How Educators Can Use Learning Technologies to Engage Learners

We’ve all witnessed the ways in which connected technologies and the Internet have changed our lives. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the classroom, where teachers have opportunities to engage students who experience the world and texts in a much different way from previous generations. However, it’s important that educators understand how to use technology as a tool to spur engagement, creativity and learning.

Changing Definitions, Changing Expectations

In the late 90s, the explosion of the Internet challenged our traditional notions of “texts” in a classroom setting. The increasing popularity of multimedia led to questions about what constituted “writing.” Could you write with pictures? Could you write with sound? Publications like the Star Tribune began to use audio in their reporting such as a feature asking Minnesotans to speak about what it meant to live in the state. Unfortunately, at the time, most schools didn’t have necessary technology in the classroom to let students engage with or create these multimedia experiences.

Today’s learners expect to engage with technology in all facets of life, including their learning lives. In studying social and digital media, it’s clear that text is no longer just the printed word and that young people have very different expectations for what constitutes text. They define the idea of texts more broadly and expect to be able to share their work instantly and get instant feedback both in class and over social media. Learners expect to be part of what Jenkins (2009) calls “participatory culture” that includes (1) relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement; (2) strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others; (3) informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices; (4) members who believe that their contributions matter; (5) members that feel some degree of social connection with one another.

Strategies in Using Technology to Enhance Learning

Finding strategies to use technology in support of engaged learning practices requires educators and learners to be “border crossers.” The traditional boundaries between learning sciences and literacy are breaking down as we pursue teaching techniques that incorporate a wide variety of media, texts and activities. This also means breaking down the divide between research and community outreach as researchers partner and collaborate with districts, educators, librarians, media specialists, and youth workers to share approaches and tools that engage youth in learning.

To better understand what works, we’re currently conducting a study called Bright Stars funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation. We’re studying exemplary educational technology programs in three different settings; library, secondary classrooms, and community-based organizations where digital media is central to engaged learning. We’ve picked three programs that reflect each setting (for a total of nine), each selected for a track record of excellence – many have won awards and prestigious grants for their work with technology-infused engaged learning.

While all the sites are different, there are some common traits. These programs offer opportunities for learners to produce and create content and strong mentorship from educators, adults and peers. By studying these sites, we hope to learn what makes them successful and use them as a guide for setting up similar programs.

Setting the Stage for Engaged Learning Success

The Bright Stars study will teach us much about what it takes to use technology and multimedia to support connected learning across various settings, but there are some practices and principles we know spark better student engagement.

  • Encourage play and experimentation. Educators need to be comfortable with allowing learners to play and experiment with the tools they’ve been given while providing guidance and limits. This sense of play is something that is often lost as learners progress from elementary to secondary education, but it’s important for sparking deep engagement and learning.
  • Design projects that allow learners to use technology for social critique and social change. The best engaged learning projects encourage “border crossing” not just by combining technologies and texts, but by focusing on large social issues that are rooted in complex historical, economic and political issues. These topics are more compelling for learners, encouraging them to combine knowledge from various disciplines, and often leads to community involvement and social action.
  • Invite learners to bring their identities and experiences to the project. Culturally relevant learning has been proven to be effective at motivating learner achievement. By drawing on their own ethnic histories and cultures, learners will feel more connected to the work and able to address social issues that affect their communities.
  • Share class projects with authentic audiences. Too often, projects live only in the classroom. Learners do the work, turn it in for grading, and it’s never seen again. Learners are more motivated if they know that their work will be shared with their peers or the public. A great example would be organizing a “film festival” to show student documentary films that were done in class.
  • Employ language to establish a community of learners. Language has a powerful shaping influence on the formation of community norms and the establishment of trust. Language use should be dialogic, characterized by learner-generated questions and animated sharing of multiple perspectives that continually reference previous speakers, class texts, and media sources. In addition, educators in our study often used language to refer to learners as apprentices in a relevant field (e.g. photojournalists, filmmakers, citizen journalists), which helped to encourage learners to fully inhabit their roles in the learning and production processes.
  • Use technology to position youth as collaborative meaning-makers. Too often educators control the technology to transmit information, rather than as a tool that can put learners in charge of their learning. Learners need to be active users of technology rather than passive receivers of technology-mediated instruction. This works best when learners have a good deal of control over their workspace, tools, and objectives as well as the expectation that they will work together to address complex social and academic problems.

Debunking the Myths Surrounding Learning Technologies and Engaged Learning

We believe in the power of technology to support opportunities for enhanced engagement, creative expression and deeper learning. Here are a few common myths related to technology used in learning.

  • Technology is a magic bullet. Too often, schools hand out devices or technology to students with little thought to how they will be used. Distributing iPads to all your students will have no benefit – and could distract from learning – if they are not coupled with student-centered, production-oriented, and process-focused visions for learning.
  • Technology reduces the need for teachers. While the instant access to information and content creation tools that technology provides can enable more self-directed learning, learners still need the guidance and wisdom of a strong educator. Without strategic guidance and mentorship, using learning technologies can simply become an add-on rather than a tool for creativity and production.
  • We must lower our expectations for technology-infused projects. With the tools and technologies available today, there’s no reason that learners’ multimedia projects need to be amateurish. Expectations for a youth film project should be just as rigorous as those we would have for a research paper and, in fact, should involve multiple cycles of research, reading, and writing.
  • Learners don’t want to revise their work. We hear too often that youth don’t want to take up the sometimes difficult work of revision, but we’ve found that when learners are engaged with learning technologies and the projects they are creating, they will spend copious time revising their multimedia projects. They want to be pushed to make their work better.

By keeping these guidelines in mind as you implement learning technologies, you’ll be helping your learners to empower their own learning process. These engaged learning experiences can be rewarding for both learners and educators.


Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Digital Media + Learning: The Power of Participation:
Connected Learning:
T. Grant Foundation:

Spotlight on Two Local Bright Stars Project Partners:
Saint Paul Public Library’s Createch Studio @ Arlington Hills:
Saint Paul Neighborhood Network’s Youth Programs:

Cynthia Lewis

About the Author

Cynthia Lewis, Ph.D.

  • Emma Birkmaier Professor in Educational Leadership
  • Department of Curriculum and Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development

About the Author

Cassandra Scharber

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