Engagement is Not the Goal

Students at the STEM High School in the Lake Washington school district outside Seattle via Nick Adams at Education Week

Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of students (or anyone) doing meaningful work.

- Sylvia Martinez via Scott McLeod

In today’s education speak, engagement is too often cited for purposes that are not ideal.  As one reads the reports of schools implementing technology in their classrooms, undoubtedly someone will cite technology as a means to increase student engagement. However, not all engagement is equal, and in deed some engagement may not even be desirable.  In particular, I believe we need to ask are the students engaged in the learning or in the medium and/or process.

Prior to the advent of today’s digital tools, this was not a real concern as most of the learning tools were not likely to be independently engaging.  As a result of the ongoing digital transformation, it is critical to define the engagement we seek as part of the learning outcomes and then identify technology tools that support this engagement.  To that end, here are some of the key identifiers I use to assess the nature of the engagement.

Collaborative

Does the tool drive collaboration amongst students, teachers, and a broader community of learners?  Conversely, does the tool tend to isolate people within their own world?  While there can be benefit to the latter, as a metric for engagement, my bias is for those tools that create more dialogue, discussion, and cooperative learning.
Interactive: Does the tool provide an interactive experience?  This one tends to be a bit challenging to fully investigate. Currently, there is significant discussion of “interactive” textbooks; however, I think in most cases these tend to be more “animated” than interactive.  If the text simply adds video or simple activities, I choose not to call them interactive.  Recently Dan Meyer has been discussing how to create more networked textbooks, and his points drive towards more “interactive” solutions.  At the minimum for me, to be considered interactive, there should be an opportunity for students to alter the experience based on user input.  The greatest example of truly interacting while learning maybe robotics.  For each action the learner takes, there is a corresponding action (or failed action) by the robot.  Through these interactions, students become greatly engaged in their learning.

Constructive

Does the tool enable students to create?  As a strong proponent of the constructivist learning model, engagement in which the students are able to construct a demonstration of learning is richer than those for which there is none.  Consider Google Earth as a tool. Certainly there is benefit to using GE as a means for providing context and global awareness in the study of history and literature.  However, if GE is used, as it is with Google LitTrips, to enable students to construct a “demonstration of understanding” the engagement is more meaningful.

Cognitive

Does the tool enable and/or encourage metacognitive analysis of the learning?  With so many games being used to help students develop skill mastery, there is a loss of an analytic approach to examining mistakes and failures.  I often see math games highlighted as “must-have-apps.” Although students are very engaged in playing the game and getting answers, there is no opportunity to examine mistakes and for developing a deeper understanding through patterns. By sacrificing reflection and analysis to adrenalin, we fail to leverage the engagement for deeper understanding.  Consider Angry Birds which can certainly be engaging. Students can be engaged in playing Angry Birds; they can tinker with initial angle and initial velocity, and they can even create some outcome (badges).  However, if the learning stops there the engagement is wasted. By asking students to construct a new game using programming tools or to create a video analyzing the game mechanics, the engagement is more powerful.  

As with the adoption of any new tool or the implementation of any new curriculum, the role teachers play is critical.  Thus, we must ensure that the professional development for teachers does not silo curriculum, technology, and pedagogy as disconnected topics, but rather we leverage frameworks such as TPACK to emphasize the overlap in these areas.  Looking at digital tools through the lens of pedagogy and curriculum will better enable teachers to identify meaningful engagement.