app or browser and immediately get distracted by something. Then, about ten minutes later, after a quick browse of eduTwitter, replying to a few messages, and glancing at the BBC News app twice (just in case something critical has happened in the minutes since you last checked), you’ll realise you haven’t done the task in hand. Children are no different. We are all familiar with the lure of distraction that looms large on digital devices, so how can we engage children with a specific digital task, particularly when we’re working with tight timeframes of 20 or 30 minute lessons?

Practically Speaking…

In the most practical sense there are some things you can try in your classroom to minimise distraction and set a digital lesson up for success:

  1. Timetable lessons using digital devices after break-time or lunchtime, or as the first lesson of the day. This will give you, or if you’re lucky enough to have one, your Teaching Assistant, more time to set up the devices in advance of the children coming into the classroom. Pre-load the apps or log in ahead of time for the group you know will be using the app or platform to avoid the loss of time turning on devices, navigating to apps and logging in. If children can get straight into the task in hand, they’re less likely to be distracted and more likely to turn their attention to it.
  2. Consider using the features of the tablet device you’re using in class to remove temptation at the source. iPads for example can be locked down to one app using the ‘guided access’ feature under the accessibility tools. When this feature is turned on you can quickly enable it by triple clicking the home button and starting guided access. Once enabled no one can leave the app or browser window unless they enter a four digit passcode, so no matter how much the children in your class want to watch a video on YouTube instead of engaging with the task in hand, they won’t be able to do it…
  3. Don’t think of digital tasks solely as independent, or individual activities. Often engagement in learning comes from discussing that learning – for example with an ebook, thinking about how the characters and the story link to the reader’s own experiences, and this can only be done with person to person contact. Within every digital lesson consider making time for children to talk, either with an adult, or with each other, about their learning. The power of talk for learning is well documented, and opening up dialogue will not only help keep children focused, it’ll also help to move their learning forwards and aid with retention of the information.
  4. Think carefully about the purpose of the task being conducted digitally. What is the activity trying to achieve and what is the benefit of it being done digitally? How will you assess (in the loosest sense) whether the learning outcome has been achieved? Do the children know the intended outcome? By asking these questions ahead of planning a digitally oriented task you will be able to focus children’s attention more effectively, and put in place any scaffolding needed around the technology to help achieve the aims of the lesson.

A Deeper Level of Engagement

Once you’ve got beyond the distraction factor, there are lots of other subtle ways you can help children to engage in digital learning, particularly digital reading, to ensure positive outcomes.

When using digital content, particularly ebooks, it’s important to be discerning about quality. While there are many free apps and ebook libraries available, we shouldn’t treat them any differently from printed content. Rarely would we choose a book to read without a good scan of the cover, a skim of the blurb and a flick test, and digital books are no different. When identifying an ebook for a child to read ask key questions, for example: is the text at the right reading level for the child? Are the digital features of this book furthering or aiding learning, or serving as a distraction? Are the illustrations or photographs in the text appropriate, of a high quality and interacting effectively with the text? Is the typeface used dyslexia friendly and are the letter formations those which children will easily recognise for their age and stage? Is it written in British English? There is nothing more disengaging than being asked to read something, especially for ‘pleasure’, which is either inaccessible or poorly written, and this applies across all forms of media.

One advantage of digital reading is that it can offer a world of choice, but to ensure increased choice adds up to increased engagement there are a few areas to be mindful of. When using a digital library, consider how much choice is appropriate for each child. For some children being presented with 20 books to choose from can be overwhelming, and rather than settle down to read one text, they can spend 20 minutes flicking between texts unable to make a decision. Does the digital library you’re using allow you to make a smaller selection of books, or limit the selection for the child to choose from? Also consider whether there is adequate information presented for a child to make an informed selection, for example, has the system been designed so the child can see the blurb of each digital book? If they must open each book to do a flick test, this will use up precious lesson time in which the child isn’t really reading. 

Finally, remember that just like using a printed text, children have differing interests and different books will engage each child; you will need to know each child and each text well to be able to strike a winning match. Ask yourself questions, for example: is this a topic the child is interested in? Will the child see themselves reflected in this book? Will the child be able to understand and engage effectively with the topics and themes of this book? Digital libraries can help with this if they provide essential information about each text in an easily digestible format enabling you to match text to child quickly.

The Digital Advantage

While digital reading can present some challenges, these are easily overcome with careful thought and planning, and digital reading can offer huge advantages both inside and beyond the classroom. For example, according to a survey by the Office of National Statistics (2018), 90% of households in the UK are connected to the internet, and this rises to 91% of households with one adult aged 16 to 65, and further to 98% in households with two adults aged 16 to 65. In contrast, according to a survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust (2018) 9% of children do not have a book of their own at home, and this rises to 12.5% for children on free school meals. Digital libraries and educational apps, when used effectively, present the opportunity to put books and learning into the hands of every child, and allow children to engage with books on a wide range of devices beyond print. Unlike printed books sent home, digital texts can be re-used again and again, they don’t suffer bent corners, and they don’t have accidents with the family dog (or toddler). 

When used effectively digital learning, in particular reading, has the power to broaden access to text and reading as a pleasurable activity… as long as we don’t get distracted.

Sophie Thomson is Head of Primary English at Pearson where she has spent the past 8 years working with teachers and pupils to develop print and digital reading solutions.

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