EdTech & Design, Engagement, Promising Practices

Hands On vs. Hands Up: Technology-Enabled Knowledge Building in High School

In a landscape in which learners can be creators of ideas, it is vital for high schools to become technology-enabled learning environments that are sharply focused on knowledge building, idea improvement, and collaboratively creating community knowledge. Most students use personal connectivity for socializing and play, not for knowledge building, exploring problems, or building on each other’s ideas.

To learn well in a participatory, digital world, students need to be academically and intellectually engaged in rigorous and complex work – work that is meaningful enough for them to give their hearts over to it, work that motivates them to explore ideas and persist in developing explanations and solutions. Today’s youth deserve to be engaged in technology-enabled learning environments and intellectually demanding school experiences that prepare them to move into ever-changing and complex social, economic, political, and cultural contexts.

Shifting from Interactive to Participatory Learning Designs

Our world has seen huge changes in the media and technology landscape in the last 50 years. Broadcast media was a one-way street; early interactive media supported one-to-one, and increasingly, many-to-many conversations; later interactive technologies, such as the Internet, offered support for groups, for simultaneous conversations, for media and information sharing, and for knowledge building in community; today, advancements in digital technology and social media have led to the largest increase in connective and expressive capability in human history.

Participatory learning designs begin with the premise that these digital and social technologies have changed how people of all ages learn, collaborate, play, socialize, access resources and services, and connect. They enable learners to participate in local and online communities to share ideas, peer review each other’s expressions and creations, build on each other’s work, work collaboratively to improve ideas, and design, develop, implement, assess, and discuss their strategies, solutions, goals, and ideas.

The technological infrastructure and network designs used in most high schools – built on broadcast media and information delivery assumptions about knowledge flow – are not serving students well. Professionals and outside experts create a firewall by selecting information and ideas, and metering out content in small, manageable, and simplified chunks. Participatory technologies, social media and knowledge building pedagogy disrupt that firewall.

  • Audience/learners can talk to each other, build and share information together, and publish ideas and expressions online to a global community.
  • Knowledge is created and shared by learners and by teachers.
  • Information comes from many diverse sources, cultures, and locations.
  • There is immediate access to current information and knowledge.
  • An already huge knowledge base grows at an exponential rate.

The widely-held perception that students know more than teachers about current technology is both true and false. It is true that creating original content and publishing information on wikis, blogs, and social media sites is empowering many young people, and some learners do highly complex things with computers, networks, and gaming systems. But most students use personal connectivity for socializing and play, not for knowledge building, exploring compelling science or mathematics problems, improving and building on each other’s ideas, or writing persuasive arguments. Young people need engaged teachers more than ever to make the leap from digital technology as play to digital technology as a tool for knowledge creation.

Learning Environments in the 21st Century

Knowledge building is arguably the most important skill requirement for the 21st century. The ability to work collaboratively to improve ideas is essential, and pervasive technology makes collaborative knowledge building increasingly possible. In a landscape in which learners can be creators rather than mere consumers of messages and ideas, it is vital for high schools to become technology-enabled learning environments that are sharply focused on knowledge building, or idea improvement, and collaboratively creating community knowledge to share and improve ideas that matter to the world. 1

In other words, high schools should be less and less about crafting a single message for individuals to consume, and more and more about convening groups of learners with diverse strengths, expertise, and skills around shared interests, to work on common goals, to create ideas, and to build and cultivate community knowledge. The challenge is to reconcile current teacher-driven content delivery approaches with knowledge building requirements and the expectations of today’s high school learners.

The question is not whether this is the technology and media environment we want; it is the environment we have – global, social, ubiquitous, and inexpensive. The question, instead, is how can we change the way we do high school to make best use of this technology landscape? Mentoring and preparing students for the world in which they live is the role of high school, and today’s students live in a participatory digital world.

The abundance of resources, networks, and relationships easily accessible online is challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.2 Lecturing and testing must give way to collaborative and challenging knowledge building, work that leverages technology for critical thinking, disciplined inquiry, and global participation. Collaborative online social learning offers more opportunities for students to find and join diverse communities where they can benefit from culture-building and distributed cognitive apprenticeship. It goes beyond providing access to traditional course materials to creating participatory learning environments that develop competencies like visual literacy and scientific reasoning. In a participatory digital world, the ability to assess the credibility of information and integrity of connections is vital.

Technology and Student Engagement in High School

A team of researchers (including the authors) recently completed a two-year, Alberta-wide study of the relationship between technology and high school success in 23 school jurisdictions.3 While we observed some innovative and engaged teaching and learning practices, student engagement in learning and knowledge building was low. In most of the classrooms, we found little evidence of students completing authentic tasks or of rigorous and complex work being designed for and required of high school students. The predominant use of technology we saw in these classrooms was watching or listening to the teacher present material to the entire class.

A disconnect existed between teachers, who reported high confidence with the technology and enthusiasm about its use, and students, who reported that the bulk of classroom time is spent at their own desks, silently watching the teacher use presentation technology to deliver content. We know that the use of computers is more effective when the students are in “control” of the learning; yet, it is fairly evident that the technology is not in the hands of students in many secondary school classrooms. Why is the majority of classroom time in high school devoted to teacher-directed, whole group instruction rather than the student-directed, interactive, peer-to-peer interaction associated with higher levels of student engagement? Educational researchers focusing on the connections among student engagement, the learning environment, and teaching practices have identified a number of factors that impact student engagement: (i) the types of instructional practices teachers enact; (ii) the authenticity and complexity of work students are invited to do; (iii) the types of technologies utilized in learning; and (iv) the amount and type of feedback students receive while they are learning.4 We observed academic engagement, active participation in information play (i.e. answering questions, paying attention, doing seat work), in less than 50 percent of the classrooms visited, and the percentage dropped as the lesson proceeded. Intellectual engagement, a serious, passionate commitment to investigate complex problems, issues, questions and ideas within a collaborative knowledge building environment, was observed in very few high school classrooms.

Best Practice: Hands On Versus Hands Up

We saw technology being used by a Social Studies teacher to engage high school students in lively debate and the exchange of ideas, to support the active social construction of knowledge, and to democratize the classroom.

During the first half of the class, students were engaged in discussion and debate about historical and modern engagements in war. The teacher used a handful of online videos, interactive models, and graphic resources displayed on an interactive whiteboard to engage students with historical events and modern interpretations. Links between lives lost in past wars and casualties in the present war in Afghanistan spurred active debate about Canada’s role in the international community. While the students sat at their desks, the teacher kept the momentum up with his interactive and engaging rapport, using a dozen good questions to engage every student in discussion and in providing feedback using clickers. Students were encouraged to explore concepts and defend their answers using historical sources and a clear rationale. At least 90 percent of students were engaged via interactive discussion with peers, asking questions, contributing to group activities using clickers, discussing key concepts, and helping peers use the technology. The teacher held the class in the palm of his hand – the students clearly trusted their teacher and knew that their ideas, opinions, and contributions mattered.

During the second half of the class, the teacher shifted from whole class discussion to an inquiry project. He digitally displayed the project description, relevant online sources and videos, and used an interactive, online Prezi (concept map) as part of his invitation to explore topics. Several online examples of student work from previous years were available to students. He outlined a clear set of steps and group roles and reviewed expectations and standards for completing work using a prepared assessment rubric. He made clear connections to curriculum and identified a range of physical, analog, and digital resources to support research and interpretation of historical events.

An active class discussion arose about the range of technology to use, preferred topics and group configurations based on shared interests, and the time students had to complete the task. The teacher encouraged students to use a range of technologies, from online research, to various presentation and graphical design tools for presentation and peer review, to online publishing and sharing completed projects.

In four teams, students started to discuss and research over 50 historical and modern day events related to war in order to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate possible causes and implications, relationships, and combinations of events. The goal was to create new knowledge and understandings related to winning strategies in war.

During the final third of class, 100 percent of students were engaged in collaborative peer groups bent on determining who holds the winning hand in war.

The Design of Great Learning Tasks

It is unsurprising that high school teaching is not significantly changed or improved by merely dropping technology into classrooms. We observed few examples like the one described above. Teachers need support to design inquiry-based tasks and assessments that integrate digital technology into one or more disciplines of study. They need to harness their enthusiasm about technology to the design and support of knowledge building work that cultivates genuine engagement with learning.

Great inquiry-based learning tasks – with or without technology – are authentic to the discipline; involve active and participatory student groupings and interactions; are academically rigorous; connect learners to resources and communities beyond the school; provide for elaborated communication and expression; and use assessment of and for learning. Rigorous, technology-enabled learning experiences contain all the components necessary for a strong inquiry: rich, authentic problems/issues/questions to investigate; clear learning outcomes; curricular integration; learning tasks; appropriate use of technology; ways of working and knowing that experts within the disciplines use to build knowledge; and timely assessments with clear criteria to make students’ thinking visible to both students and teachers. In inquiry-based, technology rich learning environments, assessment makes up a large part of the high school day.

Leadership for Inquiry With Technology

In “Inspiring Education”, Alberta Education asks important questions about the role of publicly funded education in the 21st century. How do we help youth make successful transitions to adulthood? How do we help them to become life-long learners who contribute to healthy, inclusive communities and thriving economies?5 Ramping up teaching with an interactive whiteboard won’t motivate students to use their minds well or to stay in school – especially if all they are expected to do is sit still, watch, and listen. Interesting and challenging knowledge building work will engage both students and teachers in technology-enabled learning environments.

If we really want our children to face the challenges of the future with confidence and skill, we must teach them not only that they can acquire current knowledge, but also that they can help shape what their society comes to accept as knowledge.6 Participatory digital technologies and new social media landscapes, combined with engaged teaching and designs for learning, offer new opportunities for knowledge building and interconnected relationships.

Today’s youth will inherit a global, socially connected, and media rich world. The competencies they require to live well differ from those even ten years ago. As our participatory digital world accelerates, high schools cannot afford to stand still.


EN BREF – Dans un contexte où les apprenants peuvent être des créateurs d’idées, il est vital que les écoles secondaires deviennent des environnements d’apprentissage technohabilités privilégiant la constitution de savoirs, l’amélioration d’idées et la création en collaboration de connaissances communautaires. La plupart des élèves utilisent la connectivité personnelle pour socialiser et se divertir, et non pour obtenir des connaissances, explorer des problèmes ou s’enrichir les idées les uns des autres. Ils ont plus que jamais besoin de solides enseignants pour passer de la technologie numérique ludique à la technologie numérique comme source de création de savoirs. Pour que nos enfants puissent vraiment relever avec assurance et compétence les défis de l’avenir, nous devons leur enseigner qu’ils peuvent non seulement acquérir des connaissances courantes, mais aussi contribuer à déterminer ce que leur société viendra à accepter comme étant des savoirs. Les technologies numériques participatives et les nouveaux médias sociaux, conjugués à un enseignement mobilisé et à des conceptions d’apprentissage, offrent de nouvelles possibilités de constitution de connaissances et de relations interconnectées.

1 M. Jacobsen, “A Special Issue of the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology on Knowledge Building,” Editorial, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 36, no. 1 (2010). www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/issue/view/70

2 L. Johnson, A. Levine, R. Smith, and S. Stone, The 2010 Horizon Report (Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium, 2010). www.nmc.org/publications/horizon

3 J. Daniels, S. Friesen, M. Jacobsen, and S. Varnhagen, Technology and High School Success Research: Final Report (A Research Report for Alberta Education, 2010).

4 M. Jacobsen, S. Friesen, and C. Saar, “Teaching and Learning in a One‐to‐One Mobile Computing Environment: A Research Report on the Personalized Learning Initiative At Calgary Science School.” Report delivered to the Board of the Calgary Science School, March 2010; J. D. Willms, S. Friesen, and P. Milton, What Did You Do in School Today? Transforming Classrooms through Social, Academic and Intellectual engagement, First National Report (Toronto, ON: Canadian Education Association, 2009). www.cea-ace.ca/publication/what-did-you-do-school-today-transforming-classrooms-through-social-academic-and-intelle

5 Alberta Education, “Inspiring Education: A Dialogue With Albertans,” Steering Committee Report, 2010. www.inspiringeducation.alberta.ca/

6 P. Clifford and S. Friesen, “A Curious Plan: Managing on the Twelfth,” Harvard Educational Review, 63, no, 3 (1993): 339-358.

Meet the Expert(s)


Dr. Sharon Friesen

Professor, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary

Sharon Friesen is a professor and President of the Galileo Educational Network at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Her research interests include the ways in which K-12 educational structures, curriculum, and pedagogies need to be reinvented for our contemporary society.

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Michele Jacobsen

Dr. Michele Jacobsen

Professor, Werklund School of Education | Teaching Scholar, University of Calgary

Dr. Michele Jacobsen is a Professor in the Learning Sciences in the Werklund School of Education. Michele uses design-based and action research approaches to study blended, online and technology-enabled learning in K-12 school and campus classrooms and to evaluate the use of participatory pedagogies to sponsor knowledge building, intellectual engagement and authentic assessments.

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