Technology Integration is the Messenger

For the past twenty-two years, I have partnered with teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. During that time, my partners have fallen into three broad groups with a corresponding range of experiences. The first group consists of those teachers who recognized at some point that student engagement could be radically improved without sacrificing rigor. As a result, these folks were open and willing to experiment with technology tools that met their learning goals, even if some experiments failed. In most cases I served as an enthusiastic coach in the wings just in case something went wrong, encouraging the teacher to take the lead. The second group was open to trying new things, recognized the student engagement issue, but was not completely sold that some form of technology integration was the best solution. They wanted me to play a more visible role, raising their comfort level and being present when the new tool was launched so the kids would see me as a partner in crime with the teacher if the lesson went south. The third group was convinced technology integration would take on a life of its own, and would detract from the classic content and skills that defined the goals of the course (the distraction argument). They weren’t completely closed to the notion that some technology tools might support student learning that was difficult to achieve otherwise, but those scenarios required convincing and a strong support commitment (I’ll work by your side until the bitter end).

This pattern was repeated for many years in a culture where faculty were encouraged, but not required, to innovate. in short, we wanted the development of faculty innovation to move at the pace most comfortable for our teachers. And why not? Their existing teaching was not broken, and in many cases met that high standard of excellence. Our idea was to “future-proof” teaching and learning so societal and technological changes would not take us by surprise. Then one day we changed the rules a bit. We gave every teacher an iPad, but still did not ask anything of our faculty other than to experiment and assess whether this tablet device might help us enhance teaching and learning. Shortly thereafter, however, we did require our students to purchase an iPad. The rationale was that if teachers incorproated great apps to use in and out of the classroom, every student would be able to participate in the new experience. The response, as always, was mixed as the program evolved, but there was a different tone to the negative responses. For the first time, I heard anger. The source of this anger is wonderfully articulated in this post by Terry Heick on the te@chthought site.

I agree with most of Terry’s points, but there is one that stands out for me:

And this is where things get stressful. Technology doesn’t make teaching better or worse, simpler or more complex–it changes it all entirely. The frameworks. The models. The training. The instructional design. Curriculum. Lesson design. Assessment. Learning feedback. Classroom management. School design. All of it.

Not everybody articulates all of these challenges on a regular basis, but they persist as subliminal stimuli that can serve to frustrate and sometimes enrage a teacher who takes great pride in what they do on a daily basis. Again, Terry articulates the underlying reasons; that edtech tools tend to make everything we do more explicit and exposed to the outside world:

Further complicating matters is the difficulty of effectively integrating technology in the classroom. This is hard for some educators (who do it well) to appreciate. You have to understand content, teaching, and technology on nearly equal terms, and when you don’t it all has an awkward way of illuminating the holes in a teacher’s expertise. That doesn’t mean that teachers that question edtech do so simply because they’re not good at it, but rarely do you hear people complain about things they do well.

When edtech consisted of a chalkboard, we walked into our classroom, closed the door, and engaged in the art of teaching. When all of your course content, explicit pedagogy, assessments, and rubrics are on the web, for example, the whole world might know how you teach, how you approach your curriculum, and your relationship with students. Removing the kimono can be a very humbling and threatening experience, even if this additional explicit scaffolding has a significant upside for students.

Then we hear Finland bragging that they achieve the highest PISA scores in the world without any technology, and one is suddenly cast in the role of questioning whether the anger of some of our teachers is justified. In response to the anger issue, I would supplement the view Terry presents. First, technology integration, as Terry points out above, can be inherently disruptive to educators and education. There are a cadre of people out there, led by Clayton Christensen, who champion disruptive innovation on the grounds that education today suffers from an incompatibility between current practice and the way kids learn. Their solution stops short of blowing up the existing infrastructure, but creates evolving pockets of disruptive innovation that demonstrate success, and then incorporates them into schools in ways that will effectively transform the traditional structure. What Christensen calls for, customized learning, student-centric classrooms, and increased use of appropriate technology, are sound principles of twenty-first century education. The challenge is getting there, and if we are going to retain the good teachers who have dedicated their lives to our kids, then I suspect a less disruptive and more organic shift will be necessary (putting tremendous pressure on good professional development resources). It is critical to remember that while this disruption is occurring, we are still educating children. I would hope that our students do not become the casualties of a necessary sea-change in the educational process. For many years, each time school systems implemented new programs, the kids caught in the transition were the losers while teachers and administrators adjusted and learned new approaches on an annual basis. Further disruption on a larger scale could result in more disconnect between students and their educational goals.

Second, since the advent of the personal computer, the laptop, and particularly with mobile devices, it has become clearer that the teaching and learning focus in the classroom is shifting. In that shift, teachers are still the experts and the necessary role models for our children, but the learning process becomes more dependent on active engagement by students (as a result of both culture and brain research). We have evolved beyond an educational system that was designed to turn out good American citizens who would find gainful employment, making a contribution to our world-class economy (the factory model). We have progressed from a series of self-contained disciplines and skills that had a finite core to an interdisciplinary world that has an unlimited scope of knowledge and leaves us with more questions than answers. Problem-solving is often beyond the reach of individuals, and must be attacked by groups of people globally with a variety of skills and expertise. So, the other source of teacher anger with technology is the age-old process of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Yes, there are technology tools that will enhance the learning experience in a teacher-centered classroom, but they  are limited to tools that support the curation and presentation of rich digital resources, basic research, and document production. Reaping the full benefit of edtech in a mobile environment requires students to take charge of their own learning, and use their mobile tools for good reason: to connect with others to solve problems, to polish and enhance collaborative research skills, to create their own content in peer groups, and to make things using tools for design. If the approach to teaching and learning changes to a more student centered enterprise, then technology integration becomes a smoother process because all of the issues that Terry mentioned above must be addressed prior to the incorporation of technology (the last step in curriculum design is matching the technology tools to the goals of the lesson). Otherwise, edtech becomes the stimulus for rethinking teaching and learning. That has been a widely used strategy for promoting innovation in our schools, but one unintended consequence is that edtech becomes the messenger that innovation is necessary, and is therefore the object of the ire of some teachers.


About jbackon

I'm a history teacher and curricular technology maven who loves to think out loud.
This entry was posted in 21st Century Learning, Professional Development, Steps for Technology, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s