Why Ed Tech Is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach

Student-centered, technology-driven instruction remains elusive for most

Public schools now provide at least one computer for every five students. They spend more than $3 billion per year on digital content. And nearly three-fourths of high school students now say they regularly use a smartphone or tablet in the classroom.

But a mountain of evidence indicates that teachers have been painfully slow to transform the ways they teach, despite that massive influx of new technology into their classrooms. The student-centered, hands-on, personalized instruction envisioned by ed-tech proponents remains the exception to the rule.

“The introduction of computers into schools was supposed to improve academic achievement and alter how teachers taught,” said Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban. “Neither has occurred.”

Indeed, a host of national and regional surveys suggest that teachers are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier and to supplement traditional instructional strategies than to put students in control of their own learning. Case study after case study describe a common pattern inside schools: A handful of “early adopters” embrace innovative uses of new technology, while their colleagues make incremental or no changes to what they already do.

Researchers have identified numerous culprits, including teachers’ beliefs about what constitutes effective instruction, their lack of technology expertise, erratic training and support from administrators, and federal, state, and local policies that offer teachers neither the time nor the incentive to explore and experiment.

“There’s nothing transformative about every kid having an iPad unless you’re able to reach higher-order teaching and learning,” Ms. Wilson said. “If schools take all this technology, and use it like a textbook, or just have teachers show PowerPoint [presentations] or use drill-and-kill software, they might as well not even have it.”

Modeling Good Digital Teaching

A clear description of what student-centered, technology-driven classroom instruction entails is laid out in standards developed by the Washington-based International Society for Technology in Education.

“You can do student-centered teaching without technology. There have been teachers doing that for a long time,” said Wendy Drexler, ISTE’s chief innovation officer. “But tech is not going away, and we want to have teachers using it effectively.”

In the digital age, the ISTE standards say, teachers should be expected, among other strategies, to “engage students in exploring real-world issues and solving authentic problems using digital tools and resources.” They should also “develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress.”

A Pessimistic View

Mr. Cuban of Stanford has a more pessimistic take.

“Most teachers have ‘domesticated’ innovative technologies by incorporating them into their existing repertoire of teacher-directed practices,” he wrote in his 2013 book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

In his research for that book, Mr. Cuban revisited the technology-rich Silicon Valley high school featured in his seminal 2001 book, Overused and Oversold: Computers in the Classroom.

At the turn of the 21st century, he had found that “most teachers [at the school] had adapted an innovation to fit their customary practices.”

More than a decade later, some things had changed. More teachers regularly used digital devices for classroom instruction. And many of those teachers had incrementally changed their approach, using technology to plan lessons more efficiently, communicate with their colleagues more frequently, and access information via the Internet more regularly.

The End Result?

“In general, teachers at many schools seemed to view technology as a more valuable tool for themselves than for their students,” Ms. Shapley wrote.

While spotty Internet connections and Wi-Fi networks continue to cause problems in some places, access to technology is no longer the main barrier to transforming instruction, most researchers point out.

Instead, their focus is now on so-called “second order” obstacles.

In 2010, for example, researchers Peggy A. Ertmer of Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind., and Anne T. Ottenbreit-Leftwich of Indiana University, in Bloomington, took a comprehensive look at how teachers’ knowledge, confidence, and belief systems interact with school culture to shape the ways in which teachers integrate technology into their classrooms.

One big issue: Many teachers lack an understanding of how educational technology works.

But the greater challenge, the researchers wrote, is in expanding teachers’ knowledge of new instructional practices that will allow them to select and use the right technology, in the right way, with the right students, for the right purpose.

Classroom Realities

Those barriers to good technology use are made worse by school-based factors and problematic policies.

Researchers have found, for example, that even innovative teachers can be heavily affected by pressure to conform to more traditional instructional styles, with a teacher as the focal point for the classroom. Newer teachers inclined to use technology in their classrooms can also be deterred by experienced teachers who feel differently.

And the current test-based accountability system isn’t exactly supporting the transition to student-centered, technology-driven instruction, said Ms. Drexler of ISTE.”We’re telling teachers that the key thing that is important is that students in your classroom achieve, and we’re defining achievement by how they do on [standardized] tests,” she said. “That’s not going to change behavior.”

Perhaps the most obvious—and overlooked—barrier to effective ed-tech use is that totally changing the way you do your job takes a ton of time and work.

Ingredients for Success

So how can schools and districts better support teachers in transforming the way they teach?

Most often, that discussion begins with professional development. There are a lot of ideas and theories on what can make such training more effective, but rigorous, independent research remains frustratingly rare.

One strategy that most researchers and experts seem to agree on: so-called “job-embedded” professional development that takes place consistently during the workday and is tied to specific classroom challenges that teachers actually face, rather than in the isolated sessions often preferred by district central offices and written into districts’ contracts with their teachers.

“When learning experiences are focused solely on the technology itself, with no specific connection to grade or content learning goals, teachers are unlikely to incorporate technology into their practices,” concluded Ms. Ertmer and Ms. Ottenbreit-Leftwich, the researchers who wrote the 2010 paper on the factors influencing teachers’ use of educational technology.

Another oft-cited strategy is putting to work those “early adopters” inside a school who are making innovative, student-centered use of technology in their classrooms. “The smarter districts use those teachers to teach other teachers how to integrate tech into their lessons,” Mr. Cuban said. “The dumb ones use vendors to provide professional development and force teachers to attend those sessions.”

That smarter strategy is what Ms. Austin, the Mount Pleasant principal, is attempting.

But even as she described her approach to scaling up student-centered, technology-driven instruction during an interview in her office, a whiteboard loomed over her shoulder. On it was a circle, representing a Mount Pleasant student. Surrounding that circle were 19 other shapes, each representing a major initiative or issue the school is currently trying to balance, from new online exams linked to the Common Core State Standards to Delaware’s intensive new teacher-evaluation program.

Such dilemmas are part of why it’s most realistic to expect that, for the foreseeable future, teachers’ use of technology in the classroom will typically follow a bell curve, with those using student-centered approaches in line with the ISTE standards mostly remaining outliers.

“When all the stars are aligned, you can think about fundamentally changing how you’ve always done business,” said Ms. Wilson of the One-to-One Institute. “But remember, changing how we do education is like trying to move Mount Everest.”

Read the entire article by Benjamin Herold on Education Week at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/06/11/why-ed-tech-is-not-transforming-how.html

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