Kevin Schwartz, the lead technology officer for learning and systems for the 84,000-student Austin, Texas, school district, a 20-year veteran of the ed-tech world, offers his thoughts on hurdling the biggest barrier to effective technology use, helping educators avoid common mistakes, pumping up usage levels for digital learning products and services, and getting tech and curriculum folks to talk to each other. This email interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
1. What is the biggest barrier to using educational technology effectively?
Change is hard. Especially if there is belief that the current methods are good or at least good enough. The pressure to solely work toward standardized-test outcomes is strong.
How do you get beyond that barrier?
This special report—the first in a series of three special reports for the 2019-20 school year that Education Week is producing for K-12 ed-tech leaders—examines how schools track tech usage and what steps they should take to make better use of educational technology tools..
I think it’s always a three-step process. First, people need to clearly see that change is necessary—that the “platform that they are standing on is burning,” if you will. Second, showing the vision of the good can come from the change. And finally, then helping/supporting/coaching them through the change process. Ed-tech products have the potential to truly solve issues of equity and to create much better outcomes for students. Good tools, implemented properly, are like a rising tide that lifts all boats.
2. What is the most common mistake educators make when using a new learning technology?
Finding a new tool that does the wrong thing more efficiently.
How do you help them avoid such mistakes?
We have to constantly ask, “What actual problem are we trying to solve?” We look for tools that help students ideate, create, iterate, and present their work. We avoid tools that simply automate obsolete practices.
3. Several studies show low usage levels for ed-tech products. Why do you think that is the case?
I think there are multiple reasons. If a tool just adds to the workload without a tangible offset, it will fail. If too little time and support is provided for the adoption, it will fail. If a product overpromises and underdelivers, it will fail. Maybe controversially, when systems are designed by technologists who see only in terms of logical systems, it will fail and fail badly. Too often, systems are designed for an “average” student and not for the absolute range of kids and their learning styles. Even worse, they can perpetuate inequities.
What should schools do to improve those usage numbers?
When we use fewer, simpler, highly effective, and more versatile tools, we get more traction quickly and reach a tipping point of usage that provides even more momentum. The best example of this is computers, deployed one to one. Ultimately, when we let the kids select the tools they need to produce results that show their mastery, we know we are transforming in a good way. If you are at a loss for what tools to look for, a good place to start is to look at tools that work well with kids who use special education services.
4. What is often missing in the professional development teachers receive around educational technology?
Most often, it’s due to the lack of a commitment of time. It can also be that a training approach can be punitive, but a coaching approach can be much more successful.
If a tool just adds to the workload without a tangible offset, it will fail. If too little time and support is provided for the adoption, it will fail. If a product overpromises and underdelivers, it will fail.”
How do you fill those gaps?
With teachers, we operate with the well-founded belief that they want the best for their students. If a product can improve things for their students, teachers will give endlessly of themselves to realize it. If they don’t see that connection, or have other mandates that contradict, resistance will be high. We use coaches in a nonevaluative role, who work in alignment with a clear district belief around blended and personalized learning, who connect with teachers to approach the changes necessary to adopt a new tool and teaching approach.
5. In many school districts, the technology and curriculum teams still operate in silos. Why has that dynamic not changed faster?
This is interesting in that it is still very much a challenge in nearly every school district. I know that in almost all cases, both technology and curriculum leaders dearly want what is best for kids, but they come to their current roles after 10, 20, or more years of seeing things from just one side. A frequent debate is often a pitched battle between the “educational value” and the “unintended consequences” of any new initiative, and rarely is the choice collaboratively reached. Implement too quickly, and technical/security/sustainability issues will dog a project. Wait too long, and opportunities are missed out of fear and excessive caution.
What has your district done to break down those silos?
I have a college professor who loved the word “propinquity.” It basically means “nearness.” Curriculum and technology leaders need to work together in significant ways early in projects. I can think of three important ways that work well in my district. The first is that the technology leader reports directly to the superintendent. The second is that curriculum and technology leaders co-chair committees that allocate funds for learning resources. The third is having technology coaches who are former teachers embedded in the technology department. That adds crucial balance and insight.
—Interview by Kevin Bushweller, Assistant Managing Editor-Technology & Learning Environments
A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2019 edition of Education Week as 5 Big Ed-Tech Problems and How to Solve Them