Special Report
Classroom Technology

Ed. Schools Lag Behind Digital Content Trends

By Amanda M. Fairbanks — May 20, 2013 6 min read
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Casey Wardynski knew his district had to make a change when he glanced at its crop of history textbooks and spotted one glaring omission.

“They didn’t even have 9/11 in them,” said Mr. Wardynski, the superintendent of the Huntsville city schools, an Alabama district of about 24,000 students.

Last summer, the district replaced its paper-based curriculum with digital content in a rapid-fire overhaul—with 3rd graders and above receiving Hewlett-Packard laptops, while pre-K pupils to 2nd graders received iPads.

But going digital, said Mr. Wardynski, was the easy part. Getting the buy-in of his teaching staff has been the real challenge.

Most notably, he’s witnessed a gap in the skill set of many of his teachers who were never trained to teach in a digital world. As a consequence, many of Huntsville’s teachers are learning as they go, with administrators struggling to fill in the missing pieces.

“We’re working with the higher education institutions to let them know what we want to see when it comes to teaching with digital content,” said Mr. Wardynski. “They’re moving in that direction, but it’s safe to say that a lot of us are moving a bit faster.”

The challenge is hardly unique to Huntsville. As more districts make the digital shift, many education schools are grappling with how best to prepare the next generation of teachers. In recent years, some programs have struggled to adapt quickly enough to meet the changing needs of both districts and educators.

“Education schools are in the process of trying to figure out what it all means, with everyone in the teacher-preparation front playing catch-up,” said Pam Grossman, a professor of education at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and the director of the university’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching.

James G. Cibulka, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), which currently accredits 670 colleges of education, sees a range of offerings when it comes to education schools keeping up with advancements in technology.

Mr. Cibulka cautioned that NCATE only accredits fewer than half of the national providers. The issue is further complicated by the fact that accreditation is a voluntary process, with some states requiring it for licensure while others can opt out. Based on NCATE’s subset, he described offerings as “all over the place,” and called it “a matter of great concern.”

In future years, the organization is planning to put in place a new set of five accreditation standards, in which technology is woven throughout each requirement. The aim is to provide more symmetry and quality in preparing teachers to use digital curricula.

And with schools coming up for accreditation once every seven years, Mr. Cibulka didn’t mince words: “There will be no way for schools to meet the new standards unless technology is infused throughout their program.”

Slow to React

Digital devices, cautions Ms. Grossman, are merely one piece of an ongoing puzzle. “Technology is not the thing,” she said. “It’s what it enables.”

Ms. Grossman emphasizes the need to still train teachers across a wide array of contexts—from 1-to-1 computing classrooms, in which each student has his or her own digital learning device, to a district that has yet to take the digital plunge.

“If we invest too much, too soon, and only teach digital, we’re also doing many teachers a disservice,” she said.

Ellen B. Meier, a professor of computing and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and co-director of the Center for Technology and School Change, says that when it comes to making changes, education is a field that’s often reluctant to do so.

Too much emphasis in the world of teacher preparation is placed on the technology tools themselves, Ms. Meier believes, rather than on how they can help improve teaching and learning.

She sees, instead, a need for schools of education to harness the devices as a catalyst for moving into the 21st century—not as silver bullets or quick fixes, but as tools to strengthen curriculum and enhance pedagogy by giving teachers and students access to better information and helping personalize learning in ways that bolster students’ strengths and shore up their weaknesses. For example, Teachers College started a program that prepares students to work in schools as technology specialists who can help educators facilitate these changes.

Ms. Meier also cited research that says beginning teachers need more exposure to technology. “Studies show that when students are placed in classrooms, they’re often not placed with teachers who are demonstrating a fluent use of technology, or are often placed in schools that don’t even have the technology because of funding constraints,” she said.

Relay Graduate School of Education, a New York City-based hybrid master’s-degree program for teachers in New York and New Jersey, is similarly trying to figure out how best to meet the needs of its teachers who are working in more than 180 schools, each with vastly different resource configurations.

The school, which was chartered in 2011, now enrolls more than 600 full-time teachers, half of whom are current Teach For America corps members. Using a hybrid model, students take 60 percent of their coursework in-person and 40 percent online.

While the school has yet to offer specific classes or modules to train teachers in using digital curricula, Thackston Lundy, Relay’s chief of staff, says they are eager to head in that direction.

In future years, he sees education schools playing a vital role in reshaping the classroom and influencing the changing role of teachers.

“We’re standing on the precipice of the role of the teacher changing dramatically in the next several years,” Mr. Lundy said. “New technology and better data will change how we structure the school day, what students learn, and how we organize K-12 classrooms. The role of a great teacher will be more important than ever.

“But our most urgent priority right now is making sure our graduates are prepared with the basic pedagogical underpinnings and deep content knowledge needed to make an immediate impact in their classrooms today,” he said.

Relevance at Risk

The problem is that even at well-established education school programs, reluctance to make changes is common.

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, described his school as being “more forward-thinking” than the vast majority of education schools.

“Even so, there hasn’t been the sea change towards technology-based methods throughout all teacher preparation courses that I and my technology-using colleagues would like to see,” he said.

Mr. Dede considers one major culprit to be a lack of pressure on faculty members to change the content of their courses.

“Most teacher education faculty in the U.S. aren’t pressured to update what they’re teaching, not just in terms of technology, but in general,” he said, noting that many instructors preparing teachers were out of touch with the trend to teach education students how to customize learning to fit the needs of individual students.

Of approximately 650 Master of Education students at Harvard, he estimated that around 8 percent had selected its “technology, innovation, and education” program, one of 13 available degree programs. But in 2013-14, the program will enroll the largest cohort in its history.

Mr. Dede, who has taught at Harvard for more than a decade, considers the lack of change to be part of the reason for so many aspiring educators’ decisions to take alternative routes to teacher certification—pathways that are often less time-consuming and less expensive.

“Eventually, a lot of teacher preparation programs are going to go away,” he predicted. “It’s at their peril that they’re reluctant to use modern methods for educational innovation—not only in technology—but across the board.”

Coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2013 edition of Education Week as Ed. Schools lag Behind


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