Deep or Wide? Two Takes on Ed-Tech Professional Development from AERA

By Benjamin Herold — April 16, 2015 3 min read
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Head-spinning jargon aside, one of the things I appreciate most about covering the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association is the chance to hear about how teachers and students are actually using technology in the classroom.

So immediately upon arrival at this year’s meeting, which opened here today, I sat in on a session titled “Restructuring Instruction Through Technology.

The presenters offered differing takes on what makes for effective professional development when it comes to helping teachers integrate technology into their classrooms.

According to a team from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, sustained professional development that reaches a high percentage of a school’s teaching staff can help boost African-American students’ math and science test scores—even if the teachers aren’t moved to totally transform the way they teach.

“In the professional development I design, I am now going for as many teachers at one site as possible,” said Meg Blanchard, an associate professor of science education at the university, in an interview. “Our results suggest that [training] multiple teachers over multiple years has the greatest chance of impacting student achievement.”

In Blanchard’s study, the test scores of African-American students in a high-poverty, rural Southern school district increased by statistically significant amounts in direct correlation to the number of middle grades teachers they had who received technology-infused professional development (created and delivered by the North Carolina State team.) African-American students in the district mostly failed state science and math tests when taught in grades 6-8 entirely by teachers who did not receive the N.C. State training. But when they had teachers in all three years who received the training, their scores improved to passing (and were statistically equivalent to their white peers.)

Blanchard said many of the freshly trained teachers were not using the newly introduced technologies—such as document cameras, graphing calculators, spreadsheet applications, and Web 2.0 tools—in particularly interesting ways.

But just using them at all seemed to be what mattered.

“Send all the teachers you can to technology professional development,” was her suggestion for school and district leaders elsewhere.

Meanwhile, depth, not breadth, was the focus of a research team from the New York Institute of Technology, in Old Westbury.

The NYIT researchers worked extensively with 25 New York City middle school science teachers, providing them with 240 hours of “cyber-enabled” professional development, as well as a nine-day summer workshop and three-day winter workshop. That training was focused on moving teachers from using ed tech to present or deliver content to employing a wide range of classroom technologies as “cognitive tools” that get students exploring, researching, and learning on their own.

“A lot of [technology-related] P.D. is just single sessions, addressing how to use a specific software or application,” said Shiang-Kwei Wang, the associate dean of the institute’s school of education. “That’s different from the integration of [new] pedagogical practices. If you want to deal with that, it takes a lot of time, and it takes a holistic framework.”

New York City middle school students taught by NYIT-trained teachers raised their test scores more than peers in a control group.

Wang and her fellow researchers also found that teachers who went through the training began assigning students more work that required them to use the new technologies and practice their new schools.

More than half of those teachers became “dream teachers,” dramatically changing their practice, she said, while one-third didn’t change much of anything.

“Professional development must be of long duration, with teachers establishing ownership of their own lessons,” the NYIT team’s presentation concluded.

Hey, don’t look at me. It’s an academic conference. Shame on you if you were expecting clear answers.

Also worth noting: Both studies received federal support.

The N.C. State project was funded through the NC Quest Grant Funding program, which provides state funds that originate with the U.S. Department of Education.

And the NYIT study was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, through a program aimed at providing empirical evidence in support of using technology as a cognitive tool.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.