Personalized Learning

Teaching With Tech Is Hard. Two New Efforts Aim to Help.

By Benjamin Herold — August 02, 2017 5 min read
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Two big players in the education-technology field unveiled new efforts in recent days to better help teachers use technology in the classroom.

For Karen Cator, the president and CEO of Digital Promise, it’s about using coaches to bridge the “second-level digital divide” between affluent schools who use tech for collaboration and problem-solving and lower-income schools that use tech for drill-and-practice. With a $6.5 million grant from Google’s nonprofit philanthropic arm, the ed-tech advocacy group launched last week its new Dynamic Learning Project. The idea is to embed former classroom teachers inside 50 low-income middle schools, where they will be dedicated full-time to helping staff learn to use technology in “transformative ways.”

At Summit Public Schools, meanwhile, it’s about building a pipeline of new teachers ready to hit the ground running in schools that are embracing new instructional models based on tailoring the learning experience to each individual student. The California-based charter school network announced last week a new Summit Learning Teacher Residency program, which it is billing as “the nation’s first personalized-learning teacher residency.”

Both efforts seek to address a big, broad challenge that remains front and center for the ed-tech-and-innovation field: How to get more than the most-enthusiastic teachers to adapt to new ways of teaching, using the power of new technologies.

Digital Promise and Google Team Up

Cator of Digital Promise outlined the problem in a July 26 blog post announcing the Dynamic Learning Project.

“There are pockets of inspiration and excellence where students and teachers are leveraging technology to solve complex problems, work with big data sets, connect across borders, access experts, collaborate with peers, and engage in compelling projects,” Cator wrote.

“However, in other scenarios, students are engaged with lower-level uses of technology such as test preparation, reading static online content, and seemingly endless drill and practice exercises,” she continued. “This is leading to an emerging ‘second level digital divide’ in U.S. schools.”

It’s a phenomenon that Education Week covered in-depth in June as part of our annual Technology Counts report. Teachers in high-poverty schools have consistently been less likely than their counterparts in more affluent schools to say they’ve received training on how to integrate technology in their instruction, according to an original analysis of NAEP survey data conducted by the Education Week Research Center.

Digital Promise thinks coaching is one big way of addressing the problem.

The coaches they’ll be sponsoring will generally be teachers on special assignment from their school or district. They’ll be entirely focused on curriculum, instruction, and learning—not providing technical support. That could mean designing and delivering professional development, providing face-to-face support to teachers in their classrooms, and providing model resources and lessons.

The coaches will in turn receive mentoring and support of their own.

Closing the “second-level digital divide” means “equipping educators with the skills and tools they need to effectively integrate technology in their instruction, and research suggests that coaching has a positive impact on teacher practices and student outcomes,” Digital Promise spokeswoman Erica Lawton wrote in an email.

In addition to providing funding, Google is also expected to provide volunteer support from its employees for the initiative.

Preparing Teachers to Personalize Learning

At Summit Public Schools, the challenge is twofold, according to Adam Carter, the network’s chief academic officer.

“As we grow, where do we find teachers who can enact personalized learning from the get-go?” Carter asked. And, he said, “we have increasingly diverse schools, and a teacher a workforce that remains about 70 percent white women. We want to make sure our staff is representative of our kids and the communities we serve.”

Summit currently has about 205 teachers across 11 schools in California and Washington state. The network generally expects to hire a few dozen new teachers next year, in part to replace teachers it loses, but mostly to fill new jobs that are created as existing schools expand.

Historically, Carter said, Summit has gotten a high proportion of its teachers from three universities: Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia.

But that pipeline isn’t big or diverse enough to meet Summit’s growing needs, he said.

And increasingly, Summit is looking for teachers who are prepared specifically to teach in its classrooms, which differ from more traditional classrooms in significant ways.

For one, they want teachers who are comfortable working with a wide range of data—not just by themselves, but in teams. Summit also wants teachers who come in familiar with project-based learning approaches and eager and able to build deep, lasting mentor relationships with students and families.

And Summit’s existing workforce has experienced some of the same challenges highlighted in a recent RAND Corp. study of other personalized-learning schools, including the difficulty of managing students who are expected to work at their own pace.

The program will include an initial group of 24 Summit teaching residents, most of whom previously had fellowships to work as part of the network’s tutoring corps.

The group is 42 percent male and 58 percent people of color.

As part of the yearlong residency, they’ll spend four days per week co-teaching with an experienced Summit teacher, while also taking coursework. This year’s residents will participate at no cost, and will be eligible for fellowships to help cover their living costs. After completing the program, they’ll earn a “California Preliminary Teacher Credential” in a single subject. Summit says teachers who complete the residency will be given priority in its hiring process.

“Currently, our teachers have to come in and quickly get up to speed,” Carter said. “Residents will have time to build up their comfort with working within our context.”

Photo: Brian Garlick, a technical education teacher, works with freshman Nikhil Chandramouli, right, at South Fayette High School outside Pittsburgh earlier this year.--Swikar Patel/Education Week-File

This post has been updated with new information from Summit Public Schools on the demographic representation of its initial cohort of teacher residents.

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