Promising Distractions

Three digital projects worth supporting in schools. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Renwick

CREDIT MIT Media Lab SCRATCH.pngIn a sea of new apps and digital opportunities, it can be challenging to determine what works in the classroom and what does not.

A teacher might select one technology to integrate within their instruction for a variety of reasons, seeking an authentic audience, a more clearly defined purpose, or an accommodation for certain students that might not have access to opportunities many take for granted.

In a sea of new apps and digital opportunities, it can be challenging to determine what works in the classroom and what does not.

This is a common situation for many educators who want to make their learning relevant for their students. Unfortunately, there are always trending ideas circulating that may entice a teacher at first glance, but will prove to be ineffective once implemented in the classroom.

Case in point: A teacher recently developed a 20 lesson guide on how to integrated Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game, in the classroom. Using a mobile device, the game embeds digital renderings, such as Pokémon characters, over what a person would see out in the world through their smartphone’s camera. Players collect these characters to attain levels and more challenging characters. It’s an engaging game, but what do students learn? How are the objectives developed in the teacher’s guide tied to essential understandings?

Students need more than mere engagement to be better prepared for an unknown future. So what digital concepts might best make that happen? With all of the opportunities available today, three possibilities stand out. These “promising distractions” have at least one thing in common: they can engage students in learning that can pay dividends down the road in their education.


Concerns about Pokémon Go being shoehorned into the classroom are warranted. Yet gaming itself, especially applications developed with young learners in mind, should be considered for every classroom.

Most well-designed games are built on a few common principles: they exhibit a clear objective, an engaging platform, immediate feedback on actions, and just enough challenge to keep the player interested. These elements also happen to be the right ingredients for a successful learning experience. If we can think beyond Pac-Man or Super Mario Brothers, what are the possibilities here?

A starting point might be games that teach students traditional skills. For example, Scratch is a coding application that gives kids the tools to create digital gaming challenges for peers.

Digital Storytelling

Our sources of information are saturated with advertisements, calls to action, and articles with various levels of perspective and even bias. These communications rely on principles of narrative: a lead, context or setting, a conflict or challenge, and a proposed resolution. Many of our narratives are told in a digital environment that incorporates audio, images, video, and/or text.

Teaching students about digital storytelling has two primary benefits. First, they develop skills and knowledge about effective ways to communicate in the 21st century. Second, they are better able to understand the tools people use to persuade and influence others. Both goals can serve curriculum expectations and academic standards.

For instance, Aris games allows users to create digital tours and interactive stories through a mobile application. Students can work in teams to create mobile-friendly school tours for new families. Also, an English teacher could task students with developing an interactive public service announcement, integrating persuasive and narrative writing with digital media. Other suggested tools for digital storytelling include iMovieBook Creator, and WeVideo.

Citizen Science

Access to the Internet for so many has allowed almost anyone to engage in collaborative projects regardless of location or time. Citizen science, in which an everyday person can record observations and upload data about their local environment to an organization, can offer students the opportunity to use technology for a greater cause. It also introduces a teaching approach that can take advantage of students’ smartphones as learning tools.

For example, the Invasive Mosquito Project asks people to monitor mosquito species in their neighborhood. Participants document and enter data about the different species into a web-based form. This data gives scientists the necessary information to determine where invasive mosquito species are coming from, which informs future environmental actions.

If mosquitoes aren’t your thing, the Monarch Monitoring Larva Project asks citizens to identify the frequency in which monarch caterpillars are observed in their natural habitats. Scientists use this data to drive land conservation efforts. With both projects, what was seen as a distraction, a student’s smartphone, has now become a tool for service learning.

Educators have to be judicious about what they choose to incorporate into the classroom. There are so many opportunities for learning, and not everything can fit into a 180-day schedule.

Digital distractions today may prove to be smart to integrate within instruction in the future. In the meantime, teachers can look to incorporate some of the promising distractions mentioned here that result in higher levels of learning for student work.

Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. He is the author of the new book Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (ASCD 2017), Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment (2014), and the ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (2016).


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