Interview

Q&A With an Ed-Tech Expert: Don't Focus on the Tools

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For some teachers and school leaders, teaching with technology can feel overwhelming, especially when it seems their students know more about the newest tools than they do.

But Justin Bathon, an expert in how technology, education, and the law intersect, says that schools can’t risk not using technology in their classrooms—it simply holds too much promise for deepening student learning.

And yet that doesn’t mean implementation should be haphazard. It has to put students first.

“I still see so much blind investment in technology, where the outcome that school leaders are trying to achieve is one where they are want to get the public perception [of] giving kids devices, and that is not a useful approach,” he said. “Know what you are intending to achieve from a learning standpoint with digital implementation before you make the investment.”

Bathon is an associate professor in the department of educational leadership studies at the University of Kentucky and the director of Innovative School Models for the college of education there. A former teacher, he works with schools and school leaders to support efforts to personalize learning for students.

In an interview with Education Week Teacher, Bathon spoke about critical missteps schools and leaders make in implementing technology and how the tools, when used purposefully, can be a path to deeper learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What are some common pitfalls for schools or districts investing in technology?

The biggest pitfall by far is that not enough time and energy is put into the pedagogical use of the devices. Devices get purchased with the best of intentions, thinking that putting that device in a teacher’s hands or a kid’s hands by itself will make a great difference to learning, and, historically, in both the research and in practice, we just don’t see that to be the case. The technology only makes a difference when there is really intentional leadership and change in practice by teachers.

What does poor use of technology look like?

A not very useful job for the technology is to replicate what can be done or what’s already been done on paper. So, Google Docs, for instance—which is a tool that I love—can be used to basically replicate a worksheet. Now, the worksheet could have just as easily existed on paper, but instead, it’s produced on a Google Doc. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it doesn’t really justify the purchase of the device. That’s mostly what you see.

Beyond that, teachers certainly can use the device to offload the job of teaching. That is a big problem area. For instance, you could just have students watch Khan Academy videos all day, instead of teaching algebra units. So teachers who are not properly blending the devices and the opportunities available through those devices into their instruction have a tendency sometimes to rely too heavily on internet- and software-based materials.

Why does this sort of poor execution of technology usually happen?

I would put leadership up there as one of the top factors. There’s a generational gap that we have not yet managed to overcome in that many district leaders these days are still not necessarily digitally literate themselves. They are making purchasing decisions and these kind of very impactful policy decisions on school districts, and, because they don’t really know what to fully do with the devices themselves, they’re not really in the position to coach teachers and students about how best to achieve high learning outcomes with those devices.

A lack of overall investment is another challenge. Many districts struggle right out of the gate after a device is purchased with Wi-Fi and bandwidth issues. They just haven’t thought about the whole challenge of having all of the digital pieces in place that are needed to make a digital transition so that much of the teaching and learning can be happening in digital spaces and that the devices are not just a small add-on at the end of class, for instance.

You mentioned a generational disconnect. Education Week recently published a piece about how Generation Z students prefer learning through YouTube to learning through more traditional methods. A lot of teachers don’t know how to work with that. How do you recommend teachers handle this?

It’s certainly something I think that we are seeing—the embracing of video as a tool by students these days and more than we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s a good thing to see. We can either pretend it’s not happening or we can sort of embrace the opportunity.

Adults … need to start watching some videos and doing some learning on YouTube. For us in Kentucky, we’ve seen tremendous growth in YouTube as a learning platform among teachers. We have initiatives, such as the Kentucky GoDigital movement, which puts out a new video every week and helps teachers and administrators learn how to be more digitally relevant. So as our adults begin to learn how to learn with video, they’ll have a better sense as to how to help kids learn with video.

Beyond that, kids are really smart humans; they just don’t have a lot of experience. But embracing children as owners of their own learning, and letting them do some coaching of the adults in the room, is acceptable.

You often speak about using technology to get to deeper learning. What is deeper learning to you and what is the promise of using tech to get there?

Deeper learning … is giving students the opportunity to go beyond surface-level memorization, facts, and other material that is easily tested. [It’s giving] kids some real skills that they can walk away with, beyond just the ability to get the right answer on a test. It gets implemented through projects and all kinds of other techniques.

In terms of how technology helps with that, as anyone who has spent some time learning anything on the internet can tell you, the depth of information about any given topic on the internet is usually extremely deep. Now, there has to be vetting of that information, especially in today’s very complex world with truth. We have to really be careful and really teach kids how to process through that information, but there’s a lot of depth there, number one.

Number two, technology allows us to connect with people in ways that we have never been able to do before. And so, you know, if you’re studying a lesson on the Vietnam War and you’re curious as to the perspective of students in Vietnam, it’s easy to make that connection these days. The teacher has to put some work in to establish these relationships, but the technology makes the connection simple.

How can schools and teachers make that transition from using tech in routine ways to using it to engage students in deeper learning?

The first thing that we should do is not think about the technology. That is a common trap in a place that we as a field of education have not yet found our way out of—we’re so heavily focused on the technology. … When the question switches to, “How do we help kids learn more deeply?,” then it’s not really a technology question. It’s a question of how we should help kids spend their time. …

As that plays out, and we [start to] ask, “How should a kid demonstrate their learning?,” that’s when technology comes back in the game. We might conclude that, “Hey, the best way for a kid to demonstrate their knowledge here is through a video. Kids love watching videos; let’s help them produce videos.” So, using video as a technological solution to demonstrate their learning, that’s where technology’s place in this equation is.

What are some of the legal caveats for schools as students start using more technology?

There is more risk with technology because technology is an amplifier. So where previously a kid could say something publicly—maybe even put it on a flier, circulate it in their town—now, with technology, they can put it on Instagram and share it with millions of people overnight. So that amplification challenge creates new risks and stressors on school leaders, but it also creates new opportunities. We cannot get lost in the risk. We can manage the risk.

This new era where every kid has a device in their hands does call for school leaders to have more depth of knowledge themselves on issues like FERPA [the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act], on First Amendment issues about off-campus speech, about where the line is that schools can regulate and where there are things beyond schools, where it is not our job to regulate. [And they need to understand] that there is a lot of personal information on these devices that is subject to constitutional protection. So we do need to have more legal knowledge in order to mitigate the risks in this world. But we have to do that because the learning opportunities are so immense that not giving the kid the device here is the greater evil.

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