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Learning to use technology with peers – the case of Students With Abilities in Technology (SWATs).

Part 1: Introduction

Mind-amplifying technologies [1], technologies of cooperation [2], such as conversation technologies, as well as visualization tools, video and photo edition software, simulators or programming technologies are emerging learning tools in schools around the world. They are affordable and accessible enough to design learning environments. Latin America is no exception and it is fast becoming the norm to find convergent technology in the classroom.

We challenged students to develop a three-level game with a score or marker using Scratch, a program developed by MIT. This program allows you to develop computer programs using modules or blocks of instructions. The educational value of this tool lies not in its ease of use but in its nature as an authentic learning environment and ideal context for developing intellectual skills.

Once students have developed their programs and documented the process in a learning log, we asked them if they had faced problems in handling Scratch. In this way we were able to identify which students had difficulties in developing programs and what their problems were in the process of choosing instructions.  However, we’re also able to identify those students with particular technical skills.  We call them Students With Abilities in Technology (SWATs).  In case of difficulty, SWATs can be called in, and can decide if they want to give advice to peers and the teacher in the use of Scratch.

The idea of identifying these students and asking them to support their peers and teachers in specific tasks has an additional educational component. It is clear that when a student is given the task of explaining or advising peers or teachers, he develops new competences and masters, to an even greater extent, those competences for which he/she was selected as SWAT.

We have observationally determined that this approach is relevant to the widespread use of digital devices in academic tasks and its extended application contributes to a more positive use of digital technologies for learning. We see how, as the use of technology in all learning environments becomes general, this approach of peer learning becomes an alternative to underpin the work of teachers. The figure of the SWAT in the classroom also enables a different form of relationship between pairs that generate new forms of interaction and learning that we can appraise and evaluate.

Part 2. Representation as a pattern

Here’s how the above case could be described using the pattern template that we’ve presented in the book.  This may help others use the same model — or at least understand how it works in practice in more detail.  Further questions may come to mind, which the reader can try to answer by transforming or extending the pattern in their own context.


Students With Abilities in Technology (SWAT)


Private and public schools increasingly have digital devices in classrooms with Internet access (laptops, desktops, tablets, cell phones, etc.) and teachers with little or no expertise in the educational use of such devices.  However, some of the students have considerable background with these kinds of tools.  They can help the teachers and other students.


In general, teachers have multiple deficiencies in the adoption of emerging technologies. Their lack of expertise prevents them from realizing the full potential that technology has as a relevant pedagogical mediation.  The rate of change in the school context, however, is not coupled to the rate of change in  current teacher training programs. This lack of pedagogical training is having a majorly disruptive impact in the classroom given this presence of technological devices in the classroom.  The reaction of administrators and teachers to the proliferation of devices is, in a significant number of cases, rejection and stigmatization of emerging technologies. The cause of this rejection is that teachers ignore the educational potential of technology. They ignore how technology has changed the cognitive model of a whole generation.  Having technical specialists to support the work of the teacher in the classroom is unthinkable from an economic standpoint.


The students themselves can be the solution to this problem. Some have superior technical knowledge and this is usually wasted. Teachers can incorporate them as assistants to help them and their peers. A student with digital skills can be the agent of change that many teachers need in order to learn how to use technology for the design of learning environments.  This empowered group of students, that we named SWAT (Students With Abilities in Technology) support teachers and peers with lower-level digital competences. Support from students with technical knowledge could mean a significant change in the learning process, because teachers can now combine that knowledge with their teaching experience and pedagogical strategies. The result of this can be the discovery of the many possibilities technology has for the construction of knowledge and the development of new intellectual abilities.

In our work with middle school students (ages 12-14), the support of SWATs inside and outside the classroom was a very positive experience. At the beginning of each course students are required to develop projects involving the use of technology. Students who show a greater competence in the use of technical tools are invited to join as SWAT. Once SWATs are identified, they are asked about the possibility of supporting teachers and their peers in the use of specific computer tools. It is impressive to see teachers becoming co-learners who take advantage of this privileged status of their students to master tools that promote their ability to redesign learning environments.  When students need support for developing their projects, SWATs show them strategies to accomplish them. The majority report great pleasure and pride in their new role as peer advisors.

Challenges arising in practice:

This peeragogical approach changes the prevailing educational paradigm through collaboration between teachers and students, and among students themselves.  There are many possible points of friction.  To have one or more SWATs in each learning group transforms the way in which teachers and students interact with each other and with available technologies, but, again, can create challenges for teachers who may be used to a more “banking” style of teaching.

What’s next:

Can we find mentors for the SWATs to help them become even better with technology?  Can we find other ways to reward these students?  At the same time, can the idea be applied across the curriculum, and across other competencies, to involve more students in the peer-teaching role?


  1. Howard Rheingold (2012), “Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?”

  2. Institute of the Future (2005), “Technology of cooperation.”