“Meaningful Learning” in a Digital Age

As a teacher and a parent I can fully understand why there is a hesitancy to use technology in a classroom. There are fears about child safety: who can they be talking to? Fears about the student data:  how will it be used? And fears about the credibility: why would kids need something that I didn’t and I turned out fine? But, it isn’t these fears — strangers, privacy, credibility — that keep me up at night.

The biggest fear I have about the integration of technology in education is that it’s often meaningless. In other words, I worry that the introduction of new technologies means little more than a change from using pencil and paper. Is technology really being used to develop more meaningful learning opportunities? If it’s not, why are we using it at all?

So what do meaningful learning environments look like? According to Jonasson, Howland, Moore and Mara (2003) the five interdependent characteristics of meaningful learning environments: active, collaborative, constructive, authentic, and goal directed.

So what can meaningful learning environments look like when technology is integrated?

One increasingly popular way to answer that question lately seems to be “SAMR,” a framework for integrating technology into teaching and learning. What makes SAMR helpful to teachers, educators, parents and administrators in part, is that the goal is to create meaningful learning environments that without technology would be inconceivable.

If, as a K-12 student, I walk in and watch a SMARTboard or giant audiovisual screen in front of me — and I am not interacting with it, but instead having content directed at me — it is not an example of meaningful learning using technology.

Similarly, as a student, if I come into a classroom and I am given an iPad with applications already loaded and I am asked to create a presentation or draw an image with one of those pre-chosen tools, I am also not engaged in a meaningful learning environment using technology.

These are two examples of “substitution” (the first “level” of SAMR) which is still the most pervasive “level” apparent in most K-12 learning environments.

What SAMR misses however is that it focuses on the change of technology tools, rather than the transformation of the teacher and students as learners as a result of using technology. SAMR, like many similar frameworks for and discussions about education technology, remains focused on the tools.

We are denying students to the opportunity to more meaningful learning — and more meaningful learning that uses technology — if we don’t include both human relationships and technology when we talk about the concept.

We need to move beyond SAMR (or any other similarly constructed model) and towards thinking about meaningful learning that focuses on human interaction with technological support and scaffolding in order to promote activity, collaboration, and construction with authentic outcomes and goals. Two examples of activities that might do this include blogging and gaming.

Blogging develops writing skills by promoting the idea of audience and voice. You can blog alone, sure, but if you want blogging to work for you, you need to connect and interact with others. Blogging offers a wide variety of educational opportunities.

Sue Waters has been a blogging inspiration to me as I have watched her develop blogging projects with students and teachers around the world. The feedback that teachers and students often share is, “I am not just learning HOW to connect but WHY connect.” When students blog and receive feedback, their voice is heard. By writing blog posts and connecting with others, students construct their own active and collaborative learning environments with personally relevant and authentic outcomes and goals.

Similarly, you can play games by yourself. But it’s often by playing with others (or sharing our game-play with others) where we build meaningful experiences. Zoe Branigan Pipe’s students created an inquiry project that integrated Minecraft, Edmodo and Google.docs. Her project, “Geography, Math and Minecraft: An Inquiry Driven Project,” recently won a Microsoft Innovation Education Award. It demonstrated how a Grade 7 class, using collaborative games and social media, could imagine and redevelop a former industrial area.”

My own son’s fascination with games led me to work with a team of gamemakers on a project called #GAmifi-ED. There we examined serious games in education with a project that promoted intergenerational networked learning — grade 9 students, masters students and experts from around the world, learning together.

“As students worked on the Gamifi-ed project, I noticed an increase in their engagement as the other participants – master’s students at the University of Alaska Southeast – started making comments on their work and providing feedback. As my students produced polished work and tweeted links, they were excited to see the traffic going to the site and started getting responses from a public audience. Engagement again increased. This verifies what we have seen in research: authentic audience improves student engagement.” – Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher)

The challenge, particularly for school leaders and education technology advocates is to move “beyond SAMR” and beyond discussion of “new tools” that acts as though “new tools” alone will magically generate “meaningful learning.” What is meaningful isn’t how we interact with devices; it is how we interact with one another.

This means we must focus on collaboration, connection, and interaction. This means too that we should take learning outside the classroom walls. That’s something that technologies can afford us — thanks to the Internet, for example. But again, the focus shouldn’t be on the Internet; it’s about how we learn from other people on the network.


Jonassen , D., Howland, J., Moore, J., Marra , R. (2003). Learning to Solve Problems with Technology: A Constructivist Perspective . Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice Hall.

Image credits:  Bill Ferriter

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