Personalized Learning

Research-Based Tech Implementation: Q&A With Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray

By Sarah Schwartz — June 07, 2017 5 min read
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Implementing technology, large-scale, can be a herculean task for a district. Making sure tools are actually being used to support learning and determining the effect on student outcomes requires thoughtful planning, committed leadership, and engaging professional development.

In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, advocates and former educators Eric Sheninger and Tom Murray attempt to provide a roadmap for that process. The book outlines research-backed strategies for integrating technology and implementing personalized learning.

“It’s really important for school leaders to know what the research actually shows does work,” said Murray, the director for innovation at Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education, and a former district tech director and teacher.

The simple fact that schools have devices for students “doesn’t tell us anything about learning,” he said. “It’s how they’re being used.”

Learning Transformed combines best practices from educational research with Murray’s and Sheninger’s experiences working in schools and, in their current positions, with educators across the country. Sheninger, a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, is a former principal and teacher. He is also the author of several books on leadership and technology in education.

Murray and Sheninger especially wanted to highlight districts innovating in instruction with tech and

bridging the digital divide, despite facing financial constraints. It was important to present district leaders’ solutions that were not only evidence-based, but that also seemed accessible and attainable, said Sheninger.

“There is no more powerful way to convey a message to motivate and inspire people to change,” he said, “than by exposing them to those people that are doing it.”

Education Week spoke with Murray and Sheninger about how districts can better evaluate instructional technology, personalize professional learning, and make smarter purchasing decisions.

The Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Before starting the purchasing process, what kind of evidence should districts require from vendors that the tool or device in question actually improves teaching and learning? And once technology is integrated, how should school and district leaders determine whether tools are being used effectively?

Murray: We cite, a couple of times [in the book], the report that the Alliance for Excellent Education did with Linda Darling-Hammond and her team at Stanford. It was a meta-analysis of ed-tech studies, on what actually works—what instructional practices. It’s important for school leaders to know, number one, that learning with ed tech needs to be interactive. Number two, [what works is] the use of technology to explore, to design, to create. It’s not the digital drill-and-kill, or the electronic worksheet—which is very prevalent.

School leaders really need to be asking and pushing vendors, “What evidence and research do you have—particularly independent evidence and research that you have—that your product can help support the work that we’re trying to do?”

Sheninger: We talk about the concept of “return on instruction.” We spend all this money on technology—how do we know it’s having an impact? We present multiple concrete areas to show that efficacy, such as looking at qualitative and quantitative data, using portfolios for students and for educators to show growth over time, to show change over time.

The book provides a 10-step strategy for districts making purchasing decisions, as well as tips for developing a “refresh cycle": a check-in evaluation to make sure that, after a few years of use, tools are still functional and doing what they were purchased to do. What factors are most important for districts to keep in mind when selecting and evaluating technology?

Murray: That very first step of that 10-step process for selecting devices is your vision for teaching and learning. Quite often, what happens is, people focus [on the] device first, and then figure out how the learning can fit into the device.

Those who are in the classroom often have the least amount of voice in the purchasing process, and that’s just a massive problem. Teachers need to be a vital part of that decision making, because they’re where the rubber hits the road. Purchasing is often left in the hands of a handful of high-level administrators, and it really needs to be a much more thorough process. Not just that we’re getting the best price—we’re purchasing things that are reliable, sustainable, and solid investments in the longer haul.

The refresh piece was an important topic to cover, again from my own personal experience as a tech director. Eric and I will hear [from administrators], “We’re 1:1 in our district, this is wonderful!” And then a teacher will whisper, “Yeah, but my laptops are 8 years old and they take 26 minutes to boot.” If we don’t have a solid refresh plan in place, sustainability becomes a massive issue, and technology can start to impede learning when the devices start to get in the way.

You cite research that professional development, in its current form, doesn’t necessarily improve teacher performance. A more effective approach, you argue, would embed PD regularly within the school day, give teachers a voice in deciding what learning opportunities would be most helpful for them, and focus on improving pedagogy—not simply on how to use tech tools. How can districts implement these strategies, especially when it comes to PD around instructional technology?

Scheninger: When you look at professional development, a lot of it is structured how traditional education is. We get everyone together; districts have [educators] sit through PD sessions. It’s not really authentically engaging and applicable to the needs of everyone in attendance.

When it comes to technology, we look at [professional development] this way. [The first step] is exposure to the tool. Number two is giving educators time to tinker, play around, learn how to use the tool. The third step is the most important—ensuring that the tool is being integrated with purpose, that there is accountability for sound instructional design, and that it leads to evidence of improvement in professional practice.

By [exposing educators] to different pathways to learn—utilizing webinars that are available, virtual PLCs, and the creation of personal learning networks—everyone can follow their own topic and work at their own time, path, and pace, to focus on areas that really have an impact on their prospective role.

Photos courtesy of Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.