Ed Schools Wary of Teaching New Tech Tools to Teachers

More teachers are experimenting with how digital technology can effectively deliver information to students with tools like iPads and social media. Then there are edtech companies offering even more options with programs, products, and services to help instructors realize the potential of the 21st-century classroom. Along with eager techy teachers, there are concerns about poorly supported technology initiatives in schools where teachers are not prepared to incorporate high tech into the classroom.  So, what are education schools doing to prepare future teachers for the new classroom?

Dr. Brenda Matthis, who teaches in the educational technology program in Lesley University’s graduate School of Education, said the school focuses on teaching prospective instructors how to identify, assess, and integrate new technology versus simply using the latest tool. “We make sure that this is not just what is brand new and enticing, but that it has a long shelf life,” said Matthis. “Most new technologies really have to prove themselves before we embrace them because things come by the minute.”

Matthis said one way technology is helping classrooms is by dispelling the myth that they have to teach to the average learner; technology helped teachers accommodate each student.  “Digital tools are uniquely helpful to provide content to different students in the classroom depending on how they learn, what their skill sets are, how they take information faster than visual learners or auditory learners, and make sure they’re engaged.”

With each new group of teachers being more adept at using technology, Matthis thinks that the new generation will be more excited to integrate technology, but they will still have to learn how to effectively bring it into the classroom. “They’re more willing but their biggest deficit is that they don’t know how to integrate it. So, even people using technology may not know how to use it for an educational purpose, and that’s what they learn from us.”

Dr. Barbara Stengel, Professor and Director of Secondary Education at Vanderbilt University, said technology needs to accomplish two things in the classroom: help teachers work smarter or more efficiently, and represent understanding.  “We know that these are two challenges that faces teachers all the time. We want to make our program rich in opportunity to do these two things.”

One way Stengel does this is by having her students use technologies for her own assignments so that they can see for themselves the strengths and weaknesses of a software. “If you have done it yourself you will know if you want to ask kids to do an assignment using this.  Is it easier or not easier?  That’s what we talk about.”

Technology is a rapidly changing field with new products and services being introduced all the time, so Stengel said it does not make sense to create a course centered around any of these new tools.  She said it is up to the instructors to find out what new tools are available for them and to explore what works best for their teaching methods.  “I invite my students to find a blog where some tech nerd is reporting all these tools regularly.  Someone who has a foot in the edtech window,” Stengel said. “The trick is having that pipeline of somebody who you think reliably is messing around with this stuff just because they like to.”

Stengel said some teachers think they have to make up a lesson with a computer now just because they have a computer.  “You target some critical dimension of a concept that you’re trying to develop and you think of all the ways you might do it, and I do think that digital technology gives you much richer ways of doing it,” said Stengel.  “You can evoke action and emotion and concepts at once using computers, netbooks, and iPads, but sometimes you don’t need it.”

Even with something as ubiquitous as Smart Boards, Stengel does not find necessary spending a lot of time learning about. “We’re asking them how they can make representations of data and knowledge usable and a Smart Board is one way you can do that if you’re gathering data from students and you’re asking them to respond using devices that can then be projected – then it’s useful – but it’s not a Smart Board for the sake of a Smart Board.”

Dr. Hardin Coleman, Dean of Boston University’s School of Education put it this way, “I don’t want technology to be the tail that wags the dog,” he said. “That ends up being my biggest concern.”

Coleman said there is no standard or certain competency of technology by which they hold their students to when they graduate, but they have started looking into training their own staff. “We’re taking the approach that we have to build digital learning competence among our faculty and get them to explore ways they can use technology to improve their classroom as the stepping stone to how we’re going to change how we teach our students, which should translate into whatever this 21st-century classroom looks like.”

The one problem Coleman sees in teaching digital technologies in a blanket approach is that once their graduates are hired at different districts, all schools will be at a varying level of technological adoption. “If all the students were going to Boston we would be aligned with the Boston curriculum and what they have, and we could do a better job of integrating and preparing people,” Coleman said.

There are instances where the university finds it useful spending time figuring out the place of technology in the classroom, such as helping students understand how to choose math instructional software, but Coleman said it’s not a broad base of the work they do.  “It’s much more about how you interact face-to-face with a student and their learning needs,” Coleman said.

Education is proving to move much slower than the pace at which edtech tools are being made available. Education schools are keeping their eyes open to the possibilities of digital tools, but they remain steadfast in the idea that teaching is about the transference of information, no matter the method.


Photo by K.W. Barrett

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.