Emily Howell, a new assistant professor in the School of Education, researches how technology can be effectively integrated into literacy instruction. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Howell uses technology to improve students’ engagement, learning

Students become more engaged when their lessons in school align with their interests outside of school.

That’s why Emily Howell, a new assistant professor of literacy education in the Iowa State University School of Education, is exploring how the use of technology can assist in students’ learning.

“I really enjoy helping students become more engaged in their learning and making their learning more authentic to their interests,” she said. “I don’t think there should be this huge dichotomy between in-school and out-of-school literacies. I’m looking to merge those — to ask students, what are you doing outside of school that you might tap into in school? I’m interested in helping them use those interests to further their academic learning.”

Howell explores the use of design in writing, rather than just text, with digital tools ranging from iPads to laptops and apps.

The technology helps to make the composing of ideas relevant to what students will eventually do when they go out in the world, Howell said. For example, businesses often convey information with PowerPoint presentations and infographics rather than with research papers.

“I look specifically at how to help students write better arguments using multimodal design,” she said. “So that’s not just words but using images and sounds and what are called ‘modes,’ or ways of organizing information to compose arguments and really convey meaning.”

Communication grows increasingly digital

Howell, a former middle and high school English teacher, focuses her research on effectively integrating technology into literacy instruction and understanding digital forms of communication.

“I believe my work is particularly timely and relevant to educators who will need guidance as textual communication becomes increasingly digital and entails new and unique genres of communication,” she said.

She graduated last December from Clemson University in South Carolina with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in literacy.

For two years, she worked on improving students’ writing in grades seven through 10 in rural school districts by providing professional development to their teachers with the help of a grant to the National Writing Project.

That background will help with her position at Iowa State because more than half of Iowa’s schools are located in rural districts, according to Why Rural Matters 2013-2014. Howell said teachers and students in rural areas sometimes don’t have a lot of technological tools, or haven’t learned how to best use them.

“My work with rural education aligns with this position’s focus on issues of equity and cultural diversity in education,” she said. “I’m interested in making access to technology more equitable.”

Howell said she intends to assess the needs of area teachers, to see how she can collaborate with them and provide professional development on integrating technology into their literacy instruction.

But while technology helps with students’ engagement, it can also produce barriers. Howell said some teachers express concerns about how to integrate technology in their lessons while still meeting goals for standardized tests, which don’t cover standards of digital learning.

Effective use of technology in instruction

Howell joins a team at Iowa State University that’s played a key role in both literacy education, and helping teachers learn how to use technology in a way that best supports and enhances student learning.

“Along with add her expertise in technology integration in literacy, she brings a background in design-based research which is a great addition to the faculty research strengths,” said Constance Beecher, an assistant professor in the School of Education who’s also a state specialist in family literacy with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach.

Iowa State is home to the Fred Duffelmeyer Reading Improvement Clinic that offers children tutoring in reading. In the past year, Iowa State launched a new outreach project called Small Talk Story County to improve early childhood literacy. Faculty experts include Rey Junco, who studies students’ use of technology and is a national expert on the psychosocial impact of social media use.

“The School of Education has been a leader in preparing educators in the effective use of technology in instruction,” said Marlene Strathe, director of the School of Education. “Dr. Howell, with her expertise in both instructional technology and literacy education, will make a significant contribution to the preparation of our teacher candidates.”  

Howell is active in professional associations in her field. She’s a member of the Literacy Research Association and presented at their conferences in 2013, 2014, and 2015. She worked as both a reviewer and editorial assistant for the association’s yearbook.

She’s a member of the National Council of Teachers of English and presented at its annual conference in 2013 and 2014. She’s also presented at national and international conferences on issues pertaining to technology and literacy, including a presentation at a conference at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia.