I was recently talking with a friend at a school district about their upcoming round of TIM observations and we went down an interesting path talking about independence as it is discussed in the Technology Integration Matrix. A lot turns on independence. At the first two levels on the TIM, the teacher alone decides which technologies to use, when, how, and why. The shift toward student independence with technology begins at Adaptation. At Infusion and Transformation, students have independent access to technology tools.

What do we mean by “independent access”? Why does it matter?

Independent access means that a student can use a technology tool without a teacher’s direct interaction. The student knows where the tool is, has permission to access it, and understands how to use it. The spirit of independent use is that a student can evaluate a situation and choose the hardware or software that the student thinks will be most advantageous. Of course, independent use is typically preceded — and supported by — lots of non-independent use. At Entry and Adoption, the teacher is modeling how and why to use different technology tools.

Independent access is important because it provides the opportunity for critical, higher-order thinking and creativity.

What is independence in the context of student technology use? Why is it important?

We can think of it in broader terms as student agency, which has 2 facets: 1) independent access and 2) independent use. Student agency in technology use is a continuum in which having one or the other of these facets in varying degrees can move you along the continuum. In keeping with the spirit of the TIM, we are not saying that students having all access to all technology tools with total independent use all the time should be lauded as the best scenario. Some lessons and some technologies will best lend themselves to guided access and/or guided or monitored use at certain points in the learning cycle (as is consistent with the general TIM framework).

For example, students may have some level of restriction on their access to technology, but they may still be able to exercise choice and critical thinking because they have independence in how they are using the technology, (i.e., they are not being guided, or directly interacting with the teacher as they use the technology).

Time for an analogy: imagine that you are given a piece of blue construction paper, five cotton balls, glue, and a crayon and told to illustrate a cumulonimbus cloud. A room full of people told to use exactly those resources would probably end up with very similar illustrations. The person who selected those materials thought about what features needed to be represented and considered the affordances of all of the available resources. The people who created the diagrams had significantly less to think about. Now let’s imagine you were given the same task and provided with independent access to a full range of art supplies. A room full of people would likely end up with widely varied results including many different mediums and approaches. Each person completing the activity would think critically about the information that needed to be conveyed and the best ways to convey it. Each person might also consider what materials he or she enjoys working with. In the second scenario, the participants engaged critical and creative faculties to a much greater extent than in the first. Of course, the first project is probably easier to grade.

And so it is with technology. The person who is making the choices has the opportunity to think critically and creatively about what tools to use and how to use them. Sometimes, it’s pedagogically appropriate for that person to be the teacher. Sometimes, the best way to meet learning goals is for that person to be the student. The TIM levels describe a full range of pedagogical choices, all of which have their place.

What does this tell us about independent access? Independent access means that students exercise the opportunity to choose, applying critical and creative thought. Specifically, independent access commonly means that the technology is available to students throughout the day and can be incorporated into learning activities in ways that the student determines. An example might be a 1st grade classroom with a set of digital cameras accessible to students, arranged so that students are free to incorporate digital photography into their work when they choose — adding a photo to a writing assignment or a science project or an art project. Another example would be a 3D printer in a high school STEM lab where students can access and use the printer at will in whatever projects they are working on.

Of course, varied projects can be harder to grade. Rubrics can help. And, resources may be an additional challenge. If technology tools are used more frequently and more creatively, you may go through more consumables (ink, filament, paper, etc.). However, I’d rather have the problem of needing more filament for great, creative student projects than the problem of a lonely 3D printer that gets used infrequently and un-creatively.

James Welsh is the director of FCIT, project leader for the TIM, and a former classroom teacher. His research interests include evaluation of educational technology, critical media literacy, student creation of multimedia texts, and the role of genre in student composition. Dr. Welsh has published work in Teacher Education Quarterly, Journal of Reading Education, Qualitative Studies in Education, International Journal of Multicultural Education, and The International Journal of Learning, as well as book chapters and articles addressing technology and student composition.