During the 2015-16 school year, I visited schools across the nation to see how technology can transform teaching and learning. The changes I’ve seen have been exciting, meaningful, and more often than not, challenging to get right.
The “digital divide” is still very real. In places like Eminence, Kentucky, we’ve seen how creative school leaders have found ways to ensure that as many students as possible can benefit from access to the Internet.
At the same time, in schools of all kinds, I’ve seen firsthand what others have called the digital use divide. In some schools, digital tools are driving new models of teaching and learning, ones where technology helps teachers personalize learning so each student can learn at his or her own pace—whether a grade level behind or a grade level ahead of classmates. But in other schools with similar access to digital tools, students are using them in very different ways—to do the same kinds of worksheet-like activities that were once done on paper.
“The digital use divide is present in both formal and informal learning settings and across high- and low-poverty schools and communities,” explains a report from the U.S. Department of Education.
Data from the 2015 Teachers Know Best survey, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
So what makes the difference between using edtech to supplement the classroom experience and using it to transform learning? From my experience observing and studying the use of edtech in schools in urban settings, rural areas, and everywhere in between, it boils down to three things:
1. A visionary leader
Whether at the school or district level, a leader can make the difference between implementing technology for technology’s sake and doing so to drive real change in the classroom. Too often, school or district leaders aren’t clear about what problem they are trying to solve with digital tools. This makes it much more likely that whatever tool gets put to use will, at best, support learning—not shift it in ways that serve teachers and students better.
The best school leaders don’t create technology strategies—they create teaching and learning strategies that technology makes possible. We saw this at CICS West Belden in Chicago, where a one-to-one technology initiative was carefully rolled out with an emphasis on how it would help teachers differentiate down to the individual student level—and with support that would ensure that each teacher would be successful in doing so.
“We believe there’s a human factor to teaching and learning,” says CICS West Belden Principal Scott Frauenheim.
From my experience, you can tell the difference between schools where students are simply using digital tools and those in which they’re clearly engaged—where the entire classroom experience has shifted. It usually comes down to school leaders having a clear sense of what they’re trying to accomplish.
2. Professional development
Just committing to technology at a school or district level isn’t enough. A recent study by Lea(r)n Platform found that 65 percent of student licenses for edtech weren’t being used enough to meet the school’s goals or the recommendations of the tool’s developers. More than one in three (37 percent) were never activated, meaning they weren’t used at all. In my experience, that’s often because teachers haven’t been trained to use the technology—or convinced that it’s worth their limited classroom time.
It’s easy to understand why: teachers are constantly inundated with new programs and requirements. That’s why the best professional learning starts at the beginning—with the “why” instead of the “how.” Teachers need to understand how new digital tools connect with a broader vision of classroom instruction, and how these tools can help them make meaningful shifts in what they do.
When we asked what teachers want to see in professional learning, we heard suggestions that could spell out a roadmap for technology-focused PD: training that is interactive, sustained, treats teachers like professionals, and is delivered by someone who understands their experience. We’ve highlighted how the 450-student Mancos school district in rural Colorado tapped a teacher—requested by his peers—to lead hands-on professional learning around the district’s adoption of a new digital tool. Over time, the district’s weekly sessions expanded to cover a broad range of different digital tools, as teachers sought to expand their use of technology in the classroom. Which, in turn, brings us to the third component that is necessary for meaningful edtech use:
3. Ongoing support
Once new digital tools are in use, teachers can feel isolated as they struggle to make them work in their classrooms. Ongoing support can help smooth the inevitable bumps in the road. In my experience this is often the weakest link, even in schools that have implemented technology well.
In addition to the type of professional development sessions Mancos instituted, we’ve seen technology companies take the lead in providing ongoing support. One maintains a Slack channel to provide real-time assistance when teachers need it. Others meet teachers where they are—on Facebook and Twitter, where teachers often ask for help—and get answers.
When schools get these things right, the sky’s the limit—whether it’s the English teacher in Maine who harnesses 3D printing to engage students or the Colorado math teacher who is no longer held captive by the calendar. And as teachers find ways to leverage the data that matters—not just student test scores, but also rich information about their academic, social, behavioral, and cultural experiences—we’ll see even more creativity flourish as they respond to each of their students’ needs.
This is exciting, challenging work, and we’re excited to see where forward-thinking schools go next. Wherever that may be, our goal is to help identify the ways that technology can better serve all of our students and schools. We look forward to hearing more from teachers about how to make that happen.