How do I get the most out of using tech in the classroom?

Teacher in a tech-rich classroom

When and how much should students be using technology in class?

When and how much you use technology depends on the subject and age you teach, as well as other factors. Less time on devices is recommended for very young students (per the American Academy of Pediatrics), and certain subjects require more use than others (e.g., computer science, coding, advanced math, etc.). You may wonder -- and parents might, as well -- about the effects of screen time in general. The Common Sense Media article "How Much Screen Time Is OK for My Kids?” can be a helpful starting point. 

At the end of the day, the question is more about quality than quantity.

The classroom is a great place to model media balance. For example, technology can be helpful for students researching and collaborating on a topic, but tech use should be limited or restricted during in-class discussion. Knowing whether to use devices comes down to the purpose of the activity and what you're trying to accomplish. You can also promote media balance by making sure students are actively using the technology as opposed to passively consuming media. One way to do this is by encouraging students to learn how to use digital creation tools.

At the end of the day, the question is more about quality than quantity. Check out "Screen Time in School: Finding the Right Balance for Your Classroom" and "3 Essential Questions for EdTech Use." 

What is the best way to set up my classroom for device use?

When it comes to devices and classroom setup, the more flexibility, the better. Being able to modify how students are seated enables a greater variety of tech-based activities. And variety—over a class period, day, or week—increases student engagement. Flexible seating also allows activities to include student choice, creativity, and collaboration.

One way to build in flexibility is by having two to three distinct spaces for different kinds of activities. These spaces could include:

Pair or group tables: In this space, students work collaboratively, sharing devices. Having two or more students share a device can be a great way to keep students accountable and on task, to differentiate assignments based on skill, or to support developing students. 

A quiet space: Set up an area with comfy cushions, pillows, or chairs where students can work independently on devices, journaling or reflecting on previous activities.

The "conference room": Use larger tables (or put together smaller tables) to use for big group activities that use devices, including discussions, culture building, games, and small-group instruction.

Ideally, it shouldn't take too much effort to convert the class back to a whole-group setup, so this likely requires movable chairs and tables that are not joined together or too heavy for students to move themselves. It's also helpful to have a movable projection cart and different options for where you project. This allows you the best setup to support multiple types of tech-based classroom activities.

There's a healthy amount of debate about flexible seating and how it is most -- or least -- useful in the classroom, so it's good to research a bit on your own to see what works best for you and your students. Here are some articles to get you started:

How can I make sure I am protecting student privacy when using technology?

Student privacy is complicated. It involves information about students, information from students, families, schools, third-party administrators, terms of service and privacy policies, hackers, and many other things to consider. A teacher is unlikely to be an expert. But luckily, you don't have to be. There are some basic things you can do to protect student privacy from the beginning. This online course is a great way to get started. Other simple steps include:

1. Follow your school or district's lead. 

Make sure you are aware of and are using the safeguards that your district and/or school has already put in place. This may include:

  • A list of approved apps to use in the classroom. If there's an app outside of this list that you're interested in, reach out to your tech lead to get advice and approval. You can also look up whether it has a Common Sense privacy evaluation.
  • An internet filter that blocks student access to risky apps that might be collecting students' data or lack effective platform and content moderation.
  • An established policy or set of guidelines for using apps, including social media -- whether you're considering it as part of your class or just to communicate with students. Some schools and districts don't allow social media at all, while others have comprehensive approaches (check out the NYC Department of Education and Baltimore City Public Schools).

2. Get familiar with the law. 

Two major federal laws -- FERPA and COPPA -- protect student privacy and lay out clear definitions for what information is protected, who can access or share it, and when. In many states, state and local laws also apply (for example, SOPIPA in California). Check out the links below to learn more.

3. Inform students and families.

Incorporate lessons for students that educate them on potential risks to their privacy, the dangers that those risks pose, and strategies they can use to take charge of protecting it. These lessons on privacy and security from the Common Sense Education K–12 curriculum can get you started. Also, let caregivers know exactly which apps and devices are being used in class, and use the take-home resources from the lessons to educate them.

Which policies and procedures will help me get the most out of teaching with technology?

Having defined policies and procedures for classroom technology can help students use class time most efficiently. Students benefit from clear expectations and established routines that they can practice and master. Our research shows that students want clear policies! In the case of devices, these routines should cover everything, beginning the moment students take the devices out. Depending on the age of your students, your policies and procedures are also an opportunity to enlist student voice and for students to have ownership over the way the class is run and its daily culture.

Because expectations for device use will likely differ depending on the type of activity, you may want to create a matrix of activities and expectations. Procedures should be posted and visually accessible to all students and, if possible, should utilize mnemonic devices to help them stick. 

Here's a list of five essential procedures related to device use, along with some helpful tips and tricks:

1. Taking out and putting away devices. 

Have clear steps for students to retrieve and return their device, whether it's via a cart, storage space, or even their own desk. If students have to get up, make sure it's staggered -- no more than three or four students getting or returning devices at one time. Alternatively, assign a few students the job of passing out and collecting devices. Number your devices and have students use the same one each day; this will streamline the time it takes to get started and help students learn to treat them responsibly.

2. Handling a device. 

Define expectations for holding and using the device. Hold students accountable for being careful. Devices should be held with two hands and handled gently. This includes typing, clicking, and opening and closing. You can use our Device Advice lesson collection before issuing devices.

3. Using devices independently. 

Establish do's and don'ts for when students are using a device on their own. The expectations here may depend on how your school or district filters and/or tracks student internet use, although students sometimes figure out ways to bypass those restrictions. Clear expectations for which kinds of websites and device use are school-appropriate are important, but they must also be supported by clearly defined activities that hold students accountable. Specific time constraints and concrete deliverables are two ways to keep students focused when using devices.

4. Sharing a device.

Model what the physical positioning of the device should be when multiple students use a single device. For groups of more than two, clarify that not everyone may be able to see the screen. Establish roles beforehand that identify who will be doing the typing and clicking (and who will be doing the other tasks). For prolonged activities, allow students to alternate roles. If someone other than the designated user wants to type or click, they must first get permission from the designated user.

5. Using a device in a discussion. 

Access to devices can be helpful to students during a discussion, particularly if they've done their prework there. However, there is a risk that students will be distracted and struggle to listen actively. Explicit expectations can help. Consider having students close devices halfway or turn them over during a discussion and restrict looking at them unless someone is quickly checking their notes in order to make a comment.

Are there benefits to allowing student phones in the classroom? If so, what are they?

With phones in their pockets, many students feel compelled to check them nearly constantly. As of 2023, kids aged 11-17 are picking up their phones a median of 51 times each day, including during school hours (for a median of 43 minutes). Some of those pick-ups are in response to the hundreds of notifications they're receiving (a median of 237). Teachers are understandably concerned that the distraction is too great for students to handle during class and is detrimental to student learning. Given the challenges of allowing phones in the classroom, many schools completely ban them, and others require students to lock them up. 

The concerns are legitimate. However, there are many reasons why a ban may not be the answer, and why a plan that includes a more balanced approach is worth considering. Here are some of the counterarguments to consider:

1. Managing phone use is an essential skill. 

As of 2017, ninety-five percent of homes in the U.S. included at least one mobile device. A majority of both students and adults check their phones at least once an hour, and often for meaningful reasons: a message from a friend, an important email for school or work, or to keep on top of our fast-paced lives. But research shows that this kind of constant phone use can have negative effects on schoolwork, sleep, relationships, and emotional well-being. Students need opportunities to learn how to manage their device use. In classrooms, students can learn to practice thoughtful, purposeful phone use that enhances their lives and to avoid distracted, untimely use that leads to negative effects.

2. Phones can make school more convenient and more dynamic for students. 

Students, particularly in secondary grades, are on the go as much, if not more, than their parents. By incorporating mobile-friendly apps and assignments into your classroom, and explicitly teaching students to use them, you're meeting student's needs in terms of accessibility, and you're giving them the power of real-time, instantaneous access to their work. At a moment's notice, they can add a quick bullet point to a Google Slides presentation, read and quickly respond to a classmate's ideas, or even just check for upcoming assignments.

3. Incorporating phones into the classroom promotes equity. 

While you can't assume that every student has access to a smartphone, research shows that for students in lower-income homes, smartphone access is more likely than access to a computer with high-speed internet. As schools and teachers ask more of students outside of the classroom, being intentional about which kinds of devices will suffice for a student is essential for creating more equitable outcomes.

How can I keep kids on task when they're using devices?

Along with the power of exploration and creation, devices come with the increased risk of distraction. For example, allowing kids to collaborate using shared docs means they might also use the doc to socialize or worse—to make inappropriate or hurtful comments about others. 

This potential trade-off, however, doesn't have to be a showstopper. Being proactive about potential distractions from the beginning can help students be responsible and realize the benefits of a tech-rich classroom. Some practical things to consider to help keep kids focused:

1. Make it meaningful.

Make sure that you're intentional about how you use technology in class. Choose apps and activities that require collaboration (both within the classroom and externally), creativity, and higher-order thinking and that generate meaningful products.

If students are allowed to be on devices for "free time" or if assignments on devices are unstructured and lack concrete deliverables, then students are less likely to be focused and engaged when they're using them. Consider having a preapproved list of educational apps or websites that early finishers can use, and an established system for capturing and tracking their progress to ensure that students take the assignments seriously and use additional screen time productively. 

2. Address digital distraction in your policies and procedures.

Don't underestimate how straightforward and clear it needs to be for students. Be explicit about which behaviors—and which websites and apps—are allowed in class and which aren't. It's likely that your school or district has already decided to block certain apps or websites, but it's still a good idea to address them head-on. If students understand the rationale for blocking—or for your classroom policy—they are much more likely to internalize it and follow it.

3. Balance tech and non-tech use.

Use of devices shouldn't replace meaningful non-tech activities. Students still need time for face-to-face discussion, hands-on creativity and building, journaling, and many other "analog" classroom activities. Varying your activities in this way will engage students and help keep them more focused when they're using tech.

Check out our video for a summary of these tips.

How can digital citizenship lessons help me get the most out of teaching with technology?

Digital citizenship means using technology to learn, create, and participate, and to think critically about the digital world. By teaching students these skills, you're preparing them to take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers -- both in and out of the classroom -- and to navigate the risks and potential pitfalls that come along with it. The Common Sense Education K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum provides the foundation for a tech-rich classroom, where devices engage students academically and enhance their learning.

The curriculum lessons cover six important topics related to digital citizenship at each K–12 grade level. All of the topics are relevant for teaching with tech, but In particular, our lessons on media balance and well-being and news and media literacy teach critical 21st century skills to help students get the most out of their technology use. In these lessons, students learn to:

  • Inventory how they spend their time with media and technology and reflect on its impact on their lives, including their emotional well-being, relationships with others, schoolwork, and much more.
  • Think critically about how their devices and apps are designed, and whether or not they lead to lack of balance.
  • Think critically about images, videos, news, and other content they see online and evaluate their veracity and significance.
  • Be imaginative creators of digital media, who use digital tools expertly and respect the intellectual property of others.

We also have quick activities, digital dilemmas, and videos that address these skills.

How can I use technology to support learning outside of school?

In addition to the digital citizenship lessons, you can share some free digital learning tools! And here are other ways to use technology to promote learning outside of school:

1. Explore options for flipping your classroom.

You may not be ready to go whole hog on a flipped classroom (do your students have equitable access to technology outside of school?), but you can still engage students meaningfully with class material outside of class—beyond just completing a homework assignment. Using your school's LMS, class blog, or even a shared Google Doc, students can submit work, do research, collaborate with others, and give peer feedback. Teaching with technology means a real opportunity for authentic learning at home as well as at school.

2. Communicate with families consistently.

Make sure you establish an accessible channel where you communicate information and updates to families regularly, including your syllabus and your approach to using technology. Whether it's through your school's LMS or communication tool—or a digital platform of your choice—establishing a digital bridge to home sets the foundation for an extended classroom, where learning, discussions, ideas, and other class content reach beyond the set minutes that students are in school. It's also an opportunity to empower caregivers to be involved in kids' use of technology and reinforce the positive practices that are part of your classroom.

3. Send home digital citizenship resources and activities.

Give students activities they can share with their families that extend digital citizenship beyond the classroom. For example, have students inventory their entire family's use of devices and then discuss as a family the positive and negative implications of that use. For more specific family activities and tips to send home, check out our family resources.

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Jamie K.

As an education consultant, Jamie created curriculum and professional development content for teachers. Prior to consulting, Jamie was senior manager of educator professional learning programs at Common Sense and taught middle school English in Oakland, California. For the 2016–2017 school year, Jamie received an Excellence in Teaching award and was one of three finalists for Teacher of the Year in Oakland Unified School District. While teaching, Jamie also successfully implemented a $200,000 school-wide blended-learning program funded by the Rogers Family Foundation and led professional development on a wide range of teaching strategies. Jamie holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Eugene Lang College and a master's degree in philosophy and education from Teacher' College at Columbia University. Jamie currently lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his 4-year-old son, Malcolm, and his partner, Marijke.