Special Report
Classroom Technology

The Future of Classroom Technology: 5 Experts Weigh In

Five ed-tech experts weigh in on research needs, 1-to-1 computing, and “passive” vs. “active” learning
By Michelle R. Davis — June 12, 2017 | Updated: June 14, 2017 14 min read
Richard Culatta, CEO, International Society for Technology in Education
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1. Richard Culatta

CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education; previously served as the chief innovation officer for the state of Rhode Island and the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology.

In his time working at the federal Education Department, Culatta made strong arguments for the development and sharing of open educational resources, and he encouraged districts to share information about ed-tech policies. In Rhode Island, Culatta helped launch a statewide K-12 personalized-learning initiative.

What is the biggest impact that technology is having in education?

CULATTA: Right now, the value is in access to high-quality resources. We’ve moved from 100 percent of learning materials coming from an out-of-date textbook, to interactive materials, and students in remote locations having access to high-quality resources. Technology has enabled learners to explore and learn on their own in ways that were harder to do when the resources all had to come from the teacher. It’s very powerful.

You’ve worked on tech-related personalized learning for several years. Is the concept taking hold in classrooms across the country?

CULATTA: The idea of personalized learning is that the learning experience is tailored to the individual student based on their specific learning needs. But that requires some other things we’re not really doing in a widespread way now. In Rhode Island, we launched a statewide personalized-learning initiative to really try to build that out, but largely we’re still just getting into that space now. It involves data, formative assessment, dashboards that allow students to quickly see where they are in their learning progression. That is definitely where I think we need to be going, but we’re just moving into that phase now.

What are the barriers to making that happen?

CULATTA: We still need more mature tools to manage personalized learning. When people think about personalized learning, they often think about the content being delivered. I actually don’t think that’s the most important part. In order to be personalized, you have to have tools to help manage that; otherwise, it’s an incredible burden on teachers and students. We have to be able to say quickly: Where are students at? Where do they need help? How can we pair students together based on their needs? The tools to manage a personalized-learning environment are not as robust as they need to be to do this at scale.

How much does equity play a part in whether students and teachers are using technology effectively?

CULATTA: The E-rate program [which funnels federal dollars to schools and libraries for broadband and other technology] works. The way the E-rate is designed with its recent updates, the program is really targeting those schools that need more help getting the infrastructure in place. The mission isn’t accomplished, but from an infrastructure standpoint, there are supports to bring in equitable access to schools across the country. But there are leadership decisions involved. School districts with schools in low-socioeconomic neighborhoods need to say, “We’re going to prioritize this and we’re going to stop spending money on things like old textbooks.” But there are also wealthy districts that are not doing it. At this point, it comes down more to the effectiveness of the leader than it does to the actual financial situation of a district.

Are open educational resources going to play an increasing role in what digital learning looks like in the future?

CULATTA: Open-licensed resources are important because they save districts money, no question. But I’m less excited about it from that standpoint than from the perspective that it can empower teachers to edit and adapt and customize learning materials for their students. That’s the craft of teachers—looking at the needs of their students and saying, “Here is how we adapt and adjust.” If they’re not allowed to change the examples or their materials, then we’re not empowering them to do what they need to do.

You’re a big ed-tech proponent, but what concerns do you have about schools’ increasing reliance on technology?

CULATTA: There are aspects of technology I’m incredibly excited about, but there are aspects that are disconcerting. One of my big concerns is that we are simply digitizing what we have always done. That’s not collaborative or empowering students. Also, learning is inherently social. If technology is being used in a way that’s isolating students, that’s a problem for me. Is kids’ data safe and being used in appropriate ways? It’s not only the worry that it might get hacked, but also are there assumptions being built into the algorithms of software that are not the best thing for kids.

What do you think the ed-tech landscape will look like in the future?

CULATTA: A key difference you’ll see is that right now we’re still largely using technology to deliver content. It’s largely about presenting information. It’s high-quality information and interactive—we’re doing some good stuff. But a shift you’ll see down the road is that tech will be used less for presenting content and more as a tool to design and create and explore and connect to other learners, to experts around the world. It will be much more of a tool to enable new types of learning than it will be a tool for distributing content.

2. Peggy A. Ertmer

Professor emerita of learning design and technology, Purdue University’s College of Education, and founding editor of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning

Peggy A. Ertmer

As a researcher, Ertmer has examined the barriers teachers face when trying to use technology. Ertmer has published papers showing that teachers’ beliefs about technology can hinder its effective use in the classroom, even with high-quality professional development and other supports.

You’ve been researching the impact of teacher beliefs about technology for many years. How have things changed?

ERTMER: We found that beliefs were holding teachers back in terms of using technology in meaningful ways. We are seeing more effective uses of technology than we were, but sadly there are still pockets of very ineffective use.

When teachers really believe it is valuable, it makes a difference in what a teacher is going to decide to do and how much effort they’re going to put in. With the testing environment the way it is, it’s probably easy for teachers to use that as a reason why they can’t do more—they feel they need to drill students on the test information so they’re prepared.

What does it look like when a teacher takes a higher-level approach?

ERTMER: Those teachers are ones who use something like a problem-based or project-based approach, where kids are really hands-on and they’re solving authentic problems. Technology is just one part of that environment. It’s about the pedagogy rather than the tool they’re using. Those teachers have come to trust the process to carry the pedagogy, and they don’t sweat preparing for the big tests. Those who really embrace technology are those who have also embraced student-centered pedagogy. Technology is just part of that environment.

What are some characteristics of teachers who do that?

ERTMER: They don’t teach the technology and they don’t need to know it all. They’re not the experts. They’re comfortable saying, “I’ve never played with this technology, can you guys figure this out?”

What are other factors in seeing this done well?

ERTMER: District leaders and principals make a difference. They get out of the way and actively support their teachers to explore the pedagogies. They give them the opportunities to co-teach or visit classrooms where these kinds of projects are being used well. Give teachers the time and the support and let them make mistakes and be OK with that. As much as possible, empower those teachers in terms of being pedagogy-first. If you can become a community willing to experiment and celebrate failure as well as success, you take away all that fear of being judged for something not working.

How do you view the state of research around educational technology?

ERTMER: The research is not definitive. It’s all over the place. There is research that shows positive outcomes, but there’s also research that shows no significant difference with technology use. There are so many variables: subjects, populations, how technology is used. The problem with it not being definitive is that administrators want numbers; they want evidence that this is going to work before they adopt things. Education has invested in the tools and access, but you’re not seeing grand results given the grand investments. Skeptics will point that out and say, “Where’s the evidence?”

But there is evidence that there are benefits with the proper use of these tools. Research shows it’s not about the tool, but how it’s used.

What is future research in this area likely to reveal?

ERTMER: I don’t know if it will lead anywhere new. It might verify or validate this idea that we’ve been spending too much time on what tools to use and not enough time on how to use them. The research is there, but maybe it’s not strong enough. We need to pay attention to professional development. If I were in charge, it would be about teachers’ learning goals and how to use technology to support learning. That voice isn’t loud enough right now to make a difference. Districts are still saying, “We’ve got this new tool, let’s figure out how to use it.”

It’s going to be a long, slow spread. We are not going to be able to ignore technology in our teaching. Kids and adults use it so automatically, and this wasn’t true 10 years ago. Teachers and schools and administrators need to tap into that and use it with an emphasis on learning, but learning better or deeper. We’ve been talking about this for a while, but it doesn’t yet have critical mass.

3. & 4. Ginny Hansmann & Steven Langford

Ginny Hansmann: Chief academic officer, Beaverton, Ore., school district

Steven Langford: Chief information officer, Beaverton, Ore., school district

Steven Langford

In Beaverton’s 40,700-student school district, the technology team and the teaching and learning group work hand-in-hand. The result has been a collaborative approach to incorporating ed tech into the district at all levels. To make that work, the district tapped into a $680 million bond passed in 2014 to modernize schools and launch a 1-to-1 computing initiative, among other projects.

What does technology-infused learning look like in your district?

Ginny Hansmann

LANGFORD: We’ve launched Chromebooks 1-to-1 in grades 4-12, we have 4-to-1 iPads in grades K-3, and we launched a learning-management system last year that’s been very widely adopted. It is making it easy for teachers to transfer their classrooms into digital online environments so students can learn anytime, anywhere. At the elementary level, there’s a lot of excitement about how coding can be incorporated.

HANSMANN: From a teaching and learning perspective, we’re excited about the Future Ready movement, which is a collaboration between IT and T&L. It’s changing the way we think about our classrooms. It’s about innovation and not as much about technology. It’s about creative thinking, project-based learning, and hands-on learning now. It’s a whole culture shift in innovation and innovation practices for teaching.

How do you prepare teachers for this culture shift?

HANSMANN: We’re going to have early-release days next year and offer optional PD for teachers every third Wednesday. We’re totally changing the way we do PD, using the Canvas LMS system (the learning management system platform chosen by the district, which can do everything from deliver educational content to administrative tasks). We’re going to use the technology to deliver PD. It can be virtual or face to face, but we will still have Canvas as the background to access articles and text. People want more differentiation and options in their professional development, and this really allows for that.

How has your technology infrastructure changed to support this new way of doing things?

LANGFORD: It took us 2½ years of focused, challenging work to build the infrastructure that would support us now but also scale fast enough for the future. We had to go from being behind need to getting a year ahead of need. In the past, all we had to worry about were desktops, then it became laptops, and there were more of them. Now, students and staff arrive with phones in their pockets and sometimes an iPad as well. It’s no longer one device per person—it’s multiple devices, plus you layer on instructional devices and materials. Then you have the internet of things. One of the largest consumers on our network is our HVAC system, which has sensors in the ceilings.

What do you think will change in the future about the way Beaverton uses ed tech?

HANSMANN: It’s just going to become the way of the future and the way we operate. We need to change as technology changes. It’s having a new mindset to be able to teach and to learn.

LANGFORD: Technology will just be baked into the DNA of our work. If we continue on this road, and the focus stays on innovative practices around instruction, then the technology just becomes the way we do it, and it starts to become invisible. Maybe when it becomes invisible, that’s when we got where we should be.

5. Nicholas Schiner

Team leader, Baltimore County Public Schools Office of Innovative Learning Projects

Nicholas Schiner

The Office of Innovative Learning Projects incubates and investigates new learning products and strategies and works to implement them on a larger scale. Schiner has also worked on the district’s extensive 1-to-1 computing initiative. He is now focused on urging schools to support maker learning—which encourages hands-on tinkering, often with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM.

How are you seeing schools move toward more effective use of educational technology?

SCHINER: All our elementary schools have been 1-to-1 for several years. They’ve shifted from, ‘Let’s put students on the devices because we have them,’ to really thoughtfully planning instruction that leverages it. They’re pushing content at the right time and allowing students to demonstrate learning that is meaningful. The level of access has been a critical component. They no longer have to say that Tuesday afternoon they’ll use the computer lab. Now, kids can hop on a device immediately.

What is the greatest barrier to effective use of ed tech?

SCHINER: The biggest one is access. It becomes a vicious cycle. For a teacher to plan instruction and leverage the power of the internet or a piece of technology, they need access constantly and consistently. Otherwise, teachers are just going to use technology for the sake of using it, in a very superficial way. Those barriers exist for students at home as well. We’ve partnered with companies like Comcast and AT&T to help get access for students who don’t have high-speed internet for economic reasons. We’ve put Baltimore County public schools’ internet access in all of the public libraries, with a single sign-on to all content. It boiled down to what can we do to increase access both in and out of school.

You’re a big advocate of maker spaces. Why is “making” so important?

SCHINER: Right now, society is more in a consuming mode rather than a creation mode. But schools can serve as hubs for innovation, doing things like 3D printing. Green schools are creating maker spaces and doing a lot of upcycling [reusing discarded items to make something more valuable] and design fabrication. I want kids to understand how to be creative again, whether it’s with cardboard, Minecraft, or coding a game. It’s the opportunity to really introduce kids to the STEM areas, the arts, and English/language arts.

How about for schools that don’t have a maker space?

SCHINER: We are maker-learning activists. We created a mobile innovation lab in a 12-year-old school bus. It’s a mobile maker space, and teachers got commercial driver’s licenses to move it around. The bus spends a week at a time at a school, and[teachers] do every grade level. They do robotics, Legos, LittleBits, self-driving vehicles, coding. We’re going to be doing drone Bocce, [playing the game of Bocce, but having drones drop the balls instead of tossing them] where the goal is to land closest to the spot in the middle, and they have to use programming. It’s teaching kids to persevere.

What are schools likely to see in the future in this area?

SCHINER: More emphasis on open-source resources and more companies having cross-platform interoperability. The ability to work across platforms is important for any ed-tech company or any ed-tech undertaking. It’s huge. We’re a Windows district, through Microsoft, and we’ve run into a lot of trouble with companies and robotics vendors that don’t have a Windows platform app or piece of software. We can’t use it because it doesn’t work in our ecosystem. As far as open source, there’s a lot of free curricula out there. With Code.org, for example, a teacher can take the part that they want and adapt it. We want to create meaningful, engaging learning experiences for students with math and science and design and art all rolled together. We want to capture their passion and use it as an opportunity to engage.

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Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2017 edition of Education Week as 5 Ed-Tech Experts Weigh In


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