When Jenna Conan Simpson went through her highly regarded teacher preparation program about ten years ago, she took just one “very basic” technology class covering use of tools like Microsoft PowerPoint. It did little to prepare her to use tech to improve instruction.
Years later, she was floored when a colleague, a brand-new teacher who had just come out of the same program, said her technology preparation looked exactly the same—same single course, same tools—even though she graduated from the program nearly a decade after Conan Simpson.
In all that time, Conan Simpson had hoped the preparation program would have shifted to helping prospective teachers learn to manage a classroom in a 1-to-1 computing environment and master other tech skills they would need once they entered the classroom.
But the teacher prep program still focused on tools that had felt outdated even when Conan Simpson went through it.
Conan Simpson wondered if the program was an outlier, despite its positive reputation. She soon learned it was not.
“Most preparation programs are not keeping pace with what’s happening in classrooms and schools with regards to technology,” said Conan Simpson, the director of instructional technology at All Saints’ Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas. That’s a “huge problem,” given how central digital tools have become, she said.
Incoming “teachers need experience with technology,” she added. “It used to be kind of a nice to have. Now it’s required. It’s nonnegotiable.”
To get a picture of how preparation programs across the country get their students ready to teach using tech, Conan Simpson, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in learning technologies, surveyed 217 early career teachers who she identified largely through social media groups. She then did intensive follow-up interviews with ten respondents.
New teachers told her that most of the teacher educators they learned from hadn’t been in the classroom in ten or even 20 years. “So, of course, they don’t know how technology is being used,” said Conan Simpson, who is scheduled to present her findings on June 28 at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in New Orleans. ISTE is the largest ed-tech conference in the country.
What’s more, teacher prep programs didn’t appear to consider whether a particular school or mentor teacher could help prospective educators master tech. “There were teachers reporting that their cooperating teacher [in a student teaching placement] was writing on a chalkboard. And this was in the past three years,” Conan Simpson said.
One educator she interviewed said the only tech she saw during her student teaching experience was a CD player. In fact, the number one piece of hardware new teachers reported learning about was a type of technology so outdated that it’s unclear whether it’s still being manufactured.
To be sure, some new teachers described deep experience with iPads, Seesaw, and other widely used digital tools. But that was the exception, Conan Simpson said.
Being a digital native doesn’t mean you know how to teach with tech
Though her study was qualitative in nature, Conan Simpson crunched some numbers and found that only about a fifth of the new teachers surveyed felt well-prepared to teach using technology when they exited their programs.
Teacher prep programs, Conan Simpson suspects, may simply assume that because their mostly 20-something students have grown up with digital tools that using them in the classroom will be second nature.
But that’s not the case. Prospective teachers, “might be personally reasonably tech savvy, but that doesn’t mean that they know how to use technology to teach students,” she said.
Increasingly, programs have recognized tech preparation as a trouble spot, but their solutions weren’t particularly helpful, according to Conan Simpson. Some decided to cut the course or two they required in the subject, and instead integrate technology throughout the curriculum. But that didn’t happen in practice, she found. Instead, technology fell off the radar altogether.
Instead, teacher preparation programs should consider hiring tech coaches for their professors and other staff, Conan Simpson said, just like K-12 schools do. They should work much more closely with local school districts to stay up-to-date on how they are using tech.
They may also want to offer training in use of some of the most popular devices—Chromebooks and iPads, for example—as well as educational software such as Nearpod and Pear Deck, which help educators create digital lessons with interactive elements.
Those tools are “kind of like our low hanging fruit, right?” Conan Simpson said. “It’s not going to be the exact same as what their district has, but it’s going to be close enough that the preparation would really help” once they enter the classroom.
Programs also need to make sure that their graduates “see a teacher model how to effectively integrate technology in the classroom effectively” during their student-teaching placements.
“I think we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t provide this information to them,” Conan Simpson said. “Most of these people are figuring it out on their own, but I think if we gave them a lot more prior to entering the classroom that they would be able to focus on things like the students and not on learning the technology.”
She’s heartened that ISTE agrees.
Earlier this month, the organization released a voluntary pledge to encourage teacher preparation programs to improve their work in this area. It makes a list of recommendations that mirror some of Conan Simpson’s own, including a push for closer collaboration with school districts on tech.
The pledge has support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, and both organizations that accredit teacher education programs.
Though the pledge is voluntary, Richard Culatta, ISTE’s chief executive officer, is hoping it will be a way “for us to get some attention from the rest of the dang world about this big problem that nobody’s talking about.”