What's Really Getting in the Way of Teachers Embracing Edtech?

Opinion | Education Research

What's Really Getting in the Way of Teachers Embracing Edtech?

By Tracy Huebner and Rachel Burstein     Oct 18, 2023

What's Really Getting in the Way of Teachers Embracing Edtech?

Amy Ballard, Ph.D., a math teacher and instructional coach at Brashier Middle College Charter High School in Simpsonville, South Carolina, has more than two decades of experience and spends a lot of time thinking about edtech. Yet Ballard’s main focus is not the tools themselves, but rather, how to support teachers leveraging edtech to help improve student learning.

“I worked as an administrator for 10 years, so I think about edtech from both sides — both how an administrator makes decisions about edtech tools, but also how we can support our teachers,” Ballard shared in a focus group that was part of a larger project designed to better understand the gap between teaching practices and technology use. This project was supported by Google for Education and involved a number of partners, including our organization, WestEd.

As the research leads on the project, we drew on literature and educator focus groups to investigate how technology could be leveraged most effectively in instruction, the barriers to adoption, and the strategies that could best support teachers in adopting effective instructional practices.

We selected Ballard and her peers for our series of focus groups because of their leadership in supporting the effective use of technology in their schools. Even though Ballard is a self-described “early adopter,” she is careful not to recommend the latest, shiniest tools to her teachers outright. She recognizes that tools must align to teachers’ instructional goals and must be accompanied by professional development that covers not just how individual tools function, but also how they fit into effective teaching practice.

“I need to reiterate with my teachers that the tech tool itself isn't the be all, end all,” Ballard said. Instead, she added that it is important to center edtech around the educator; ultimately it is how teachers use that technology to advance their instructional goals that matters.

A Shift to Technology-Enabled Instruction

Ballard, along with other teachers who participated in our focus groups, is helping to cultivate “technology-enabled instruction,” a concept coined by education researchers Peggy A. Ertmer and Anne Ottenbreit-Leftwich that refers not just to whether technology is used in the classroom but also when and how teachers use technology to improve learning outcomes.

For a school to shift from simply adding tech tools to encouraging teachers to use them effectively, a few elements must be in place, including informed decision-making by leadership, continual training and support for teachers and buy-in from staff. After all, there are a lot of reasons why a teacher might be reluctant to embrace edtech, and not all of these obstacles hinge on whether a teacher knows how to integrate technology in the classroom.

Ballard understands that better than most. For example, in one of our focus groups, we asked teachers to examine the prototype for a tool they could use to evaluate whether and how to use edtech. Ballard believed that the tool required too much time for teachers to parse and leverage effectively in their teaching. She said, “When I think about my teachers, I think they would just shut down if they saw this.” Ballard illustrated that sometimes it’s not about knowing how to use a tool — it’s about not having the time.

There are good reasons for that, Ballard said. Teachers are already stressed, overwhelmed by technology and reluctant to invest their limited time in a potentially unproven tool or approach. Many have seen this show before: a faddish flavor of the month that was quickly replaced by the next big thing or that was shown to be ineffective in the long term.

Barriers to Embracing Technology in the Classroom

Teachers in our focus groups explained that beyond time and experience-backed cynicism, there are a host of other reasons why teachers might not want to adopt technology-enabled instructional practices.

Some participants reflected that they have colleagues who express a lack of confidence in their technological abilities or who say they have adopted non-technological approaches that they feel are more effective. Others shared that they or their colleagues fear being reprimanded by school leaders for trying something new, don’t feel adequately trained, or lack access to the tools they need to implement edtech effectively.

These explanations for educator reticence about embracing edtech are backed up by a quarter-century of research, dating back to before the term “technology-enabled instruction” was first introduced. Ertmer first distinguished between “first- and second-order barriers” to the effective use of technology in the classroom in 1999, referring to categories of challenges that are sometimes called “external and internal barriers.”

External barriers are factors outside of a teacher’s control — access to technology, support from leadership and opportunities to participate in high-quality professional development, among others. Internal barriers are intrinsic to the teacher — for example, their beliefs and attitudes about the usefulness of technology, and their real and perceived knowledge.

Examples of External Barriers Examples of Internal Barriers
Lack of access to technology Real and perceived knowledge and skills
Lack of professional development Beliefs about technology-enabled teaching and learning
Lack of a school or district vision for technology integration Pedagogical values and beliefs
Poor or unsupportive leadership

This distinction between external and internal barriers was intuitive for the teachers in our focus groups. If a classroom has spotty Wi-Fi or a teacher has inadequate access to devices for students, it’s awfully hard to make the most of edtech. If a teacher has had negative prior experiences with edtech tools or considers themself a technophobe, it’s difficult to convince them that learning to use tech tools is a good use of time.

Understanding the Relationship Between Barriers

The significance of these barriers has changed over time. Over the past two decades, there has been significant progress on breaking down external barriers such as Wi-Fi and device access, even as the challenges are far from solved. According to a 2019-20 survey administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, nine out of 10 schools reported that their computers met the school’s teaching and learning needs to a moderate or large extent. Internet access has also improved substantially. A 2021 survey by EdWeek Research Center found that more than 75 percent of teachers said that at least three-quarters of their students have adequate internet access at home to support learning. Digital divides persist, but schools have made some progress in addressing these barriers.

When looking at how teachers use technology, their school and district context matters a great deal too. A teacher in one school might work with administrators who’ve clearly articulated a plan for how teachers can use edtech and who have provided the support necessary for teachers to implement that vision. That support might include peer-teacher models, relevant professional development opportunities and professional learning communities that elevate teacher voices. A teacher in another school with less support might be less effective in using edtech.

When considering how to address these context-specific barriers, it’s important to understand how internal and external barriers are related. In a landmark study of barriers to using edtech effectively published in 2007, researchers Khe Foon Hew and Thomas Brush argued that internal and external barriers must be addressed together. As Hew and Brush put it, these barriers “are so inextricably linked together that it is very difficult to address them separately.”

Several participants in our focus groups told us that they were excited to embrace new edtech tools but encountered resistance from leaders who claimed that the work did not fit into the vision for the school or who did not support additional teacher training. In these cases, teachers faced no internal barriers when it came to beliefs and attitudes, but they were still hampered by using edtech effectively in instruction.

Other teachers told us that they had colleagues who had access to a variety of tools but who viewed technology negatively, and opted not to use technology in ways that could have benefited student learning.

Those internal barriers are especially tough to address. The good news is that research shows that teachers' beliefs, values and attitudes are not static, and that school and district leaders can play an important role in changing their perceptions, paving the way for technology-enabled instruction to take place.

How School and District Leaders Can Address Barriers Holistically

A number of researchers, including Ertmer, Windschitl, Hew and Brush, have shown that teachers’ beliefs — the underlying ideas and assumptions they hold about technology and pedagogy — influence whether and how they use technology.

Yet, these researchers have also shown that these beliefs are malleable. Ertmer and others have shown that teachers’ beliefs about edtech can shift when presented with evidence that a practice improves student learning. When school and district leaders help teachers see how tech can help with a particular teaching goal such as scaffolding or accommodation of individual student needs, teachers are more likely to be open to using technology in instruction.

Studies also reveal that teachers’ beliefs and practices can also change in response to direct, positive experiences using edtech. Opportunities to experiment with tech in small and incremental ways can help teachers improve their self-confidence, self-efficacy and perceived technical knowledge, resulting in teachers’ willingness to use tech where it can benefit instruction and learning. There’s also evidence that teachers can experience a similar shift in attitude when schools support them with ongoing and relevant professional learning opportunities, professional learning communities and opportunities to contribute to decision-making.

Of course, instituting these approaches to shift teachers’ beliefs and attitudes to foster technology-enabled practices isn’t easy. It requires substantial time, effort, respect for educators and a clear understanding of how internal and external barriers relate. But, as we heard from the teachers in our focus groups, it is a process that will ultimately benefit everyone, students most especially.

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