As I visit schools and districts, one thing consistently stands out: people like to talk about technology. A lot. Conversations about their digital conversion and the number of Chromebooks, iPads, or other devices they are deploying are ubiquitous. Other discussions include ‘robust networks,’ digital content (buy, build or curate?), and the learning management system. Many districts now use the term innovation almost synonymously with technology…or they have combined the two terms and talk about their technology innovations. As I visit schools I see rows of students all with their device open, I see teachers using digital quizzes and polling, kids using smartphones and recently, more and more Google Cardboard and other AR/VR ancillaries; the number of classrooms with interactive white boards is staggering.
On the surface, all of this looks and sounds great. But is it?
At first blush, all this technology appears to be a good thing. Teachers and administrators may tell you the addition of technology enhances everything from student engagement to teacher professional development. Some will even go as far as to say that technology provides a transformational learning experience. But the deep, dark truth of the matter is I seldom see transformational learning and it is even more rare to see technology truly enhancing the learner experience.
What is even more problematic is that research indicates technology, used incorrectly, can have a distinct negative impact on students and their learning. So, as school leaders, how do we know what technology to use and when? How do you leverage high impact teaching strategies through technology? How do you know when your best laid plans result in less engagement, lower performance, and become the antithesis of best practice? Asking some deep clarifying questions about the purpose of technology will assist schools in aligning technology to their needs and in doing so create a rich, dynamic learner experience.
The following are five critical questions school leaders should ask themselves when considering the implementation of digital technologies in classrooms:
- Should we go 1:1? On the surface this seems like a fairly straightforward question but the question is misleading. The REAL question is ‘what do we want to accomplish academically this year?’ Only after you begin with the end in mind can you start to understand if technology will create a meaningful difference.
- During classroom observations, isn’t it important to see students on computers? Well, that depends on what the learning objective is and if the device/app/program you have selected is actually the right one to accomplish the goal. For example, if the goal is for students to have a transformational learning experience, the simple act of having a computer on each desk is not likely to accomplish that. Understanding the power of the tools and their highest and best use is critical. Are answering questions using Poll Everywhere or Kahoot a better experience for learners than going to the board in teams in old-fashioned relays? Does completing an essay in Word make the experience any better than writing the essay? What is the value-add of the technology?
- Can our teachers handle the addition of technology tools? Teaching is labor intensive. It requires someone who is flexible and can think on his/her feet. At any given time, a teacher must be able to support an entire classroom of students, provide differentiated instruction, one-on-one supports, field questions, maintain order, complete required administrative tasks, and maintain student interest. Pre-service teaching programs seldom cover how to integrate technology much less how to use technology to transform the learner experience. Professional development in schools may attempt to bridge the gap but the reality is that learning this year’s app/LMS/device may be the proverbial straw for some teachers. It is hard enough to be a great teacher without technology; add in more things to learn and master and the technology will only be used at the very basic level-or worse, the teacher consistently is so focused on the tech he/she forgets that their primary responsibility is to teach. Yikes!
- If computer analytics are providing me with student data, isn’t that enough? Nope. Not even close. It is not a good idea to expect all teachers to pull their own metrics and to analyze them. Most teachers had, at best, one stats class that they long ago forgot (except maybe standard deviation). Having a computer or program that provides a dashboard of student information is a big step forward…but understanding what the data is telling you in a deep and meaningful way is what is key. Remaining consistent in programs (not requiring teachers to keep learning new tools each year) and giving job-embedded time for learning is crucial.
- As a school leader, how do I know if I am seeing effective technology use? When you walk through or observe a teacher in action there are some things that will always be indicators of good practice; actively engaged students, real-world learning, applied learning etc. Two simple questions can help determine if technology is being leveraged for greater good: What do your teachers do best? What does the technology do best? Teachers should be building relationships, mentoring, coaching and cheerleading. Technology, on the other hand is great for grading, providing real-time data and an avenue to extend teacher reach. If you really want to know what is going on, ask the students. They will honestly tell you what they think.
Like any innovation, technology can be utilized in supportive, meaningful ways or it can be used inefficiently, ineffectively, or in ways that are not designed to support learning. When choosing to add technology to the classroom, more may not be better. Any instructional decisions should be intentional and tied directly to student learning outcomes. The technology-enhanced or technology-integrated classroom may provide students with greater opportunities and teachers with real-time data to assist in decision-making but if it is implemented for its own sake, it is unlikely to support learning and even less likely to make a meaningful difference.