Tips from the Pros: Using Technology to Scaffold Conceptual Development

We use technology to facilitate group activities. If we want to engage our students in a brainstorming activity in our face-to-face classroom, for instance, we may choose to use a technology like Padlet that allows multiple students to collaborate and contribute ideas simultaneously. Teachers also use technology to assess student learning. Student response systems like Plickers or iClickers or Socrative allow teachers to monitor student understanding and make instructional adjustments as needed; this can happen both in online and face-to-face learning environments. Teachers can also use technology to support specific types of activities. For example, an instructor could have students use Twitter to find trending topics in their discipline or watch a documentary film online.

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We use technology to facilitate group activities. If we want to engage our students in a brainstorming activity in our face-to-face classroom, for instance, we may choose to use a technology like Padlet that allows multiple students to collaborate and contribute ideas simultaneously. Teachers also use technology to assess student learning. Student response systems like Plickers or iClickers or Socrative allow teachers to monitor student understanding and make instructional adjustments as needed; this can happen both in online and face-to-face learning environments. Teachers can also use technology to support specific types of activities. For example, an instructor could have students use Twitter to find trending topics in their discipline or watch a documentary film online. But another use of technology we see less often is to support the concrete representational abstract (CRA) progression. For instance, mathematical concepts may first be introduced through concrete experiences such as counting blocks. Next, students would interact with pictorial representations, like counting pictures of blocks. Finally, students can relate to the abstraction (e.g., the number 5 or sign +). Here are some ways to use technology to support a CRA learning sequence: Concrete stage (doing): In this stage of the CRA sequence, students learn by doing. With the technologies currently available, these concrete experiences can be easy to provide. For example, HippoCampus.org allows students to conduct virtual experiments and online simulations. Say you're teaching a unit on the movement of molecules in different states of matter in your introductory chemistry course. This would be a difficult topic for students to engage in concretely without the use of technology. HippoCampus offers online simulations in which students can track the movement of individual molecules in a solid, liquid, or gaseous state. These types of concrete, technology-supported experiences can provide a strong foundation for conceptual development, especially with topics that are hard to reproduce in a classroom setting. Depending on the content being taught, however, students can also interact with online case studies or participate in a serious game in which they learn content through gaming. Merlot.org can provide a great starting point for free resources across disciplines. Take the online game, “Investigating the First Thanksgiving,” curated on the Merlot site. In the game, students act as historians and collect evidence to discern fact from fiction and myth from misconception. Games like this can provide an ideal starting point for developing broader conceptual understandings of the nature and processes of different disciplines. Representational stage (seeing): This is the seeing stage of the CRA sequence. Here, students see connections and develop their understanding through iconic representations. There are numerous technologies to support this stage. With Piktochart, students can create infographics that integrate images, graphs, charts, and data to develop their understanding of a topic. For instance, students in a psychology class may be discussing the myth of multitasking. To better visualize the landscape of research on the topic, students could create an infographic to organize information collected from a variety of sources. The representational stage can also help students better organize their knowledge. Students in one of our colleague's computer science classes were struggling to discern between different programming languages and the unique features and applications of each. By using a free site like MindMeister or Bubbl.us, students collaborated to create concept maps that graphically organized their ideas. The students were able to develop their conceptual understanding of the similarities and differences across programming languages and share their knowledge with their classmates. This visualization process helped to support more advanced learning and conceptual applications later in the class. Abstract stage (applying): In the CRA sequence, this stage involves modeling and applying. To foster these processes, students may use their smartphones to create digital stories to connect what they've learned to an authentic situation. By using an app like iMovie, students can interview community members impacted by an economic policy or environmental issue. Applying classroom concepts to meaningful situations helps develop students' understanding. Students can also record podcasts detailing their understanding and create online presentations to apply their learning in some problem-based scenario. Take the problem-based learning initiative at University of Delaware: the site curates over a hundred different scenarios to help students apply their learning to real-life problems. Because many of these problems involve students reporting their findings to their peers, they can easily be translated into a digital product in face-to-face or online settings. Regardless of the specific technology being used, the students are scaffolded to a higher level of conceptual development and application. To be clear, we are offering the CRA sequence as another consideration for teachers as they navigate the decision-making process for integrating technology into online and face-to-face classrooms. We recognize that teachers daily face numerous instructional decisions as they determine the best ways to engage and assess their students. By introducing the CRA sequence for conceptual development, however, we offer another lens to inform the selection and integration of technology during the learning process. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence. Jason Petula is an assistant professor of education at Millersville University.