"Don't plan for technology; plan for learning." Alan November

Putting Learning Before Technology in K-12 Education

Here are two basic tenets to lead the learning for K-12 decision-makers who purchase hardware technology in their District or school.

  1. Learning plans determine the uses of technology across the curriculum.
    All administrators say this publicly, but it's 
    not always practiced in reality. Technology purchases are often deployed in the proverbial 'cart before the horse' fashion. Districts wanting the latest devices, justify that want without aligning it to their strategic K-12 learning plans. Making the academic task-to-tool alignment is very time consuming for a District, but only then, can the District community begin the process of what will be the devices, apps and services selected to best work within specific age-groups of students.

  2. Listen to the learners. They are telling us to stop choosing a 'one size fits all' approach in selecting a digital device for them to use at school. 
    "With smartphone usage dramatically on the rise — 65 percent of students in grades 6-8 and 80 percent of students in grades 9-12 are smartphone users — a main concern among today’s digital learners is how to leverage the unique features of different devices, from laptops to smartphones to tablets or digital readers, and use them for certain academic tasks." 
    2013 Congressional Briefing National Release of Speak Up 2012 K-12 Students, Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey
This chapter will first identify the common digital devices used currently in K-12 education. We will always be revising this list. For example, when Doug started this chapter in a previous form on this website back in 2014, smartphones evolved into the monster digital device for students and staff at school, and the Parental Debate: Should your Kid have a Cell Phone at School? (USA Today, 2018). For high school and middle school this debate is ongoing as a majority of secondary students now own a smartphone and bring it to school that includes growing use in the upper elementary grades. Where as on the other side of the devices coin, owning or using a digital still camera has quickly become a thing of the past, maybe reserved for a special class project or Photography course.

Second, I've created A Digital Devices Guide for Receptive and Expressive Learning Activities. My goal here was to best match a device with a K-12 educational activity.

Digital Devices Defined

"A digital device is an electronic device that can receive, store, process or send digital information." (IT Law Wiki, 2018). As an educator or consumer, you are undoubtedly aware of most all of the devices listed below. However, with a growing list of products being used in K-12 education it sometimes is nice to refer to- much as we align learning tasks to content standards, we need to similarly align specific digital devices to specific learning tasks.

Mobile Devices: Handheld electronic devices

  • Audience Response Systems (called Student Response Systems in education) are hand-held wireless control devices (often called 'clickers') and used by students to electronically respond to a teacher's questions. The students' responses are then received to the teacher's computer and displayed through a video projector system. New systems through software applications can include, cell phones, smartphones and laptop computers as the response device.

  • Digital Still Cameras are cameras that encode digital single images and moving video and stores them digitally. These cameras are stand-alone handheld devices and now, most commonly used and integrated into every smartphone. In fact, smartphones have virtually whipped out the low-end market and will primarily be a higher-end product used for more serious photography.

  • Digital Video Cameras are cameras that encode digital moving video and stores these images digitally. These cameras are stand-alone devices (often called camcorders) and now, most commonly used and integrated into every smartphone. As stated above, the low-end market for these stand-alone devices has been replaced by smartphones and now are primarily a higher-end product used for more serious video production.

  • Graphing Calculators are handheld niche calculators that are capable of plotting graphs, solving simultaneous equations, and performing other tasks with variables used typically in secondary math courses.

  • Portable Digital Audio Recorders are handheld devices used for recording voice or music content. MP3 is still the common audio format, however these devices have been mostly replaced by a smartphone app.

  • Probeware are handheld scientific equipment and sensor hardware interfaced with software, computer systems, and phone apps for the purpose of collecting, interpreting, and analyzing data. Robotic sensors in general are a growing area in robotics as sensors in robots can mimic the functions of human sensory organs

  • Smartphones  are mobile phones having a computer operating system with touchscreen and/or stylus input. Smartphones are Internet capable and use webs apps and services and include still camera, audio recording and video capabilities.

    According to nonprofit family media watchdog Common Sense Media, 24 percent of kids from 8 to 12 years old have their own smartphone and 67 percent of their teenage counterparts do, with tweens using an average of about six hours’ worth of entertainment media daily. (USA Today, 2018)

  • Tablet Computers are one-piece mobile computers having a touch-screen display with finger and/or stylus input used instead of a traditional laptop keyboard and mouse. Tablets come equipped with built-in speaker, ports and function buttons and have a camera and video recording capabilities. Tablets in schools often come equipped with a hard plastic or rubber-based shell for protection.
    • Slate Tablets are tablet computers without a dedicated keyboard. 
      • E-readers or e-books are slate tablet computers designed for better readability of their screens, especially in bright sunlight, and longer battery life.
      • Gaming Tablets are slate tablet computers designed with better graphics, resolution and processing power than a typical tablet device. This category is expanding from just entertainment content to learning and creative content.
    • Laplets are tablet computers with two distinct parts- a tablet touch-screen display that can be separated from typically a membrane-type keyboard as in the Microsoft Surface.

  • Virtual Reality Headset is a head-mounted device that provides virtual reality for the wearer. VR headsets are widely used with computer games but they are also used in other applications, including simulators and trainers. Wikipedia


  • Chromebooks are laptop computers with Google Chrome OS having a solid state drive designed to work online in the cloud.

  • HP Stream - Are inexpensive laptop computers with Windows OS having a solid state drive designed to work online in the cloud but also can use Windows software. 

  • Convertible laptops have a flip, twist or split base body with an attached (moving parts) keyboard. These laptops can converted into four different modes: traditional laptop, tent, stand and tablet as in the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga.

  • Netbook was basically a small inexpensive laptop that came out in 2007 and were killed by tablets and Chromebooks by 2012. The Netbook is a classic example of computer manufacturers and educator's good intentions by trying to meet the financial needs of the K-12 education market, but delivering an inferior product to millions of students. The Netbook and the Interactive Whiteboard are probably the two biggest wastes of technology in terms of a typical school district's costs to actual use ratio- with millions of Netbooks collecting dust in laptop carts and Interactive Whiteboard systems solely used as a video projector. Doug includes this piece here as a reminder to himself and others to- Plan for learning, not technology.

  • Mini, Sub or Ultra "notebook" laptops are thinner, lighter and usually with 12" and smaller screen size.

  • Rugged (or ruggedized) laptops are specifically designed to operate reliably in harsh usage environments and conditions built with a tougher external housing and internal components.

Desktop Computers:

  • Traditional Desktop Computers have a separate case housing containing the computer processing unit (CPU), power supply, memory and graphic chips, ports and fan. A separate monitor, keyboard and mouse are also part of the system.

  • All-in-One Desktop Computers integrate the system's internal components into the same case as the screen display, eliminating some connecting cables and allowing for a smaller footprint. A separate keyboard and mouse are still needed.
    • Touchscreen All-in-One desktops control the computer through multi-touch gestures with fingers and/or a stylus pen. These desktop computers also include a separate keyboard and mouse and for the education market provide a multi-mode computer for a variety of users.

A Digital Devices Guide for Receptive and Expressive Learning Activities 

An Authentic Plan for Learning

We believe that the Common Core Standards, although not perfect and with ongoing work ahead, represent the beginning process of moving away from a standard-tests based education system to a production-based one. A production-based education system utilizing project and inquiry-based models of instruction will become the norm for developing students' knowledge, skills and understandings of our 21st-century world.  As School Districts maturate with the Common Core, inquiry-based models will guide our curriculum and instruction development, and technology can be authentically integrated into the process. 

In our opinion and practice, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have created an optimal pedagogical plan for learning through their Understanding by Design process. 

Here, inquiry-based instructional development, derived from content standards is crafted in three stages:

Stage 1: Desired Results - What are the learning outcomes?

Stage 2: Evidence - How will students demonstrate their understanding through tasks?

Stage 3: Learning Plan - What learning tasks/activities will lead to achievement of the desired results?

At the school and classroom level, curriculum and instructional strategies come from this inquiry process and determine what kind of learning activities will take place in a K-12 classroom. Progressive administrators and teachers often map these learning tasks and activities across their grade levels through professional development unit and lesson planning. From this, technology is identified to help achieve learning outcomes at a particular grade level. 

In this next section, we will discuss two fundamental cognitions of learning development and how schools can better align what they teach (the content), with how they teach (the pedagogy) of implementing instruction across the curriculum. This alignment will help optimize students' motivation, achievement and the technology dollars used in their education. 

Receptive and Expressive Learning Development

Terms like content consumption (such as reading a blog) and content creation (as writing a blog) have been around for years to describe learning activities that involve technology. Now, as digital devices are present everywhere in our lives, there is a greater blurring of the consumptive/creative lines as people interact with a variety of digital screen interfaces to both consume and create content in multiple environments. 

In K-12 education, we first look through the lens of language development aligned with age-appropriate subject content. Content consumption is viewed through receptive listening and reading and responsive or communicative activities.  Content creation is viewed through expressive speech and writing, the arts and making or producing activities. 

In the tables below, we will identify some key K-12 learning tasks and then pair a digital device or devices through their designed form and function, as a good tool match for students' use. 

Receptive, Responsive or Communicative Learning Activities 
Digital Device Match 

Listening and Stimulus-Response Activities: 

  • Listening to audio (or watching multimedia) stories and books, music and playing simple games
    • Slate Tablets are tablet computers without a dedicated keyboard and are popular consumer electronic devices. In fact many adults who originally bought a slate tablet for themselves have basically given these devices to their younger children. I believe slate style tablets are the preferred mobile device for young children between 1.5 - 5 years of age. Why? Because the 7-10 inch screens are perfect for little hands to hold, but not too small to provide gross motor direct-selection finger touch to control the OS and apps. In my opinion, I would question large scale purchases of slate tablets for students beyond first grade. Also, as a grandfather of eight grandchildren, I personally see the slate tablet design in a toddler's wheelhouse.
Reading Activities:
  • Fiction and Non-fiction Books, PeriodicalsReference and Resource Texts
    • E-readers or e-books are slate tablet computers designed for better readability of their screens, especially in bright sunlight (see Kindle paperwhite), and have a longer battery life than other tablets.

      Note -
       If not now, allow yourself a little time to read the two research articles below.
    If you've read the two articles above, it just reinforces what you already know, using technology is a balancing act. It is important that people of all ages need to step away from digital media on a regular basis and choose paper media to help our brains better receive information. Research is showing us that sometimes a whole book or newspaper for example, let's us organize our thinking by actually seeing and tactility touching a whole piece of text. This big picture view let's our brains relax and take in the content at a deeper and lasting level. Digital text allows people to work faster and the practice of 'skimming and scanning' becomes our default mode of receiving digital content. With digital text and access to world wide information through the Internet, our brains are skimming, like- picking a plate-full of small portions from the buffet line, rather than focusing on one large entree.

    Technology by definition will continue to improve our digital reading activities as we've now reached a point to begin to discern different tablets and their functions. I believe that every school needs to have this balance of paper texts and digital texts. Our libraries and classrooms can provide this best balance by adding e-readers tablets to the mix. The Kindle paperwhite is an example of this evolution of a hybrid reading tablet. We should be looking in this direction for deeper digital reading with these very specific reading tablets over more colorful tablets. As digital texts overwhelm paper texts, we all will need to develop deeper reading practices for our students and ourselves using digital screens in the years ahead.


    Whole Class Participation:

    • In Class Collective Responses to Teacher Questions
      • Audience Response Systems (called Student Response Systems in education) are handheld wireless control devices (often called 'clickers'), and used by students to electronically respond to a teacher's questions, where the responses are received to a computer and displayed through a video projection system. Wireless systems through software applications can also utilize smartphones and laptop computers as the response device.
      • For younger students K-5, I would go with a simple hand-held clicker and with older students you can probably do a BYOD solution as shortly, if not already, 90% of high school students will now have a smartphone.
        • Note- School District controlled laptops with excessive startups on a wireless network with authenticated logins are not recommended compared to the quick, easy and spontaneous use of handheld responders in a typical school district network.
      • In our 2018 update here, we don't see this technology taking off. We're wondering if the setup time is just too much for teachers and will this be a going, going, gone technology in the years ahead?

    Text-based Digital Communications: in the context of using a District/School Learning Management System (LMS) or web-based communication apps with teachers and students.

    • Texting and Chat - Quick thinking- reading and messaging (writing in words and phrases)
      • These functions are often disabled on many LMS systems currently. Smartphones are the obvious choice here but texting and chat are usually off limits in K-12 academic networks. As BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) IT procedures continue to evolve, texting and chat will play a larger role in academic activities as schools leverage the power of student-owned phones and tablets with their students' level of access. Also, the use of speech-to-text for texting with smartphones is increasingly taking the abbreviated writing style out of texting.

    • Discussion Forum and Email - Moderate to deep thinking- reading and writing
      • Once you get into writing full paragraphs, students need a full keyboard for speed, accuracy and the ability to get mentally out of messaging mode. 

      • Discussion forums and email help lay the groundwork of formal writing. Forums and email allow students to first practice their formal writing with people they know, in this case, other students and teachers. Student-owned phones and tablets can be used here, but as a teacher we would recommend that students write purposeful paragraphs using a full-sized keyboard. 

        Email is a good example of an application that has evolved in the last twenty years into a formal writing activity. As email became the professional default for work-related communications, adults learned how to conduct themselves by writing in a formal and professional manner. 
        As professionals, we simply can't stand a reply to a well-crafted email that has been thoughtfully written and the response from a colleague or boss is a half-baked single line text response from their cell phone. 

      • Students using discussion forums and email can learn to follow proper English grammar and punctuation in writing complete sentences. Having a full-sized keyboard is a physical prompt for students to write deeper and be away from the abbreviated messaging style used with glass interface keys. In the reading research section above, we discussed current research and the need to use paper-based texts for deeper reading and comprehension. We're suggesting a similar scenario here. Smartphones and slate tablets are better consumptive devices, and in that general receptive mode, people form quick thinking habits that are reflected in their writing. I'm suggesting a full-sized keyboard (like the laptop keyboard I'm writing this on) stimulates the mind to write at a deeper level. At least for now, that is our current habits of mind until time and practice with ever-evolving technologies change our cognitive processes in deeper writing tasks.

    Expressive Learning Activities 
    Digital Device Match

     Voice-based Digital Recording: (in the context of school/work environments)

    • Student Voice Recording - assessment or evaluation of student skills and knowledge
      • Portable Digital Audio Recorder - Small hand-held MP3 recorders (or smartphone app) are great for recording a student audio examination, performance or interview.

    In Class Presentation Activities:

    • Presenting Visual and/or Multimedia Information to a Group
      • Students need a digital device that directly or through a port adapter system (VGA, DVI or HDMI) can connect with a classroom video presentation display (video projector, monitor and/or flat panel TV) video/audio system. The question to ask here, did the district match and provide the proper cables or adapters of the student device with the classroom video presentation system?

    Writing Activities

    •  Narrative writing beyond a paragraph
      • Laptop or desktop computer with a standard (tactile spring action) keyboard. It is just uncomfortable and unergonomic for students to write an in depth and time intensive paper on a hard glass input capacitive touch screen.

    Drawing or Painting Activities

    Database or Spreadsheet

    • Hand-held devices like graphing calculators and probeware are becoming the preferred choice as students creating and recording data collection outside of classroom becomes more the norm. 
    • Inside the classroom, a 12+ inch screen is often preferred, just to see and better organize your data. 

    Page Layout, Graphical Organizers or Video Editing

    • A regular-sized laptop with a 12+ inch screen is okay but many students would rather use a laptop or desktop computer connected to a 19+ inch screen display. Many people also prefer to use a standard mouse over a touch pad, the whole activity often begs to letting the user spread out a bit and be given some room to create and manipulate the work on a larger screen(s).

    Summative Thoughts  

    With digital devices, it breaks down from the smaller to the bigger. We have two general types of sensory input. One, what we see in the size of the digital screen. And two, what we touch to control what we see and hear on the device. Very simplistic but rather complicated when determining, for example, the merits of tablets versus laptops and laptops versus desktop computers for different tasks and age groups of students. I simply recommend to first focus on an age-appropriate learning activity to determine what device could best serve through its design to help complete a task. If anything, in the past twenty years we have learned that one size doesn't fit all and school districts are going to need to be very flexible in managing the variety of devices in their schools and on their networks. I'll finish here with the first draft paragraph I wrote below that motivated me to write this section. It is based on my direct experience working in a large urban school district technology deployment.

    Many educators have experienced the tremendous waste of using an institutional digital device deployed across a school district. They watch as many of these devices collect dust or lay in disrepair in classrooms because the selected device's form and function did not sync with current classroom instructional practices. My hope is that decision-makers in K-12 education will learn from their or other district's mistakes and be reminded to "plan for learning" as the beacon in their technology evaluations and purchasing processes. 


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