User Generated Education

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Emerging Technologies and Their Application to Middle School Classrooms

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Guest Post by Jennifer Fargo

The following is a paper written by one of my graduate students at American InterContinental University.  Jennifer Fargo is a middle school teacher.  Due to her passion for educational technology, I am encouraging her to start blogging and join social networks like Twitter.  Because this is such a good paper I am (1) posting it as a guest post on my blog, and (2) hoping this will motivate Jennifer to begin her own blog.

Emerging technologies have the potential to transform learning in the middle school classroom across the curriculum.  When properly applied in a student-centered classroom, mobile apps, tablet computing, game-based learning, personal learning environments, and natural user interfaces can improve instruction and learning, especially for students who need better motivation in school.


Some older, more traditional educational researchers like professor emeritus of Stanford University Larry Cuban do not see evidence that technology in the classroom improves instruction.  He would rather invest in teacher training than in devices in the classroom (Hu, 2011).  What these educators do not realize is that the very nature of student interaction with their world has changed drastically and permanently.  The information shift is as drastic as the move from handwritten texts to books from the printing press (Rankin, 2010).  Information and knowledge are no longer held by the few in select repositories waiting to be disseminated to the masses by a master teacher.  Information, both accurate and inaccurate, is free and available for use instantly over the Internet.

Just as the students’ relationship to information has changed, the relationship of the teacher to the student must change.  With the advent of the printing press, education changed.  Mass access to information in printed books changed the roll of the teacher from facilitating individualized hand-written texts and informational storage for a few wealthy students to standardized classification of data and facts for masses of students who could read (Rankin, 2010).  In this digital age, the role of the teacher is no longer to disseminate facts and data to students because students cannot get that information easily anywhere else.  Because students can easily retrieve information, the role of the teacher becomes as a guide to the learner to take readily available information to evaluate and use it, to see the interconnectedness of information and provide context.  Students construct their own understanding of the world and they do so using technology. The average middle school student has direct access to this information on a daily basis and interacts with others around the world using interactive video games, social media, and mobile technology.  Technologies that students use daily at home can become the tools that educators use to guide students in constructing knowledge in the 21st century and beyond.

Emerging Technologies: The Next Five Years

The New Media Consortium, or NMC, is a professional organization of educators dedicated to the study and application of technology in the classroom.  The NMC’s mission is to promote a “…collective understanding of emerging technologies and their applications for teaching, learning, and creative inquiry” (Johnson, Adams, & Cummins, 2012, preface). The NMC’s annual Horizon Project describes in detail six emerging technologies and their probable impact over the next five years in several learning environments.  The K-12 edition describes the possible applications of these technologies in elementary and secondary classrooms.  Several seem particularly applicable to a learner-centered, middle school classroom.

Mobile Apps

As mobile devices have become more accessible to middle school students, so has their potential to be resources in the classroom.  Mobile devices are small, portable computing devices that usually contain WI-FI, Bluetooth technology, and GPS capabilities.  They can be cell phones, smartphones, portable game consoles, tablets, or small computers.  These computing devices can use apps for various functions.  The mobile device most often talked about for possible classroom use is the cell phone or smartphone.  As of 2010, 75% of 12-17 year olds own a cell phone according to a Pew Research Center study (cited in Koebler, 2011).  With so many students daily engaged in the use of mobile devices, the creation of apps for sale and use on these devices aimed at this demographic has skyrocketed (Johnson et al., 2012).  These apps can be used in the classroom with appropriate supervision and have many benefits.  Mobile devices like cell phones are always capable of connecting to the Internet using 3G or 4G wireless networks.  Mobile apps can be used both inside and outside of the classroom making them easy conduits for communication between students and teachers as well as facilitating collaborative learning with peers.  This connectivity and portability also has the potential to create global connections through instruction making the world the classroom (Mangukiya, 2012).  All of these benefits are facilitated by technology already familiar to students in daily life.

Because most students already own a cell phone or other mobile device, some educators are suggesting a program for instruction where students bring their own devices for use at school, called BYOD programs.  Some of the obstacles to a BYOD program include not all students having the same device, some students not being able to afford the necessary devices, and devices as possible distractions when not in use for instruction (Nielsen, 2011).  Some of these obstacles are overcome by the tenacity of teachers who see how engaged students become when using them and the innovation of the new booming mobile app industry.  With these changes some schools are adopting a BYOD program as a cost effective way to integrate this prevalent technology into the classroom.

Tablet Computing

Tablets, like cell phones, are mobile computing devices.  However, tablets have larger screens with sharper displays for using more powerful and educationally specific apps.  In fact, tablets can run apps similar to software for computers making them a cheaper and more portable option for school based one-to-one programs.  Tablet touch screens make them easy to use, and the portability of the mobile device makes them easy to share in a school environment.  Tablets can also connect to the Internet to expand instruction.

In addition, tablets can be used as digital reading devices.  Tablets provide a much more interactive experience than a traditional textbook (Watters, 2012).  With options like a built-in dictionary, digital annotation, or read-aloud capabilities, reading with a tablet is more active than reading a traditional textbook.  Although not all books and textbooks are available digitally, publishers are expanding their digital libraries.

Game-Based Learning

Video games are pervasive in the United States, especially among adolescents.  According to Robert Torres (2011) of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 97% of Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 play video games.  For middle school students, video games are a way of life.  Torres (2011) posited that video games are so important to students because they offer a sense of relevance and context, are active, provide social interaction, and offer emotional engagement.  With student-centered instruction, teachers seek to incorporate these elements into instruction as well to fully engage the student and allow each to construct knowledge by ensuring relevant, active, and collaborative learning.  Game-based learning can facilitate such instruction in a format that highly motivates students to learn.

Game-based learning can be approached in many ways.  It can be as simple as a single player app for a mobile device or as complicated as a global multi-player virtual world accessed through the Internet.  Many games require collaboration with peers and facilitate problem- solving skills with real-world applications.

Personal Learning Environments

Personal learning environments, or PLE’s, are a digital method of individualizing instruction.  Each PLE is unique to each student.  For educators who believe that a learner-centered approach is the best way to reach every student, PLE’s provide a platform for success.  For some educators, this kind of transformational technology signals a change in teaching.  “By marrying the principles of personalized learning with the tools of technology, some educators believe that they have a chance to create the kind of customized learning environment that can finally break schools out of the industrial-age model of education to bring about true 21st century school reform” (Demski, 2012).  PLE’s can be in the form of wiki pages, personal blogs, e-portfolios of work, or websites that teachers or students can create themselves.  PLE’s facilitate learner-centered instruction, which can be closely monitored by the instructor but is controlled by the student through a digital space.  PLE’s can also promote collaboration when they are shared with others.  For example, a wiki page or other shared document can facilitate group work.  The wiki or document would be dedicated to that assignment and accessed by all members.  PLE’s require a device to connect students to their constructed environment, which can be a computer, tablet, or mobile device.

Natural User Interfaces

Many educators believe that a more immersive teaching style leads to more fully engaged students and therefore better learning.  Natural user interfaces provide a teaching tool that engages all the senses and promotes active learning in the classroom, meeting the instructional needs of all types of learners (Center for Digital Education, 2012).  Natural user interfaces change the way that students interact with technology devices.  The traditional keyboard and mouse are replaced by sensors that detect voice commands, gestures, and touches by the user to manipulate the given technology device.  “Natural user interfaces allow users to engage in virtual activities with movements similar to what they would use in the real world, manipulating content intuitively” (Johnson et al., 2012, p. 32).  Although already used with special needs students who have difficulty manipulating traditional interfaces, natural user interfaces have not translated generally to the regular classroom.  Examples of natural user interfaces are the touch screen and surfaces, used on smartphones, tablets, and interactive whiteboards; gesture-based sensors, used with devices like the Xbox Kinect and Wii; and voice activated technology, used with the iPhone’s Siri virtual assistant and Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software.

Applications Across the Curriculum

All of the technologies discussed have applications in a middle school classroom.  However, it is not the technological tool that is important, but the instructional approach.  According to Dr. Brenner, a school superintendent from Long Island, New York, “It’s not about a cool application…We are talking about changing the way we do business in the classroom” (cited in Hu, 2012).  Technologies in the classroom are tools to engage students and are no substitute for quality teachers or instructional approaches.  However, a change in instructional techniques must change as our students change.  If properly used by excellent teachers, these technologies offer new ways to motivate and fully engage middle school students for life-long learning applied across the curriculum.

Some of these emerging technologies are appropriate for any content area.  For example, any teacher can use a wiki to create a PLE for their class or for specific assignments.  Students can then post work to the wiki while collaborating with the instructor and peers.  Additionally, an instructor can use iTunes U to gather materials all in one digital location and distribute them to students.  Students can access audio, video, or other materials for a class with a mobile app (Mangukiya, 2012).  Another example of a mobile app that any teacher can use is called Poll Everywhere.  This app allows teachers to poll up to 40 students using the texting-enabled cell phones for instant formative assessment (Koebler, 2011).

Another goal for many schools across the curriculum is to become paperless.  Using tablets, students can use cloud computing to store and turn in work to create a paperless learning environment.  Cloud computing also allows students to continue working at home with an Internet connection without lost papers or forgotten work.  Digital textbooks also help schools become paperless and can be augmented by digital portfolios (Hu, 2011).  In addition, students can take more interactive, annotated notes in class using mobile apps while interactive whiteboards facilitate classwork to be posted online as pdf’s.  Although some applications of these technologies can be for almost any teacher, some benefits of these technologies are content specific.

Language Arts

These emerging technologies can be directly applied to language arts.  Most universally applicable is e-books.  E-book readers, like the Kindle or the iBooks mobile app for iPod, iPhone, and iPad, allow literary texts to become interactive.  Interactive features improve reading skills like digital dictionaries for unknown vocabulary words, connections to supplementary online content to increase comprehension, digital annotation to increase depth of reading, and read-aloud capabilities for auditory learners.  E-books also motivate reluctant readers (Watters, 2012).  This is especially difficult with struggling readers in middle school.  Students can even create and e-publish their own e-book for iBooks using Apple’s Pages word processing software.  Although not every title is available digitally, digital publishing is becoming more common as mobile reading apps become more prevalent.

Literature also comes alive with mobile apps.  For example, an app for iPad and computers is Shakespeare in Bits.  This app provides an animated and interactive text of some of Shakespeare’s plays.  Students can click on archaic vocabulary for definitions and watch animated performances of each scene for context.  In addition to reading, writing skills can also be improved by the proper integration of emerging technologies.  Practical, authentic writing experiences where work is shared with peers promotes improvement with middle school writers.  PLE’s like journal writing in blogs or creating e-portfolios of written work can facilitate such writing experiences (Johnson et al., 2012).

Another highly motivating reading and writing experience is facilitated by game-based learning platforms emphasizing literacy, including a writing component and critical problem solving in collaboration with peers, called Quest Atlantis and Atlantis Remixed, or ARX.  According to the website’s homepage, ARX uses 3D, multi-user, virtual environments to immerse students in educational tasks.  ARX combines elements of video games with lessons from educational research on learning and motivation.  Students take on the persona of an investigator, exploring different virtual environments.  When enough information is gathered, each student writes an assignment based on his or her research within the game.  The games are also customizable for different subjects and instructional objectives, promoting writing across the curriculum. This encourages students to write for different purposes and for different audiences, one of the common core standards for middle school language arts students.  Their work is shared with peers around the world, motivating each student to write their best work.  Even reluctant writers are motivated to craft their writing with thoughtfulness and clarity and reluctant readers build reading skills because they enjoy the video game elements.


Middle school science students can benefit from science based personal learning environments.  One such PLE is called Scitable.  Scitable is a free science library and personal learning tool focusing on genetics and cell biology.  Students can join in scientific discussions, talk to experts in the field, and ask questions about science careers (Johnson et al., 2012).  Teachers and students create their own virtual learning environment for scientific inquiry on the website.

In addition, schools in Virginia have begun replacing science textbooks with iPad interactive textbooks (Hu, 2011).  The interactive textbooks can provide students with the means of manipulating data into charts, graphs, or other visuals; connecting to the Internet for more information about specific subjects based on student interest; connect students to practicing scientists, experts in their fields of study; and conduct virtual dissections or experiments.  Along the same lines, interactive mobile apps for tablets or smartphones allow science students to learn by manipulating information or doing virtual labs.  These kinds of apps permit students to learn the periodic table by viewing and rotating images in 3D or dissect frogs virtually (Johnson et al., 2012).  Middle school students are independent enough in their thinking to accept more control over their scientific experimentation, with appropriate supervision, that tablet technology provides.


Middle school students in mathematics classes begin to study more complex mathematical constructions like percentages, ratios, and equations.  Integrating technology into mathematics instruction can facilitate not only an understanding of the procedures of the math they are learning but also how to apply and synthesize it in the world around them.  Mobile devices can help students visualize content.  Students can graph equations using their smartphones.  They can not only play math games using tablet technology but also view or create for themselves animations of complex math problems.  In fact, California recently launched an iPad only algebra course in conjunction with Houghton Mifflin Harcort (Hu, 2011).

Gesture-based learning can also prompt students to apply mathematical concepts in new ways.  According to the Center for Digital Education (2012), Johnny Kissco, a math teacher from Texas uses the Xbox Kinect in his classroom.  “When I used Kinect in my algebra class, students began asking questions that went far beyond the curriculum requirements. This was a huge success, as it got students thinking about applying the content in a real-world context” (p. 1).  Although most people use mathematics in daily life, middle school students are constantly asking about the practical application of the math they are learning.  Students who use these devices to learn mathematics no longer wonder how they will use the assigned content; they see the practical applications through the instruction itself.

Arts and Physical Education

Many mobile apps for tablets encourage students to create their artistic visions digitally.  Other mobile apps allow art students to view masterworks of art from museums around the world, such as the free apps from the Van Gogh museum and the Louvre.  Students can interact with visuals and content about the artist.  Music students can create their own digital music using apps like GarageBand for iPad.  Such interactive apps can engage many reluctant music makers (Mangukiya, 2012).  These creations can then be published and shared.  Gesture-based learning can provide new learning experiences in physical education.  Learning the rules or motions involved in a sport can be accomplished digitally where progress can be tracked through formative assessments collected by the device.


Middle school students are motivated and encouraged to use higher level thinking skills when instruction includes these emerging technologies.  In the hands of an excellent teacher in a student-centered classroom, these technologies can transform instruction providing authentic, real-world learning experiences to the benefit of students of all learning styles and intelligences.  This is the future of education.


Center for Digital Education. (2012). Learning through motion. Retrieved through Microsoft website:

Demski, J. (2012, January 4). This time it’s personal. Transforming Education Through Technology Journal. Retrieved from

Hu, W. (2011, January 4). Math that moves: Schools embrace the iPad. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Cummins, M. (2012). NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium. Retrieved from

Mangukiya, P. (2012, February 3). How mobile apps are changing classrooms and education. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Nielsen, L. (2011, November 9). 7 myths about BYOD debunked. Transforming Education Through Technology Journal. Retrieved from

Rankin, B. (2010, August 24). Dr. Bill Rankin: Next-wave mobility and the three ages of information [Video file]. Retrieved from

Torres, R. (2011, November 9). TEDxGotham 2011–Robert Torres [Video file]. Retrieved from!

Watters, A. (2012, February 1). The truth about tablets: Educators are getting iPads and e-readers into students’ hands–but it is not easy. School Library Journal. Retrieved from  ipads-and-ereaders-into-students-hands-but-its-not-easy/

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 4, 2012 at 5:26 pm

One Response

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  1. A helpful intro – thank you.


    December 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm

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