Special Report
Classroom Technology

Ed-Tech Supporters Promise Innovations That Can Transform Schools. Teachers Not Seeing Impact

By Benjamin Herold — April 23, 2019 | Corrected: April 24, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Anne Petersen.

Despite continued hype, K-12 educators remain skeptical that new technologies will transform public schooling or dramatically improve teaching and learning.

That’s according to a new, nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center. Fewer than one-third of America’s teachers said ed-tech innovations have changed their beliefs about what school should look like. Less than half said such advances have changed their beliefs about how to improve students’ academic outcomes. And just 29 percent felt strongly that ed-tech supports innovation in their own classrooms.

Such numbers reflect an often-overlooked truth about the multibillion dollar K-12 ed-tech market, said Jal David Mehta, an associate professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

“Most ed-tech is pretty conservative, in the sense that it meets an existing need, not a future-oriented vision,” Mehta said. “It’s not surprising that teachers don’t see such tools as fundamentally changing their views about what schools should be doing and how students should be learning.”

Still, the tepid beliefs about the role of education technology are likely to raise eyebrows, in part because they are so deeply at odds with the messages coming from the ed-tech industry. In countless marketing campaigns, companies have billed everything from Chromebooks to the latest virtual-reality tools as innovative ways to create incredible new learning experiences for students.

Such promises, though, miss some elemental truths about what “innovation” really entails.

For its survey, the Education Week Research Center defined the term as “the introduction of new or improved ideas, products, and/or processes.” That’s drawn from research done in other sectors, where innovation is typically understood to involve more than just buying new stuff.

In the business world, for example, experts say distributed leadership, a culture of experimentation, and lots of training and support are often the difference between a new technology collecting dust or ushering in a game-changing way of working.

Those are lessons that some K-12 leaders—including Fort Smith, Ark., Superintendent Doug Brubaker, profiled in this report for his patient, pragmatic approach to improving his district’s use of technology—have started to learn. The benefits include an appropriate emphasis on maintenance, sustainability, and evidence of effectiveness, all of which are often lacking in schools.

Too often, though, such low-key efforts are ignored in favor of headline-grabbing promises that later fade away. For educators, the results include innovation fatigue and a mounting cynicism about technology’s long-term potential to improve schooling.

“I don’t think we have a realistic picture of just how often attempts to innovate fall flat,” said Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech. “You have to take into account people’s lived experiences with these things.”

From television to desktop computers to classroom clickers, there’s a long history of teachers using new technologies to fit their established practices, rather than new technologies totally changing what teachers do.

That kind of incremental innovation appears to apply to new digital tools, as well.

In its survey, for example, the Education Week Research Center asked 700 U.S. pre-K-12 teachers about the most innovative way they’ve used technology. The most frequent responses involved using digital tools to spice up existing activities and assignments—gamifying lessons with quiz app Kahoot!, perhaps, or using Google Slides to add a digital component to classroom presentations.

After that first, basic shift, attempts to innovate often seem to sputter.

Fewer than half the teachers surveyed said they have meaningfully changed the ways they use digital devices, learning apps, or instructional software over the past three years. Just 16 percent said they’ve meaningfully changed how they use other technology hardware.

Experts say there are a couple ways to make sense of such trends.

Too often, said Stephen Goldsmith, the former Indianapolis mayor and New York City deputy mayor who currently heads Harvard’s Innovations in American Government program, public-sector leaders focus narrowly on big, disruptive changes.

“We should also include the day-to-day innovations in the way a public employee does his or her job,” he said. “Those need to be valued, too.”

But when an organization’s capacity to improve itself is limited to such “tactical” adjustments, the existing status quo is ultimately reinforced. That’s a problem, Goldsmith said.

Why is that dynamic so common in K-12?

One reason is that public school districts are generally compliance-based bureaucracies. Decisions are made at the top, then reinforced by layers of supervisors and managers who view their primary responsibility as making sure the people below them avoid mistakes, Goldsmith said. Teachers are given little autonomy and support to innovate on their own.

Big structural factors are also at play. Standardized-test-based accountability systems and schools’ notoriously slow purchasing cycles, for example, both inhibit the kind of rapid iteration and continuous-improvement cycles that many private businesses now prefer.

And then there’s new research from the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that teachers are significantly more risk-averse than workers in other fields.

Add it all up, and one of innovation’s essential ingredients is too often lacking in K-12, said Bobbi Kurshan a senior fellow at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

“Schools don’t have a culture of productive failure,” she said. “If the curriculum says, ‘Do this on Day 2,’ many teachers do it on Day 2, even if they know it’s not the right thing for their particular students.”

Again, the findings from the Education Week Research Center illuminate that view.

Just 28 percent of the teachers surveyed said their schools and districts treated failed experiments as an opportunity to learn. Thirty-nine percent said they’re encouraged to take risks with technology. Fewer than half said they’re provided with training to support classroom innovation with ed tech.

Worse, that lack of support appears to be particularly pronounced in schools serving a high percentage of students living in poverty. Twenty-one percent of teachers working in such environments said their school or district does not support innovation with technology at all, compared with 9 percent of teachers in lower-poverty schools.

It’s not that public-sector innovation is impossible.

Go into any public school and you’ll likely find at least one entrepreneurial teacher who eagerly experiments after she closes her classroom door behind her.

Innovation is even happening within the federal government. A group called 18F, for example, is working across agencies to solve technical problems, build new products, and improve services. One of its signature projects to date: Helping the National Science Foundation do a better job of attracting young, cutting-edge tech entrepreneurs whose work is eligible for federal seed funding.

About the Survey

For this year’s Technology Counts report, the Education Week Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 700 pre-K-12 teachers. The online survey was fielded in March 2019. Survey respondents teach a variety of subjects and grade levels. They hail from 48 states and the District of Columbia. More than one-quarter work in high-poverty schools.

“Buying the latest and greatest [technology] doesn’t work if it isn’t introduced the right way,” said Anne Petersen, 18F’s director of experience design. “What really matters is developing a better understanding of users and meeting their needs.”

But for now, at least, that kind of approach remains a relative rarity in the world of public education.

Perhaps that’s why the spread of technology-based innovations in K-12 bears little resemblance to the ambitious claims that outsiders have been making for years. Back in 2008, for example, innovation guru Clayton M. Christensen predicted in his much-hyped book Disrupting Class that half of all high school classes would be online by 2019, radically transforming the nature of public education.

Here we are. For better and for worse, it’s just one of many “innovations” that haven’t unfolded as forecast.

And most K-12 educators seem well aware of that reality.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2019 edition of Education Week as U.S. Teachers Not Seeing Tech Impact

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