Dan Ryder teaches high school English and humanities, but his students still wind up learning computer-aided design and 3D printing.
In his classes at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, Ryder has students design and build 3D “fidgets”—small handheld toys for nervous fingers—after learning about the impact of stress and studying social entrepreneurship. Earlier in the year, students created and printed totems and other 3D representations of the works they are reading. But one thing Ryder won’t do, he says, is waste time with technology.
“My basic philosophy is what you hear most progressive tech integrator folks say—it’s got to be worth the time it takes,” Ryder says.
That’s a warning you’ll hear from many teachers working with technology—one that often comes from personal experience. “My biggest problem with technology is I’m always told it will take less time and it will make my job easier. It never does,” one teacher told us when we first started exploring how digital tools work in the classroom.
Things have improved since our original survey of teachers and technology use in 2013. As we’ve pointed out before, teachers are increasingly confident about the quality and usefulness of digital tools. Technology and tools have matured, and teachers have responded by putting them to use. Almost all (93 percent) of the more than 3,100 teachers we surveyed last year now regularly use some form of digital tool to guide instruction—although not all digital tools are seen as equally useful or effective.
What makes a digital tool click in the classroom? Here’s what teachers told us.
From the 2015 survey, Teachers Know Best: What Teachers Want from Digital Instructional Tools 2.0. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Cost is an issue—both for individual teachers and the schools they work in. And the rules for technology purchases differ between states, school systems, and even individual schools.
While many digital tools have free and paid tiers, Ryder cautions that he’s leery of using products that limit functionality for free users. “I don’t want to invest too heavily into something I won’t be able to fully use,” he says.
As we’ve pointed out before, many students lack access to technology outside of the classroom, and the hardware and tools inside school buildings varies widely. Teachers point out that tools should be web-based so they can run on all kinds of equipment, both in and out of school as appropriate.
Saves time and is simple to integrate
Again, teachers hate wasting time, so products should be easy to learn and put to use in the classroom. Ryder, for example, has students complete much of their in-class activities using Google Apps for Education—in part because of their flexibility and usefulness in collaboration, and in part because “once kids learn the basic functionality of one [app], they’ve learned the functionality of all of them,” he says.
Tools must also be easy for educators to learn, teachers tell us. “Digital products have to be designed so that the teacher does not have to spend hours and hours learning how to use them,” one said. “Teachers do not have the luxury of lots of discretionary time to learn how to use a tool.”
The classroom is changing. The majority of teachers group students of similar abilities together for targeted instruction or other support, and nearly half of elementary school teachers focus on ensuring that every student learns different materials, at different paces, depending on their level of ability. Digital tools can be a perfect support for these personalized activities—when they, like the teachers who use them, differentiate activities and content based on each student’s needs. “Digital resources tend to be ‘one size fits all,’” one teacher told us. “A more flexible approach would be welcome.”
Along with using digital tools that differentiate tasks for students, Ryder relies on tools that allow him to share files and email individual students who need individualized tasks. Other educators point out the value of digital tools that can help translate content for English language learners and meet the needs of students with cognitive delays and physical disabilities. Digital tools can also help the students who need assistance the most. “I need a science program with more remediation,” one teacher said.
Actionable data on student progress
Digital tools often generate data about student performance, but for it to be actionable, that data needs to connect to other tools without requiring the kinds of time-consuming manual data entry that keep teachers from understanding its insights in time to shift instruction.
One teacher shared the dilemma succinctly: “I have classroom clickers that allow students to take quizzes with a remote control. Love it! The data is hard to integrate into our school’s online grading program. Hate it! The disconnect is nearly universal and very frustrating.”
Tools that allow teachers to share information about students as they collaborate and plan instruction are also important. “Our kids sometimes see several different teachers, and I would love to have a way for everyone to access the data easily,” one teacher says.
Meet college and career ready standards
Teachers who are adopting more sophisticated and challenging standards understand the complexity of weaving together different strands and concepts in ways that push students further. As one told us, “teaching with standards is not equivalent to covering a checklist of topics, [it] is an art form that takes thought for how to challenge students how to synthesize and apply the content that they have learned.”
That’s why digital tools should help teachers identify ways to bring together different strands and subjects in the service of cross-cutting critical thinking standards, such as developing models to solve problems. “It would be fantastic to have tools that not only support math, but also support the integration of disciplines,” one teacher told us.
At the same time, it’s crucial that tools don’t lock teachers into specific standards and allow them to incorporate local or even classroom objectives into activities, according to Ryder. “I think it’s important that edtech align [with the standards],” he says, “but what I don’t appreciate is when it’s forced.”
As digital tools continue to mature, we’re hoping that more of them will address the classroom needs teachers themselves identify. Teachers should continue to share with product developers—and with each other—what’s working and what isn’t. Otherwise, the likely result is more wasted time—and no one wants that.