3 stories of how educational technology can improve relationships

by Thomas Arnett

Around 2014, I noticed a troubling shift in how people were starting to view Blended Learning. For many, Blended Learning connoted an inhumane form of education in which teachers are demoted to mere lab monitors as children spend hours upon hours in techno-isolation with their eyes and ears glued to screens and headphones. 

Although some poorly-designed classrooms that resemble the setting described above technically fit within the formal definition of Blended Learning, this image should not define the popular conception of the term. It ignores the many other instances of successfully implemented Blended Learning that are the opposite of inhuman and isolating. 

Recently I’ve witnessed inspiring examples in which teachers use technology to empower, rather than diminish, their relationships with their students. Their examples are shared below.

Replacing stress with fun and lectures with caring relationships

Stacey Roshan, a high school math teacher in the Washington, DC, area, became a teacher because she wanted to share her love of math with students and help combat the notion of “I’m not a math person.” She wanted her class to be a place where exploring math was fun and where students knew she cared about them as individuals. But for many of her AP Calculus students, it was hard to love math given their nightly struggle through homework assignments with unanswered questions and the enormous pressure to get straight A’s. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Roshan found there was little time to focus on students’ needs when she was busy trying to ensure that she delivered all the content they needed to cover.

Roshan turned to technology. She “flipped” her lessons into online videos for students to watch at home. She then shifted class time toward addressing students’ questions and misunderstandings as they worked through problems, discussing and exploring math concepts conceptually, and engaging with students in a more personal way. As Roshan explains in her book, Tech with Heart, “It’s important to understand that my flipped classroom is not about videos at home and textbook work in class. It is about easing students’ anxiety by giving them time to work through problems with their peers and with me. It is about personalizing the learning space, building relationships with students and gaining their trust, and being there to support them when they need me the most.”

Nipping high school drama in the bud

After touring Innovations Early College High School a few years ago, I sat down with the school’s assistant principal eager to ask about a palpable difference I noticed in the school’s culture. Somehow it seemed they had completely eliminated the cliques, bullying, and pecking orders that plague most high schools. “Oh no,” was her response to my inquiry, “we still have all those issues. These are still teenagers and they still have drama. The difference is that our teachers cue into those issues as soon as they bubble up and work through them with students long before they boil over into hallway altercations.”

At Innovations, every student has an assigned mentor teacher that checks in with her on at least a weekly basis to help her successfully navigate her high school experience. If a student isn’t turning in her homework in one of her classes, the mentor teacher helps her troubleshoot the study habits and patterns that are getting in her way. If a student is struggling to focus due to strained relationships with peers or at home, the mentor teacher helps the student work through those issues. Mentors also help students figure out their long-term goals and then develop an academic plan that moves them toward those goals.

Innovations’ teachers are able to take on substantive mentoring responsibilities in part because of how the school uses technology. Teachers at Innovations don’t spend their days racing through back-to-back class periods to deliver content. Instead, students do much of their learning online, which in turn frees up teachers’ time for mentoring. In short, Innovations has engineered a lot of social and emotional turmoil out of the high school experience by providing each student with a consistent, caring advocate and confidant at school. 

Making space for the realities of life

Recently I visited East High School in Washington, DC, to meet with a math teacher named Kareem Farah and learn about his approach to Blended Learning. The trauma and challenges many of Farah’s students experience outside of class often make it hard for them to be consistently on time and on task. But his blended, mastery-based instruction meets students wherever they are whenever they are ready to learn. Meanwhile, online learning frees him from the demands of covering content to focus on students’ needs and on building caring, trusting, and supportive relationships.

Farah creates online videos of his lectures so that his students can work through lessons and assignments at their own pace. In doing so, he side-steps clashes with students over whether their behavior is conducive to whole-class instruction and creates more time for relationships. When students walk in the door, they jump right into learning activities without needing his direction. This means he doesn’t spend much energy trying to make sure the whole class is ready and attentive to his every instruction. Instead, he floats the room, checking in with students, helping those who are struggling, and pulling together small group lessons to address common needs as they arise.

None of these examples are about the wonders of online learning. The magic happens in the student-teacher interactions. But online learning is a critical enabler underlying all of these stories: shifting lectures to video and facilitating more self-directed learning, in turn, creates more time and space for student-teacher interaction. The ironic fact of the matter is that in each of these instances technology actually makes education more humane. Might examples like these be the real solution to the rising tide of social and emotional challenges plaguing our schools?

About the Author

Thomas Arnett’s research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.