Tech-ifying learning? Teacher knows best

Educators are key to fulfilling promise of technology in classrooms

March 21, 2014 8:00AM ET
Second-grade teacher Heather Black works with Ingrid Soracco, 7, right, on her e-book assignment, using an iPad at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., in November 2013.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Technology in education is a $7.9 billion-a-year industry that plays on a dual promise. It purports both to redefine traditional learning and to alleviate the socioeconomic disparities of American education. The term “educational technology” encompasses a range of meanings, from Web-based tools to mobile apps to computer programming skills. All of these digital permutations have two overlapping priorities: making (or saving) money and providing access. For Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the big pot of funds available for “edtech” products is an alluring prospect wrapped in a high-minded mission. For schools, such technology bears the promise of innovative teaching and cost cutting. But when digital possibilities meet authentic needs, the complex issue of equity in educational technology is usually misconstrued.

The concept of a digital divide was first publicized by President Bill Clinton during his 2000 State of the Union address and referred to the gap between classrooms with and without computers. The country has certainly made strides, but nearly a decade and a half later, inequity remains. Only 30 percent of U.S. schools currently have reliable wireless access, and fewer than 10 percent teach computer science. Remarkably, some of the computer science schools are the same ones without reliable Wi-Fi. They are forced, therefore, to teach computer science unplugged — a Sisyphean task.

Access to hardware is a relatively easy problem to fix. It requires a dedicated fundraising effort, but if the dollars can be secured and the devices purchased, the problem is largely solved. But access to iPads is quite different from a rich understanding of how to utilize them in the classroom so that students emerge as critical thinkers, problem solvers and creative designers.

Technological integration can be seductively elusive, particularly because the presence of gadgets does not automatically equal an understanding of computational integration. Some school districts, looking to cut costs, are laying off qualified teachers and opting for automated digital platforms. Chris Stevenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, told National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” that “administrators [have] actually [said] to me in all good intention, ‘I know kids are learning computer science in my schools because there are computers in the schools.’ And that is just not true.”

The solution, in part, is to involve a group that is often missing from the edtech debate: teachers. Charles Best, CEO of DonorsChoose.com, an online charity that allows the public to donate to specific public school classroom projects, argued in a recent “Fast Company” cover story on the year’s most innovative companies, “Teachers know how to improve education ... but they are a voice that is consistently overlooked or ignored."

Best, a former teacher, revealed that his website's most salient feature is its data on the real needs of American classrooms. His organization has raised $225 million and helped more than 175,000 teachers fund over 400,000 projects across the country. In essence, DonorsChoose.com unveils the disparities between what schools profess to want and what teachers require.

Instead of iPads in every child’s hands, one teacher would prefer a high-bandwidth network, more computer labs, a tech-friendly library and hands-on project spaces.

It’s true: Teachers are in a unique position to witness, report on and implement technological change in the classroom. Educator Diane Ravitch, for example, cites one Los Angeles teacher who argued that instead of her district putting iPads into every child’s hands, she would prefer a high-bandwidth network, more computer labs, a tech-friendly library and hands-on project spaces.

In fact, some of the best tools — ones that seek to transform the pedagogy itself —  are designed not by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs but by teachers who see an authentic need in their classrooms and develop original ways to address the demand.

Reshan Richards, a teacher, saw a gap in the audiovisual offerings available to his students and devised the Explain Everything app, which allows students to create their own materials. For example, to study the rain cycle, middle school students can generate diagrams to narrate and animate the transition from evaporation to condensation.

While savvy teachers embrace these collaborative tools, many others have never heard of such apps or don’t know how they might use them in their classrooms. Wendy Drexler, chief innovation officer at the International Society for Technology in Education, puts teachers into three categories of technological know-how: power users, those in the process of transforming and those who are still not comfortable.

Many teachers need help getting ahead of the edtech curve. Instead, as demonstrated recently in a much-circulated video clip, professional development for teachers too often remains stuck on lectures delivered in a traditional call-and-response pedagogical style.

The persistence of these problems isn’t due to a lack of funding. On March 4, Barack Obama’s administration announced its budget for 2015, which includes $69 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Education. Of that, $200 million is designated to “support educators’ transition to using technology and data to personalize learning and improve college- and career-ready instruction and assessment” as part of the ConnectEd K–12 program (a public-private partnership with $750 million of private-sector support). This initiative focuses on equitable access to wireless connectivity, promising that “99 percent of American students will have access to next-generation broadband by 2017.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for all students to have access to digital textbooks by 2019.

These federal initiatives aimed at easing the digital divide are steps in the right direction, but the White House is cognizant of its limitations in determining their results. In a public letter, Ted Waelder, deputy chief of staff and assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that “it is difficult for companies to make authoritative claims about the impact of their products on learning outcomes.” The administration therefore rightly invited students, families and educators to report directly to the Office of Educational Technology on the status of educational tech in American schools.

If teachers were more involved in the purchasing of edtech products, they could ensure that their classrooms had the basic needs before indulging in extravagant technologies. Beyond mere buying power, if educators had more institutional support to design their own learning platforms, they could themselves become the architects of the edtech revolution.

Mercer Hall is a teacher and co-founder of the American Society for Innovation Design in Education. He is a co-editor of the ASIDE blog, and his work is regularly featured in EdSurge, Edutopia, EdTech magazine and other forums.

Gina Sipley is a lifelong teacher who has been nationally recognized as a teacher of the future for her commitments to technology, sustainability and social justice. She writes about educational technology for EdSurge and Mic

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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