Education Opinion

EdTechX: A MOOC about Integrating Education Technology

By Justin Reich — July 28, 2015 7 min read
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Last week MIT kicked off a free new massive open online course called 11.133: Implementation and Evaluation of Education Technology. The course is designed to help educators think about how to integrate emerging technologies into schools and classrooms and how to evaluate those efforts.

I help kick off the first unit, in a section called “Where do you start?” An edited transcript of my remarks are below, and you can watch the whole video and take the entire course at edX.

Where do we begin if we want to implement educational technology in the classroom? What kind of questions should we ask? Justin Reich, who is now the executive director of the MIT PK-12 Initiative and a research scientist in the MIT Office of Digital Learning, helps us get started.

What Does Awesome Look Like?

When we try to help teachers think about the thoughtful use of education technology in their classrooms, the first question that we try to get them to think about is, what are your learning goals for your students? What is it that you want them to be able to do? One really fun question to ask actually to people at lots of different levels in schools is, what does awesome look like? If at the end of a semester, if at the end of a year, at the end of four years, at the end of 12 years, if you’re incredibly proud of the learning experiences and the growth that students had had in their time in your classroom, your school, or district, what would that look like?T

Too many educators approach the issue of education technology from questions of, “What’s the new app that I can use? Or what’s a new tool that I can play with?” And certainly play and trying new things can be important, but really, the first question, the most important question to start with is, what is it that you’re trying to have your students learn?

Start with a Target of Difficulty

There was an educator who was a Harvard professor for a while, Stone Wiske, who developed this idea, which I think a lot of educators have found helpful: the idea of a target of difficulty. So a really good place to think about using education technology in classrooms is at the intersection of three ideas. The first is that the thing that you’re trying to teach and have students learn should be important. And the second is that should be difficult to teach. It should be hard. So when we’re encouraging teachers to think about incorporating technology, we usually steer them away from, if you’ve got some unit or lesson or part of your curriculum that’s working extremely well, that’s not the place to start. The place to start is in the parts of your curriculum that you’re not satisfied with or you’re not seeing students having the learning outcomes, having the growth that you were hoping for. A target of difficulty sits at the intersection of learning that’s really important, learning that’s hard, and the place where technology may offer some kind of leverage. With those three things converge, we call that a target of difficulty. And we can think of that as a really worthwhile place to begin thinking about integrating technology.

What Does Great Technology Integration Look Like?

If you go to the classrooms that have been most successful in incorporating technology in meaningful ways, you’ll notice a few things about them. First, teachers have maintained a really close eye
on what’s worth learning and how do they know whether or not students are learning. There’s a real focus on learning goals. There’s a real focus on ongoing, formative assessment. In the most exciting places, oftentimes those learning goals are really ambitious. They’re more ambitious than what would have been imaginable without technology. So instead of saying, we’re going to try to help our students communicate effectively, we’re going to have our students communicate effectively to a global audience and an authentic audience around issues that people are really reading about and learning about and issues that people really care about. There’s a real partnership with students. There’s a sense that teachers don’t have to have all of the answers about how the technology works. So they don’t have to have all of the answers about how this community of learners is going to get to where they need to go. But there’s a sense of a partnership with students that we’re working together to discover new things that people haven’t discovered before or figured out the best possible ways to co-create this learning environment together, even if it’s not a situation where the teacher is the perfectly polished expert who’s facilitating students through a lesson that they’ve done for the last 20 years. There’s a lot of external support for that teacher. Parents are really well informed about the kinds of things that are happening in classrooms and are supportive of any experiments that are going on or the ways that students are interacting with each other online or how student data is being used. And then there’s a sense of support from school administration as well. Getting to really effective uses of technology often involves experimentation, often involves things that don’t work as well as what you might havetried or been doing otherwise. So I think in these environments where technology is being used in rich and innovative ways, school leaders, district leaders have really given their teachers encouragement and permission to experiment and a sense that that kind of experimentation is really valued and honored.

Challenges of Technology Integration

I think one of the signature challenges that people have integrating education technology, whether they’re a classroom teacher or working at another level like an instructional technology person or a principle, is that there are so many considerations to deal with in using education technology that it’s really easy to lose track of the most important things. I remember talking with a school leader at one point, and we were talking about why has the school gone one to one with iPads and gotten one iPad for every student? And he started talking about how the iPads had really long battery life and how you didn’t have to have power cords in the classroom. And I’m for workplace safety as much as anyone else is, but it is not a reasonable reason to make a huge investment in education technologies to remove cords from the classroom. The absence of cords is not the presence of more important learning goals.

One illustration of this is from a visit that I did to Singapore where there was a young teacher who was doing a demonstration lesson for me as a visitor. It was a history classroom where she had some students doing some online research and then aggregating that research on a wiki or on a Google Doc or something and then turning that research into presentations. She had done some quizzing and formative assessment in the middle.
And in the end, it was just a terrible lesson. And the reason why it was a terrible lesson is that she had thought really hard about how the kids were going to get on the computers and how you were going to log in and how are they going to pass information back and forth and really totally lost track of what is it that she was trying to teach, why that was important, how students would be motivated to learn, how she would know whether or not students were learning. And the lesson that I take away from that is that it can be so easy to get fixated on the logistics of technology that it’s really easy to lose track of the pedagogy of technology. The signature challenge that educators face with technology integration is really trying to make sure that technology is always in the service of learning goals that they feel are really important and that we’re not integrating technology for the sake of having more technology in our classrooms.

When you go into the classrooms that are most effectively using education technology, it can be breathtaking to see the kinds of work that students are doing. They’re developing meaningful performances of their understanding. They’re showing their understanding in multiple media, in writing, in speaking, in video, in computational media. They’re sharing authentic products of their learning and research with people down the hall, with people in their community, with people around the world. The ability of technology to break down the barriers of time and space, to have the work that you’re doing in classrooms not just feel more real but be more real is incredibly powerful and motivating. And so I think anyone who’s been in these classrooms where there are really exciting things that are happening with technology will say that those incredibly ambitious visions are visions worth working towards, even if we know that in many, many circumstances, most of what technology gets used for is to extend existing practices. Most of what teachers do with technology is they say, “Well, I used to write things on a blackboard, and now I’m going to put them on a PowerPoint slide.” “I used to give students multiple-choice quizzes, and now I’m going to put those multiple-choice quizzes online.” And some of those gains in efficiency are OK. There’s maybe nothing wrong with doing that. But also, I think what we should be aiming for with these incredible supercomputers that we can put in kids’ hands is to think about, how can we be really ambitious about imagining new ways that students can learn and demonstrate their learning to us?

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.