Potential and Pitfalls of Digital Reading Platforms for Connected Learning

At the recent Tech for Schools Summit hosted by EdSurge at the USC Rossier School of Education, organizers promised that the event was designed “for educators by educators” and that attendees would “gain exposure to cutting edge tech tools.” I arrived with an interest in learning more about the ways that education technology tools are marketed to teachers and the extent to which these tools offered teachers opportunities to customize Connected Learning experiences for their students.

While the daylong event included a keynote address, a student presentation, and 3-minute pitches from some of the start-ups in attendance, the main attraction was an open tech fair where educators could talk to representatives from dozens of companies about their products. When I walked into the cavernous ballroom, I was nearly overwhelmed by the smiling tech reps in their company T-shirts standing next to slick banners (almost all of which included the words ‘Common Core’ — I should have gotten an exact count). In order to stay focused, I consulted the provided agenda (on my smart phone, obviously) and decided to visit the companies that had been grouped into the “Literacy” category. I tapped into my background as a high school English teacher and my passion for curriculum development and set out to see what I would be willing to use in my own classroom with my own students.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the major players in literacy-oriented technology tools are digital reading platforms — software that allows students to read and interact with texts without the bother of paper. I visited three of them — LightSail, Curriculet, and Actively Learn. Since I have not personally played with any of these particular products myself (yet), I do not intend to review them individually; instead, I’m more interested in thinking about what they mean to classroom literacy teaching in a more general sense. The only note I have about the individual products is this: while Curriculet and Actively Learn have free versions and the ability for individual teachers to sign up on their own, Light Sail does not have a free version and needs to be purchased in a package by a school district or other organization. I like free, so there’s that.

Overall, I found that all of the digital reading platforms shared several major functions. I thought that some of these functions were incredibly exciting, with the potential to support transformative Connected Learning opportunities, while other functions bent toward buying into the data craze and offering uninspiring canned curriculum. Here are the major features of these platforms and some of my ideas about them:

Library

Representatives from each company tried to tell me that their product stood out because it offered the “biggest and best” library of texts, but it seemed to me that all of them offered comparable (and comparably huge) availability and variety of texts. You can access all texts in the public domain and can ‘rent’ more contemporary books. What I liked best is that teachers and students can add their own texts to the libraries in the form of PDFs, and that the platforms can strip advertising from articles or other texts from a variety of online sources and upload them as texts into the libraries as well. I liked the fact that teachers have the ability to create their own text sets — sets that can include texts produced by students if teachers are inclined to try tearing down the walls between who gets to be an author and who gets to be a reader.

Curriculum/Assessments

As a teacher (and especially as a new teacher), I knew that there was no reason to reinvent the wheel and try to develop original curricular materials every day for every text — there are a wealth of resources online that I drew from in order to cobble together a curriculum that was uniquely my own. The key, however, is that the process of modifying and remixing existing resources ensured that the curriculum was always my own. I do not support the idea of adopting a curriculum created by someone else hook, line, and sinker, regardless of its quality, largely because such adoption does not take context into account — who your students are, where you’re teaching, what is going on in the world around you. Each of the digital reading platforms I learned about offer curricula for each of the existing texts in their libraries, as well as a series of quizzes and other assessments that are aligned to various Common Core standards.

One of the features that the representatives were excited to tell me about was the ability of the platform to keep students from continuing to read until they answer particular questions about sections of text. They showed me canned multiple-choice questions — students would choose a response, and if it were incorrect, the correct response and an explanation would be highlighted. The student could then continue reading. While I like the idea of encouraging students to pay special attention to particular passages of text, several logistical and ideological issues were raised for me. First, it was obvious to me that students did not have to take the questions seriously if the correct answer was going to pop up, allowing them to continue reading. On a deeper level, however, I worry about what this process of controlling students’ reading process could mean for students’ comprehension and interest in reading. When I read, I sometimes jump back and forth in text; sometimes, I don’t understand a point until I’ve seen how the story develops moving forward. And sometimes, I am so engaged in a story that I would be enraged if I was forcibly stopped to answer a multiple-choice question.

As a result, I have mixed feelings about this feature. I do like the fact that teachers can shelve the canned curriculum and create their own, which means that one can manipulate how many and what kinds of questions students encounter as they read. And, of course, teachers can pick and choose which of the available resources they find valuable. But, overall, these platforms are not necessarily developed with shared purpose or interest-driven learning in mind — it is the responsibility of the teacher to manipulate these tools in order to develop such curriculum. 

Annotations

While I am uneasy about the curriculum feature of the digital reading platforms, I am ecstatic about the annotation feature. Within any text in the library, teachers can embed annotations that will pop up for students as they read — a sort of digital post-it note. These annotations can take the traditional form of words, but can also include pictures, links to websites, or YouTube videos. The saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun” — every text is, in some form or another, a response to texts that came before. Creative annotations can prompt students to make connections between what they are reading and other things under the sun that support or refute or generally speak back to the text. At its best, reading is a conversation between reader, author, and the world, and at their best, digital media can help jumpstart these conversations by bringing a world of resources to our students’ fingertips. 

I’d say that this annotation feature offers the most potential for Connected Learning, particularly in the Actively Learn platform, which allows students as well as teachers to create and share annotations. Teachers who embrace the idea that students can be facilitators of learning can watch as students create digital post-its for their peers to read and respond to drawn from their interests, their questions, and their ideas. The possibilities for peer-supported learning and support for struggling readers or English Language Learners are endless and quite exciting. This feature reminded me of the amazing web tool, Genius, which encourages users to “annotate the world” and offers massive, public, online referencing of a variety of texts.

Data

Just as I have mixed feelings about the curriculum feature of the digital reading platforms, I also feel uneasy about the data feature. The platforms allow teachers to align the quizzes and other assessments that they create to particular Common Core standards and then review the progress that individual students and entire classes are making in developing particular skills and meeting particular standards. When I taught at a charter school, instruction revolved around the data sheets that teachers received from near-constant benchmark testing — teachers would boast about the number of standards colored green (indicating that students had met those standards), grow uneasy about the standards colored yellow (indicating that student results were mixed), and despair about the standards colored red (trouble). I quickly noted that the reading platforms produce identical reports.

While data is crucial for teachers in order to gauge student learning and tailor instruction to student needs, I worry about reducing such learning to discrete, disconnected elements and judging them according to traffic light colors. Reading comprehension and analysis are complex processes, and the skills laid out in the Common Core standards, though numbered individually, are often much more intertwined in practice. And, the attempts to delineate them simply feeds into the data-driven madness that ends up with teachers sitting in meetings talking about numbers rather than the strengths and challenges of individual students.

Putting my data rant aside, however, I am intrigued by the potential of digital reading platforms to foster Connected Learning opportunities in literacy classrooms. Granted, I will have to save my discussion of equity in educational technology for another post because there is a huge problem with the fact that no school I have ever worked in (or am likely to work in anytime soon) has the infrastructure to support classes of students using these platforms. But, as we identify and redress issues of equity, we must continue to evaluate digital tools in terms of their ability to support high-quality pedagogy. And I see promise here.

Banner image credit: Paolo Tonon