Blame Poorly Designed Technology Instead of Teacher Training

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: This article was originally posted as a comment, on 11.25.12, in response to Lynn Zimmerman’s Formative Assessment and Blended Learning, Texting, Bullying, MOOCs. -Editor]

Zimmerman: “They found that teachers and pupils lack sufficient training in how to use technology as educational tools.”

What about technology being easier to use? All of the blame does not go to training.

When you realize that professional development (PD) classes for teachers provide them with required credits for retaining certification and give them time off from teaching while having no requirement for success in these classes, you can see that teachers will sit in them and bring nothing from them back to the classroom. That’s your training.

Teachers are people, too, just like students are. Without motivation and good pedagogy, PD is just a day of vacation. For these reasons, we cannot pin our hopes on training. Technology should be easy enough to use that teachers who are motivated can learn to use a given new technology in under an hour. However, applying it by inserting it into curricula may take longer, even much longer.

Moreover, educational technology should already be an “educational tool.” Technology that must be stretched, bent, and twisted to fit into classrooms does not properly belong there. And, just because a teacher becomes enamored of some technology does not mean that the students will benefit. IWBs (interactive whiteboards) are a case in point here.

The best educational technologies will fulfill two crucial goals: (1) easy insertion into a curriculum and (2) positive transformation of teaching/learning in classes, i.e., better learning outcomes. These are in addition to the obvious ones such as ease of use and low cost. BTW, the improvement in learning should be due to the technology, not the shiny new thing syndrome.

5 Responses

  1. I did a study on this problem on behalf of a major school district a number of years ago. My review of the literature showed that schools usually invest all available dollars into technology purchases, leaving little to nothing for training. That meant that most of the time the new technology went unused. That was the best possible outcome.

    Too often the untrained teachers tried to use the new technology to support ineffective ways of teaching. That was the worst possible outcome. All of the research I read agreed that technology used to enhance good teaching models improved student achievement, but technology used to replace or enhance weak teaching methods either had no effect or or actually lowered student achievement.

    I had the pleasure of sitting on an ad hoc task for for the Boulder Valley Public Schools in Colorado all last year. Our purpose was to form a vision for educational technology for the future. Our primary agreement was that staff development was critical to its success, but the most important aspect of that staff development had to be teaching teachers to use technology in support of strong instructional methodology. For example, teachers who are not now (without technology) teaching students to do investigative projects leading to conclusions formed through higher order thinking skills will not suddenly start using those instructional practices simply because they have technology that will enhance that process. They have to be shown both how to teach that way and how to use the technology to make it more effective.

    Our group approved a staff development project to teach both the instructional processes and the way that technology supports them, and that process is just beginning to get underway.

  2. John is absolutely correct that technology can be used very inappropriately. Good instructional methodology is much more important to learning than is technology.

    I cannot say whether or not the effort to improve instructional methodology through professional development will work. The outcome depends so much on the PD pedagogy itself and on the body of educators being trained that it’s impossible for me to make predictions. All I can say is that success is uncertain.

    Because technology remains a separate piece, an independent learning tool, John’s conclusions are accurate. Someday, this situation will change. I can imagine, even if I cannot today create, software that will enforce good instructional methodology somehow. I also can imagine that this software will be trivial to use.

    In the future, software will be as integral to learning as textbooks are today — no, more so. It will be highly interactive, adaptable, and individual. It will alert teachers to necessary interventions well before students become lost to learning. It will learn from student-teacher interactions and will improve without further programming.

    That day is both a long way off and soon to come. (One should not prognosticate unambiguously.) :-)

  3. Harry, I thought that software forcing teachers to use good methodology was an ideal benefit to online instruction the first time I ever heard the concept, which was in another century. to my absolute befuddlement I found it to be all too wrong in reality. In our first online education programs, we did our best to use the very best and most effective pedagogy in our classes. Then they were taught by the teachers in the schools with which we had contracts. In most cases, things went extremely well, and we developed a strong reputation. In far too many cases, though, we found the teachers simply ignored the curriculum to a degree I would not have thought possible. The courses required a high degree of teacher student interaction, and the constructivist approaches meant that the answers were not to be found by simply skimming the material. We found an alarming number of teachers made no effort to participate in the interactive lessons, and students were left puzzled and confused as to what they were supposed to do. The schools blamed the materials for not having clear answers to clear questions rather than their own teachers for not doing the necessarily facilitation of learning.

    Within an hour of my post here, I was in a meeting at the school district to review progress. I was highly impressed by the first steps. They had just finished hiring the first set of people who will be trained to be the leaders who help teachers with the instructional technology use in the school. We reviewed the interview process. The questions were designed to identify the best teachers in terms of instructional methodology, with their technology backgrounds a clear secondary factor. They of course strove for teachers with good scores in both areas, but given the choice, they selected strong teachers with weaker technology backgrounds over weaker teachers with strong technology backgrounds. Their thinking was that it would be easier to train a strong teacher to use technology than to teach a technologist to be a teacher. I concur.

  4. The problem with learning software is that it covers a lot of ground. At one end of the spectrum we have “dumb” drill programs that are uploaded to a single computer or a LAN. These are great for repetitive practice. A little “brighter” would be programed learning, a rigid, linear, by-the-numbers form of learning. At the other end are “smart” and “intelligent” programs that are actually capable of learning and continually reconstructing themselves to better serve users. Obviously we have a ways to go before they’re fully operational for the masses.

    With the web, we have the framework for programs interacting with one another and, thus, expanding the concept of intelligence to include not one but an infinite number of programs continuously combining and recombining to solve specific problems. In fact, this is one way to describe the web — a dynamic, connected, organic infrastructure of programs, a meta-program. From this view, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can only gasp this whole as an abstract form, as in Plato’s “one over the many.”

    If the natural trend is toward the one, then closed, isolated programs are out of sync, counter-intuitive. Perhaps the greatest lesson of MOOCs is that openness is the key to understanding and making the best use of the web. Siemens and Downes were in touch with this core nature of the web when they began experimenting with MOOCs. In their conception, learning is connecting, reconstructing, and expanding, and the movement, at once, involves the individual as part of the many gradually expanding toward the one.

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