Patricia Brown started her role as director of technology for the Ladue school district in Missouri in July and already has big ideas on how to effectively use technology in the classroom.
“I do believe we now have this opportunity to really look at our systems, at what we’ve been providing educationally for our students and for our teachers and for our parents—our community as a whole, all the stakeholders,” Brown said. It’s time to “challenge some of the things that have always been” and think about how schools can improve education for all kids.
Brown is not new to the ed-tech space. For 11 years, she was the instructional technology coordinator for the 4,300-student school district. And she’s currently a board member for the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education.
In her 21-year career, she’s racked up awards for her work as a technology integration specialist: She earned the Ladue school district’s Excellence in Education award in 2021, was part of the Apple Distinguished Educators class of 2019, was one of the National School Board Association’s 20 to Watch educational technology leaders in 2016, and has been named one of the top ed-tech influencers by EdTech Digest in five different years.
Here’s what she had to say in a Zoom conversation with Education Week about what’s next for technology use in the classroom, what the biggest tech challenges are for schools, and what her priorities are in her first year as tech director for Ladue.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is your philosophy when it comes to using technology in the classroom?
For a long time—especially early on, when we were first adopting the use of technology—it was always about that “wow,” that cool thing you can do. I remember thinking around the time when we first adopted iPads, and it was always the whole mantra: ‘There’s an app for that.’ We were just pulling so many resources, so many tools, so many apps, where it was completely overwhelming for a teacher. So I started to think about what do we actually want students to do with the technology? What can technology do? Where can it take us? Where can we provide those opportunities for our kids to be creators and producers and critical thinkers and not just consumers of technology?
For me, when I’m using technology with my students, it is not an add-on. It’s not just a cool thing that you do. It’s integrated in the classroom, where it’s a part of the curriculum and it’s a part of the learning process. We learn with technology, we learn through technology, we allow it to provide opportunities that we wouldn’t have [had] before.
As hard as these last three years have been on the educational system, I do believe it has created opportunities for us to provide a level of engagement for our students that we haven't had before.
Equity is a big part of my philosophy. I feel like when we’re utilizing technology as just a consumption tool, we are providing inequity for our students. The real goal is to provide those opportunities where they can invent, they can create, they can produce, they can connect and communicate with people outside of the four walls of their classrooms. That’s a really powerful thing that we’ve learned through COVID. As hard as these last three years have been on the educational system, I do believe it has created opportunities for us to provide a level of engagement for our students that we haven’t had before.
I know that every student doesn’t learn the same way, but what technology allows us to do is to differentiate [and] provide those different opportunities for our students. It allows teachers to have a more efficient way for them to grade papers, for them to roll out curriculum, for them to interact with their students, for them to create more innovative projects.
Schools continue to push technology use to the next level. What does that mean for education? Where do we go from here?
What we’re left with, as we journey through this pandemic, is we have a generation of students who are very different from the pre-COVID times, meaning their level of engagement is something that we struggle to keep in line with what we’re doing as educators. So one of the main things that is going to shift in the education format is the focus on student engagement, but also the focus on balance—how you balance the use of technology in classrooms and the amount of resources and media and “distractions” that exist now with having a student to focus.
When it comes to technology, I don’t think it’s going to be more technology. I think it’s going to be: Let’s look at what we already have. Let’s look at how we can utilize these resources to the highest potential and what we can create from what we have. Video is going to be a huge part of that, for students to be able to show what they know in more unique and creative ways.
You’re going to look at other ways that you can engage—even learning management systems and using different ways for students to turn in assignments. You’re going to have some non-traditional classrooms.
I think it’s going to be more of a customized way of providing education for our students because I do think we have different kids now, so we have to meet their needs.
What are the biggest tech challenges that schools are facing right now?
One of the biggest tech challenges that most schools are facing is still struggling with providing the resources for students and for teachers.
What we’re suffering from now is virtual burnout. I’m actually doing a study and working on my doctorate, so one of the things I wanted to know is: Teachers’ and educators’ experience in COVID, did it build confidence in their use of technology? And are they using technology more efficiently and more frequently in our classrooms because of COVID?
The answer is yes and no.
Yes, there is more confidence in their use of technology. I think teachers are more willing to take some risks. [But there’s] a certain group of teachers where they’re like, “I don’t want anything to do with that because these last two years were hard, so I want to take a break from technology and I really just want to go back to basics.”
So I think the challenge for education is going to be to find that balance: How do we know when to use technology and how do we know when we need to go back to basics?
How do you address tech burnout among teachers?
It’s been a challenge because as a tech person, a tech coordinator, to now a tech director, of course, technology is always at the forefront of my mind and it’s my job. However, I am very connected with my human side as well, as a teacher, as an educator, as a parent, and I always look at perspectives and different lenses. I get down to the why. Not “oh, they just don’t use technology,” and leave it at that. What is the root of the problem? Is it because they’re burnt out because everything they’ve tried to use doesn’t work that day, and it’s just frustrating? Or is it that they’ve been using this tool nonstop and want to do something different but don’t know what to do? Just asking those right questions, asking those whys.
Of course, you’re always going to have some people who are absolutely anti-tech. But in general, getting to the root of the why is always helpful for me because then I can say, “OK, I have a recommendation. Let’s try this.”
Professional learning is so important. I’m a proponent of having unique ways that teachers receive professional learning. I love to do lunch and learn, where I just invite teachers in for a 15-minute or 20-minute drop-in where I’m going to teach them something new, but they’re bringing their lunch and they’re chit-chatting or talking and asking questions, and it’s just an informal way. Playdates: I’ve had teachers go to the Apple Store and just kind of play around with the technology and learn that way. Kids like to learn through play. Teachers do, too.
What should quality technology use look like? And what should it not look like?
I’ll start with what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like kids sitting on their devices, not interacting with each other at all; working on a drilling practice app, where they’re practicing their math skills, and that’s pretty much all they do; or they’re using their technology for testing purposes only and the only time they bring out the technology is when they’re getting ready to take a test or they need to do an assignment that’s independent.
What it looks like is looking at the curriculum and finding natural ways to integrate technology. Not taking the technology and then trying to fit the curriculum in, but instead taking that curriculum and looking at a different way that I could instruct my students—I’m going to use the technology to create a really engaging slide deck to engage my kids. I’m going to embed some videos. I want to embed some GIFs into my slide deck. I want to add Nearpod. I’m going to add some interactive components as I’m instructing or lecturing my students.
[Quality technology use] doesn't look like kids sitting on their devices, not interacting with each other at all.
Once the students are instructed and they get the information that they need from you as an instructor, how do they apply that knowledge? Are they able to take that knowledge and create a video? Are they working collaboratively with a partner or group in designing a STEM challenge that integrates with what they’re learning in science? Are they going on an array hunt because they’re learning about arrays in math class, so they’re walking around their school with their iPads taking pictures of natural arrays that they see around the building? Are they creating a stop-motion video of the change of states of matter?
How do they apply [the learning]? Are they creating, producing, developing things? Are they able to take the knowledge that they have and use it in a natural way?
How should ed-tech leaders determine which tech tools stay and which ones go?
It really depends on the demographics of your students, your budget, what you have available. It really comes down to what works for you, what works for your district, what are the challenges that you have, and what technology resources and tools can be that solution for you.
I do think it is very important to be proactive in making sure that you’re staying abreast with the new things that are created that are helping to make learning more accessible and feasible.
We in our district have Apple devices, which I absolutely love, but we also have Chromebooks that we also love, and they fit our purpose and our needs. So I just really think it comes down to evaluating what your needs are in the district, looking at your budget.
[When it comes to the budget] sometimes districts allow their budgets to dictate the type of resources and technology that they have, when in fact I think it should be more of: Let’s evaluate what’s the best tool and the best resource for our district, and then let’s find a way to pay for it.
I think that it’s important to continue to use resources that are going to open up opportunities for our students to collaborate, to connect, to create, and share. So whatever that tool looks like for you, I say, use it.
What are your biggest priorities this school year?
One is data privacy and security, making sure that all of our data is secure. There are a lot of things going on in the world right now and not-so-honest people who are targeting different districts, so that’s number one priority.
The other priorities I have are making sure there are systems and processes in place for the use of technology throughout the district. One cool thing is, taking on this role, I had the opportunity to join in the curriculum and instruction department. Technology is now a part of curriculum and instruction, which is a perfect marriage to me because it allows [technology] to be a part of the conversations that happen in curriculum, and curriculum to be a part of the conversations that happen in tech. We’re working collaboratively for the same goal, and we’re making sure that our students and our teachers are knowledgeable about the resources that are available. So my priority is making sure that this process and the seamlessness of the marriage between curriculum and technology happen as best as they can.
Innovation is also another priority, making sure that we’re pushing the needle and pushing our students and our teachers to be future ready; making sure that the training and the resources and the technology that we’re using is state of the art, up to date, available, and ready for all of our students and our teachers.