5 edtech problems and their solutions

Dr Julie Wood

Dr Julie Wood is the founder and academic director of TechnoTeaching, a global consulting agency for educators. She is also the coauthor, along with UK educator Nicole Ponsford, of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice the Next Level in a Digital World (Harvard Education Press). A former faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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Image credit: Shutterstock // Rudy Matchinga. Image credit: Shutterstock // Rudy Matchinga.

To say that meaningful technology integration is hard work is like saying that climbing Mt. Everest might leave you a little bit winded. Today’s school leaders have a Herculean number of obstacles to overcome transforming schools. As Benjamin Herold of Education Week comments:

[In the US] A significant body of research has... made clear that most teachers have been slow to transform the ways they teach, despite the influx of new technology into their classrooms. There remains limited evidence to show that technology and online learning are improving learning outcomes for most students.”

What to do? The first step is to admit that a particular aspect of edtech integration needs a serious reboot. The second is to not be too hard on yourself. For every bit of progress you make, there will likely be a few setbacks. Celebrating small victories along the way will give you the morale boost you need.

The five case studies that follow are drawn from school leaders in the Boston, Massachusetts area who were kind enough to their stories with me over the years (all names are pseudonyms).

Challenge 1

Ms Violet, a pragmatist at heart, used to think of edtech as a one-size-fits-all proposition. She believed all students could benefit equally from whatever tech tools the district provided, without special consideration for students with individual needs.

It wasn’t until Ms Violet attended several workshops at a national edtech conference that she became aware of an entire universe of tools that can help students who needed a boost to succeed socially and academically. She learned that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) helps all students succeed as learners by making content more accessible.

Ms Violet’s Dramatic Shift

The guiding framework for meeting the needs of students comes from architecture. Called Universal Design for Learning (or UDL), the theory is based on the idea that education needs to be accessible and effective for everyone. If a student is hearing impaired, technology can help. If a child has difficulty reading a story or article, she can click on a tool and have it read aloud. If a child has difficulty expressing his or her ideas, adaptive tools can be a boon. And so on.

The workshop that most influenced Ms Violet’s thinking featured a UDL expert from the Center for Assisted Special Technologies (CAST). He discussed current research in neuropsychology, specifically how students learn. He explained that UDL guidelines encompass “the why of learning (engagement), the what of learning (representation), and the how of learning (action & expression).”

You may already be applying UDL in your practice. If so, you’ll understand why I say the UDL framework is nothing short of life changing.

Challenge 2

Mr Mustard and his unshakable belief in after-school teacher professional development. He was keen on outsourcing teacher professional development (PD) in the form of after-school trainings. The problem was that the experts were completely disconnected from the students, teachers, and school culture. Once the sessions are over, experts may as well be in Bora Bora when a tech lesson plan goes off the rails.

Mr Mustard’s Dramatic Shift

The top innovators in Mr Mustard’s district became restless with the whole after-school, disconnected PD. They started going to Meetups, requesting days off to visit to high-performing schools, and attending unconferences (cost-free events run by participants).

It took some time for Mr Mustard to wrap his brain around his district’s preference for a more freewheeling approach to PD. But the evidence was compelling. Educators were excited by the creative edtech teaching they had ween in other schools and wanted to share with colleagues. They also felt energized by making connections beyond school walls. Several, in fact, were planning to go to edcamps over the summer.

Teachers with time constraints were excited about online courses and webinars. One popular example is Microsoft’s Educator Community, a site where teachers can connect, hack their classrooms, and share resources—at no cost.

Mr. Mustard had to concede that most teachers appreciate a more dynamic, interactive process for stepping up their practice. They also learn more from their colleagues at the cutting edge than from outside teacher trainers.

Challenge 3

Ms Plum and her reluctance to invest in “invisible” school improvements. Wireless networks, cloud storage, and so on, are invisible largely invisible. The fact that infrastructure upgrades are intangible means Ms Plum will have nothing sexy to point to, like several carts of iPads, when she justifies next year’s budget.

Reality bit Ms Plum out of the blue one morning when she met with the district’s IT specialist to discuss her vision: a 1:1 Computing initiative. She discovered that schools didn’t have enough bandwidth for everyone to be on the Internet simultaneously.

Ms. Plum’s Dramatic Shift

She invested heavily in her district’s technological infrastructure. Part of Ms Plum’s problem was that she didn’t have an overall edtech vision for her district. She now realizes that it’s all about connectivity. She needs to provide strong, fast, reliable network access to schools if edtech is to flourish. Nobody wants to be caught in a dead-zone, she admitted, without Internet access, or have their computer crash because too many others are using the network.

Improving connectivity also means engaging families using apps, text messages and more. Parents are clamoring for it. For ideas, go to The Harvard Family Research Project.

Challenge 4

Mr Teal’s mantra was ‘plan for the present, and the future will take care of itself’. Except that it doesn’t. School districts can’t afford to stay preserved in amber (think Jurassic Park and dinosaur DNA) while the rest of the world embraces digital media.

One day Mr Teal was dragged kicking and screaming into the future. A serious (yet thrifty) traveler, Mr Teal’s a-ha moment came when he discovered a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) tour of underwater marine sanctuaries. Using his tablet, he was able to explore underwater treasure in his armchair - no diving gear necessary.

Mr. Teal’s Dramatic Shift

As a school leader, he needs to think hard about the world our students will inhabit - from self-driving vehicles (flying cars?), to having mere thoughts result in action via robotic devices (Siri and Alexa, I’m looking at you), in addition to the worlds we can visit thorough VR.

Teaching even very young students (7-8 year olds) to write code, he decided, is a good starting point for being future-oriented. Plus, there are resources abound:

He also wanted to be sure that students had many opportunities to share what they’ve learned by creating (in the words of EdTech expert Wendy Michels):

  • “Digital scrapbooks
  • Multimedia posters
  • Blogs
  • Websites
  • Video presentations, and
  • Interactive timelines.”

Challenge 5

Ms Lemon believed that if you placed new tools in the hands of students, teachers would learn new skills by osmosis. Then one spring Ms Lemon’s worldview was challenged at the district-wide Technology Fair. The more Ms Lemon talked with students about their inventions, apps, and 3D printer projects, the more she realized just how sophisticated they were about digital tools.

Students were way out front, while many adults who roamed around the Fair, saucer-eyed, looked as though they’d just arrived on horseback from Stonehenge.

Ms. Lemon’s dramatic shift

She gave teachers the resources they need so they can become edtech and digital communication experts. Here are a few go-to skills to incorporate into their teaching, suggested by Wendy Michels.

  • “Hyperlinked activity lists, videos,
  • Social media,
  • QR codes, and
  • Google Classroom.”

I would also add learning to assess student progress using digital tools. Check out: formative assessment tools from Cool Cat Teacher.

So to you, dear school leaders, I say: Eyes wide open. Courage! And keep that forward momentum going!

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