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School & District Management Opinion

How Teachers Can Best Use Technology

By Rick Hess — January 17, 2014 3 min read
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Education beats across the country have been speckled with nightmarish headlines about education technology failures in schools: big iPad acquisitions gone awry, melted chargers, broken screens, and students accessing social media on their school-granted devices. It seems like we haven’t had a lot to cheer about when it comes to digital learning. But who is really to blame here?

Of course, safety, security, and smooth execution of device roll-outs are important, but implementation glitches are to be expected when a school introduces any new system -- both as devices need improving and as students, teachers, and administrators acclimate to using new technology.

Vilifying education technology is the wrong lesson. Technology is not the problem. As I point out in my new book, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, what’s more important is how schools plan to use it.

It’s a huge mistake for schools to focus on acquiring more, or fancier, technology. Bulk purchases of tablets, smartboards, or handhelds alone won’t improve education. Technology is not a magic recipe for school improvement. Schools instead need to identify an educational problem and decide whether a new technology would address it. Technology should be a tool for teachers, students, and parents to do their work better.

For example, if students need more assistance, computer-assisted tutoring may help. If students need access to courses not available at school, virtual courses may help. If some students would benefit from rapid diagnosis and feedback, automated assessment may help.

There are four keys to helping schools maximize the educational opportunities that new technologies provide:

1. Establish clear goals for what students should know and be able to do. While conversations about technology often start with wish lists (“wouldn’t it be great to buy 1,000 iPads?”), buying devices should be the last thing on the list.

2. Focus on the educational problem that needs to be solved. Are teachers not getting enough coaching? Are advanced students feeling stifled in math or science?

3. Explore how technology can help solve those problems, perhaps by changing the assumptions of the old environment. Rather than assuming that schools can only provide tutoring if they’re able to recruit enough adults to pair up with students or staff in an in-school program, it’s possible to use online, computer-assisted tutoring to radically expand the pool of potential support. Teachers might get more coaching from virtual mentors, or they could record classes and get feedback from a faculty coach.

4. Rethink how funds are spent as new technologies create new opportunities to instruct, support, and assess, rendering some old expenditures unnecessary or duplicative (old-style textbooks, anyone?) while recommending new outlays.

This approach shouldn’t be a burden, it should be a breath of fresh air to educators frustrated by routines and rules that waste their time, temper their impact, and limit their ability to put their expertise and insights to work.

Districts like Mooresville, North Carolina, and Danville, Kentucky, have rethought instruction, the teaching job, and classroom culture, and used technology to turbocharge those changes. These districts and networks have clear goals and engaged teachers. Indeed, their teacher satisfaction figures are terrific, as is student attendance and interest. Mooresville has the second-lowest spending among 115 North Carolina school districts and was recently named the best school district in America by Scholastic.

We are in the early years of a learning revolution that has the potential to profoundly improve the reach and quality of American schooling. However, getting digital learning right is more about the planning than the purchase order. It’s not about the technology, but about what we do with it.

Note: A version of this column, co-authored with Tom Vander Ark, ran previously here at The American. If you’re interested in how schools can best use technology, check out my book, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age, co-authored with Bror Saxberg.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.