Technology in the Background: Lessons from the Students of Tomorrow

For several of us in EdTech, NERCOMP 2022 was the first in-person conference we attended in years. The highlight of the conference for me was a panel called “The students of tomorrow”: students of varied races and genders from New England high schools, who were asked their opinions about education and technology. How will our incoming freshmen feel about digital technology in education, how will our students feel about it in the years to come? The answers this panel provided were striking. 

If you thought young people always love technology and gravitate to it, this panel would shock you. The most memorable line – coming from a student born in the 21st century – was: “I personally don’t like technology. I like the old-school way with paper and pen.” 

Such a comment goes against all the received wisdom about the “tech-savvy digital natives”. But when you think about it, it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear. For me as a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, digital technology was exciting – as something I had to seek out. Our elementary teachers had taught us to write and rewrite essays by hand on pen and paper, meaning that for the final draft we had to write out every single word again – a task I viewed with less enthusiasm than a root canal. To have a word processor was a delight, a revelation. I wanted nothing more than to rid myself of pen and paper. 

But a teenager today is shaped by a world that is the exact opposite of mine. They have just been through two years where everything had to be done electronically: everything from school learning to seeing their friends and relatives was mediated by screens and cameras. Online communication is to them what handwritten essays were to me: the thing they can’t wait to get away from. What they seek out is touching grass.

Does that all mean we should abandon digital tools in education and return to the pen-and-paper world of the 1980s? Of course not – not even according to the students themselves. Another student on the panel made this helpful comment: “For technology, less is more. I want to be in person as much as possible and have technology in the background to support it.” Of course you still write your papers through Google Assignments, you still get your grades through Blackboard. But it’s in the background of your in-person experience, there to support that experience. 

Such views come at a felicitous time for Digital Learning & Innovation. With the recent launch of the Shipley Center, the focus (like Educational Technology and the Center for Teaching & Learning’s) is now on supporting the residential experience with digital tools. 

What does that mean in practice? Consider one more student comment from the panel: “Before COVID, if I looked confused, my teacher picked up on that. During COVID, I had to go out of my way to say I was confused.” In person, we are attuned to each other’s visual cues and body language, in a way that allows us to interact more effectively – and educational research tells us strongly that students learn best when they interact and learn actively, rather than just being talked at. So we want an in-person space for active learning. 

Digital tools can stand loyally by the side of the in-person experience, as allies to make that in-person learning the best it can be.

Can technology help with that? Consider the flipped classroom, all the rage a few years ago: a STEM class would move its lectures online so that the in-person class could focus on interactive questioning and hands-on experiences. Several people rightly pointed out that “flipping” made no sense in the humanities because it was just normal practice; students would read the texts outside of class and use class for discussion. But a tool like Perusall allows students to interact collaboratively with the text as they read it, as a starting point to prepare for the discussion in the classroom.

Another student said: “I would like an app where everything for the class like grades and assignments are in one place, like Google Classroom with other things.” Perhaps without realizing it, this student had described Blackboard! Our old standby can stand beside the in-person experience and support it. 

We’ve learned the value of in-person, technologically unmediated human contact. For the students of tomorrow, that contact is at the heart of the education they seek. None of that is a reason to get rid of educational technology; it just means a different role for it. Digital tools can stand loyally by the side of the in-person experience, as allies to make that in-person learning the best it can be.

Amod LeleAbout the Author: Amod Lele is lead educational technologist with Digital Learning & Innovation. In this role, Amod manages a team that helps faculty navigate a wide array of technologies for the classroom.