Ten years ago, technology was a fun addition to the classroom. Schools didn’t need the bandwidth to provide Wi-Fi to every student and textbooks were still the main provider of information. Today, it’s very different. Administrators expect teachers to use technology, and students (and parents) demand it. This often leaves educators struggling to keep up and adapt.
There are significant challenges to entering the digital education era. However, for every problem, there are innovative educators looking to provide solutions to help their students and fellow teachers.
Technology Has Changed Education for the Better
There is no doubt that technology has improved the classroom experience, so running away from tech tools or assuming tech adoption is a fad is not an option.
David Nagel at Transforming Education Through Technology Journal reports that teachers are significantly in favor of using technology in the classroom. Out of 1,000 educators, 66 percent say tech makes students more productive and 60 percent think it stimulates them intellectually.
Considering that 73 percent of teachers confirm their students use their laptops and tablets on a daily basis, it is nearly impossible to separate students from technology, so it’s a good thing that teachers think these devices are valuable.
However, outside of the opinions of teachers and students, technology has proven to be an essential tool to democratize learning materials. Elizabeth Corcoran, CEO of EdSurge, explains that educators really only had one option before technology. They were able to choose textbooks from a handful of companies and were discouraged from asking for changes or additions. Now, administrators have hundreds of educational tools and resources at their fingertips. It’s all a matter of sorting to find the best options.
“The past five years have witnessed a preCambrian-like explosion of thousands of edtech products,” she writes. “Teachers, particularly those with students for whom school is an achingly bad fit, became early adopters. These educators are desperate to find ways to make learning relevant and personal for their students—and they work heroic hours to see if technology helps.”
Teachers and administrators eager to find the best learning materials often turn to technology, which forces textbook providers to offer better options and materials to schools. The result is better materials for everyone involved.
Educators and Administrators Are Struggling to Keep Up
While teachers and administrators are excited about technology and want to embrace it, many lack the necessary skills and training to implement relevant skills — or even to choose the best tech options.
Education writer Heather B. Hayes cites research from PwC which surveyed 2,000 K–12 teachers on technology in schools. Only 10 percent of teachers say they feel comfortable incorporating advanced technology into their classrooms. This is because only 17 percent were confident in their web design abilities, 11 percent had the necessary graphic design skills, and only eight percent were comfortable with computer programming.
School principals are also put into difficult situations when trying to balance technology in the classroom. More than one-half (55 percent) of principals feel pressured by tech companies to adopt new tools, and 46 percent feel pressure from district leaders to embrace the technology movement, writes Education Week reporter Denisa R. Superville. Principals also feel pressured to accept computer science as a necessary course offering.
In fact, sales representatives at tech companies often email principals and call their administrative assistants, aggressively trying to set up appointments and sometimes pretending as though the administrators were already interested in the tools. This leaves educators overwhelmed and frankly annoyed with the tech industry.
Training is An Essential Part of Technological Adoption
Even if administrators had unlimited budgets to buy all of the tech tools they wanted, they don’t have the time or ability to properly train their teachers how to use it. Introducing new technology isn’t the hard part — training is.
“It’s not enough to simply provide access to new tools,” writes Candace Roberts, professor of education at Saint Leo University. “Certainly, it’s impossible to incorporate the use of virtual reality goggles or headsets if you don’t know how to use them, but knowing what each button does is only the beginning. Teachers must also be able to see the potential in a given object and how it can be tapped to unlock greater learning opportunities.”
Edtech writer Sarah Acre agrees, emphasizing the importance of long-term training, retraining and knowledge-building. Teacher training often means a one-time session during a planning period or before the school year starts. This leaves significant gaps as some teachers forget what they’ve learned while others only grasp certain parts. Technology training needs to be ongoing, where lessons are reinforced and built upon.
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Training Is a Significant Part of the Digital Divide
To understand how important training is to educators, look at the materials offered in high-income versus low-income schools. Schools with lower levels of student poverty can afford more tech, can afford to maintain it, and can afford to continuously train teachers on it, writes EdTech associated editor Meghan Bogardus Cortez. Meanwhile, lower-income schools that also invest in new technology often can’t afford the maintenance or training costs.
Plus, it’s hard to justify spending limited budgets on training. This sets students back because their teachers can’t provide the resources that they need, furthering the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
This divide is heightened in schools where students bring their own devices, says Brendon Hyndman, Ph.D., senior lecturer and course director at Charles Sturt University. “There can be large differences in device capability, for example between what a cheap android phone can do compared with an iPad.”
This puts more pressure on educators who have to learn how multiple devices work and provide instructions to each student. Teachers have to learn more than their higher-income counterparts to provide the same lesson.
Educators Are Finding Ways to Keep Up with Tech-Savvy Kids
Most educators also face another tech challenge in the classroom: their students are well ahead of them in terms of understanding technology and how to use the tools.
“[Students] don’t even view technology as technology — it’s just how they communicate,” says teacher and education strategist Tanya Avrith. “It’s like how I don’t see my table and chair as anything special. It’s the same thing for my classes and technology. Technology isn’t anything special to them. It just is.”
Interestingly, some education professionals are busting the myth that students inherently know more than their instructors because they were born in the digital era. Katie Davis, associate professor and founding member of the Digital Youth Lab at the University of Washington, says younger students might learn about technology at an early age, but that doesn’t mean that all of the lessons come naturally to them.
“You’re not born knowing how to know that this particular news article is fake, this particular article is trustworthy,” she explains as an example.
Digital learning is like language learning. A student might attend summer coding camps at a young age and tinker with computers with their parents, making them more technologically-advanced than their teachers, but these are still learned skills.
For example, lower-level educators are having to figure out when and how to introduce young learners to basic technological concepts. Education specialist Barb Istas interviewed an elementary school digital learning specialist who said one of their biggest challenges is teaching kindergarteners how to log in with a username and password. Many students are still too young to identify letters and numbers, much less find them on the keyboard. Logging in is the first step of most technology journeys, which means students can’t go forward without these skills.
Dr. Matthew Lynch, editor at The Tech Edvocate and The Edvocate, created a guide for teachers who want to keep up with their students and the latest tech trends. Teachers can create leadership opportunities for students by having students familiar with the tech guide teachers through it and then help their peers. This is a great way to develop future-ready skills like communication and collaboration.
Millennial Teachers Are Up for the Challenge
Each year, a new batch of teachers graduate and enter the workforce. These new teachers have had more time to learn about technology and how to use it in school. Millennials, often referred to as the first generation of digital natives, now make up more than half of the American workforce, and that includes the education workforce. They are up for the tech challenge.
In an article about working with millennials, educators Ronald Williamson, Ph.D. and Barbara Blackburn, Ph.D. identify some of the top characteristics of millennial teachers:
- They are highly educated and value continued learning.
- They are comfortable with technology and expect it in the classroom.
- They are creative and self-confident.
- They want to make a difference and face challenges head on.
- They enjoy collaborating and forming partnerships.
Millennial teachers tend to be more flexible than their older counterparts, writes Eileen O’Shanassy at Millennial Magazine. In classrooms, this flexibility might be taking a “red, yellow, green” approach to smartphone use instead of simply banning them outright.
The approach works because students do use their phones to take photos or research information, enhancing their learning experience. When the class is in “yellow,” students shouldn’t be playing on their phones or accessing the web, but can listen to music while they work. This allows for auditory stimulation and improved focus. Instead of treating technology as only a source of unwanted interruption, teachers can learn how to work with it.
These are the educators our schools need as technology evolves. The tech we use today is going to change over the next several decades. Teachers need to be willing to adopt new technological tools and use them as they become common.