Age does not predict teacher comfort with technology

Previous posts have explored the importance of teachers to online and blended learning enough times that regular readers may be tired of hearing about the misconception that teachers aren’t important in digital learning.

But there’s another misconception that I think is common, although I have only anecdotes and observations.

The misconception is that relatively young teachers are more likely to be comfortable with implementing digital learning, whether using technology in their classrooms, teaching fully online courses, or somewhere in between. When school leaders consider whom they would like to have piloting online courses, it’s not unusual for them to show a bias towards younger teachers.

My recent trip to the Clark County School District to visit with teachers using technology in their classrooms showed why this idea is a misconception. I was fortunate to see several classrooms with teachers using technology in a variety of ways, and one common factor was that all were experienced teachers. Although this was a very small sample, we have seen similar situations in other districts, and I have heard comparable accounts from others. Some observers believe that younger teachers want to become comfortable teaching before adding technology or teaching online, while experienced teachers are often the ones ready to experiment with new methods of instruction.

Two of the Clark County teachers separately, and unprompted, told me that using technology in their classrooms has given them new interest in and energy towards teaching. They are excited to be thinking about new ways to reach students. During a visit to another district, a teacher even suggested that learning new technology and ways to teach with it had kept her in the classroom.

As the OECD report said, “technology can amplify great teaching.”

The teachers I saw were indeed great. I suspect that they were great before they started using technology. The technology may be making them a bit better. It may also be keeping them in the classroom.

Thanks to Kim Loomis, Lucas Leavitt, Travis Warnick, Jerrad Barczyszyn, Jennifer Barczyszyn, April Hollaway, and Joanne Schmutz for opening their schools and classrooms to me, and taking the time to answer all of my seemingly endless questions.



Leadership in successful “proof points” blended learning programs

In addition to the main points about the recent iNACOL symposium discussed in a recent blog post, another highlight was listening to educators from many of the schools discussed in our proof points series. We had leaders from Spokane, Salt Lake City, Washington DC, Randolph and Middletown (New York), Horry County (South Carolina), St George (Utah), Poudre (Colorado) and Putnam County (Tennessee) take part in two separate discussions.

When we published the first set of proof points cases we discussed leadership in a blog post that noted how strong school or district leadership is present in all scalable and sustained blended learning programs.” The post discussed the passion, vision, and energy of the leaders who brought success to their schools and programs. At the iNACOL symposium discussion, these qualities and others were abundantly clear as leaders of these schools and programs talked about their jounrney. A few points stood out.

First, every program leader was a strong presenter. That in itself is a notable data point. Although current and former teachers tend to be good speakers because of their time in the classroom, it is still remarkable that every one of the proof points speakers captured and held the room during their presentations and Q&A sessions. The ability to tell the story well, in an engaging and captivating way, is a hallmark of leadership—especially for new programs.

The leaders were straightforward about the problems that had existed in their schools and districts that they were trying to solve. There was no muddled thinking, no mere application of technology without a plan. Kimberly Moritz, Superintendent of the Randolph school district in upstate New York, set the tone when she said (as she had told us months ago in our first interview with her) that the district went to a personalized learning approach in order to address “decades of mediocrity.”

The leaders gave credit to others. They routinely brought other people into our interviews during the research, and referenced these colleagues during their comments.

They were honest about challenges, both those that they have overcome and those that remain. Edi Cox from Horry County was remarkably straightforward about their challenges during our interviews—and this from a district that is considered to be among the most successful. Sam Brookes told us months ago—and told the audience in Orlando—that Putnam’s successful program grew out of reassessments after initial failures.

A potential downside exists to the apparent need for this type of leadership, as our earlier blog post explained. Among the ramifications of the importance of leadership is that a program likely can’t be considered mature until a change of leadership has occurred (along with other factors). A change of leadership, followed by continued growth and success, is a sign of program maturity and suggests that the blended learning initiative is here to stay. Until that point, it’s hard to be sure if the success of the blended learning school or program will outlast its founder.

Is the textbook dead?

People who study, practice, or otherwise think about digital learning often tend to get their news and information on the topic from a few education-specific sources, including iNACOL, EdSurge, Getting Smart, and others. Authors on these sites, blogs, and related white papers know they are writing for an audience that tends to be fairly knowledgeable about digital learning, and is often biased towards believing that digital learning is—or at least can be—a positive element in education. Given the confirmation bias that can result from this approach, it’s especially valuable to note articles from general media sources. If they are well-researched, these articles provide a valuable insight into how the general public thinks about these topics.

An excellent recent example is Slate’s article No More Pencils, No More Books: Artificially intelligent software is replacing the textbook—and reshaping American education. The article is long enough that capturing it in full is impossible in a blog post, and it is well worth reading. A few highlights include the following:

  • The article describes technology-facilitated personalized learning very well, using ALEKS as an example. The description is not overly positive or negative, and explains the concepts for people who aren’t familiar with them. Sample quote: The result is a classroom experience starkly different from the model that has dominated American education for the past 100 years. In a conventional classroom, an instructor stands behind a lectern or in front of a whiteboard and says the same thing at the same time to a roomful of very different individuals. Some have no idea what she’s talking about. Others, knowing the material cold, are bored. In the middle are a handful who are at just the right point in their progress for the lecture to strike them as both comprehensible and interesting. When the bell rings, the teacher sends them all home to read the same chapter of the same textbook.”
  • The writer uses that opening to ask the question—is this something that we want?—and then refers to many of the failed promises of education technology. “In the context of the traditional classroom, Internet-connected devices risk distracting from the learning process more than they aid it…[the] much-hyped movement to “disrupt” higher education by offering college classes online for free has begun to fizzle.”
  • Why, then, would we expect that the movement will continue, and perhaps this time be more successful? The author’s answer is, in part, because of the big bets that textbook publishers are placing on technology, citing examples from Pearson, Houghton, Harcourt, and others, plus the focus from foundations on educational approaches that require technology—even of they can be confusing (“All the grant-giving and grant-writing has given rise to a raft of overlapping buzzwords, including “adaptive learning,” “personalized learning,” and “differentiated learning,” whose definitions are so amorphous that few can agree on them.”)

The article then delves deeper into these issues and contradictory views:

“An optimist looks at [the mixed results of education technology] and concludes that properly implementing the technology simply requires an adjustment period on the part of the students, the teachers, or both. Do it right, and you’ll be rewarded with significant gains. The optimist would also be sure to point out that we’re still in the early days of developing both the technology and the pedagogy that surrounds it.”


“A pessimist looks at educational technology’s track record and sees…a long history of big promises and underwhelming results. “I think the claims made by many in ‘adaptive learning’ are really overblown,” says Audrey Watters, an education writer who has emerged as one of ed tech’s more vocal critics. “The research is quite mixed: Some shows there is really no effect when compared to traditional instruction; some shows a small effect. I’m not sure we can really argue it’s an effective way to improve education.”


“In a class that revolves around computers and software, you might think that the software would do most of the teaching. On the contrary, the students in Whelan’s class seem to do most of their actual learning—in the sense of acquiring new concepts—during their brief bursts of personal interaction with their human tutors.”

That seems like a serious problem for ALEKS. And if the software were intended to function as an all-in-one educational solution, it would be. But McGraw-Hill Education is adamant that isn’t the goal. Not anytime soon, at least.

Unlike some younger tech startups, we don’t think the goal is to replace the teacher,” says Laster, the company’s chief digital officer. “We think education is inherently social, and that students need to learn from well-trained and well-versed teachers. But we also know that that time together, shoulder-to-shoulder, is more and more costly, and more and more precious.”

The role of the machine-learning software, in this view, is to automate all the aspects of the learning experience that can be automated, liberating the teacher to focus on what can’t.”

Two overarching ideas frame the conclusions of the article.

First: “In short, MIT digital learning scholar Justin Reich argues in a blog post for Education Week, computers “are good at assessing the kinds of things—quantitative things, computational things—that computers are good at doing. Which is to say that they are good at assessing things that we no longer need humans to do anymore.”

That reference suggests that the use of technology in education is limited. In contrast, however: “It would be a mistake, in criticizing today’s educational technology, to romanticize the status quo.

Those two ideas are near the end of the long article, and they capture the status of technology in education well. Digital learning is still in early stages relative to where it will be in a short time as the power of computers continues to grow quickly, and schools’ ability to use computers grows as well. Serious concerns remain, however, and nobody should believe that technology will be a panacea in the near future at least. But those who say that schools shouldn’t be trying to evolve in new and meaningful ways, and try new approaches, have to explain why they think the status quo is good enough.

Reflections on the iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium

The annual iNACOL conference wrapped up yesterday, and it’s worth noting some observations while they are fresh. One person’s experience in a conference with more than 3,000 people and over 200 sessions is a highly limited view—so all observations should be assumed to start with a “FWIW.”

  • iNACOL reports that this is the largest symposium ever, and it felt that way. It seemed that there were more new people, schools, and organizations attending and presenting than ever before. The mix of experienced people and organizations, and new attendees bringing fresh ideas, was energizing.
  • The Hechinger Report’s account of the conference gets this exactly right: “Unlike many other education technology conferences, the annual iNACOL symposium stands out for the sheer number of classroom-level participants. It’s an important audience. These are the people tasked with making the magic happen every day.” It’s not just teachers—in fact it’s probably more administrators than teachers—but they are often school-level leaders, or at the level in larger districts in which they are directly engaging with schools and classrooms.
  • One of the benefits of having so many first-time attendees is that their questions and comments reflect views that are common, but different than the views of people who have been involved with online and blended learning for many years. For example, during a session structured around audience-driven discussion, many in the audience first wanted to discuss academic integrity in online courses, and then how to decide between building versus acquiring online content. Both of these topics have been discussed at the iNACOL symposium since the first year of the conference more than a decade ago. But a small field must grow by constantly adding new people, so it’s going to take many more years of people asking the same questions. And of course this isn’t just a conference issue—questions that have been asked and answered repeatedly come up discussions among state legislatures, boards of education, and every level of K-12 education.
  • My favorite single moment was hearing this response, from Gisele Huff of the Hume Foundation, to the question (paraphrased) of “why did you take part in this attempt to find common ground between organizations with very differing views of education?” Answer: “I have an agenda and I wanted to protect it.” Gisele wasted no time—she never does—with anything other than getting to the point. Everyone has a set of biases based on their beliefs, values, and priorities, and it seems to me that most discussions and debates would be better off if everyone would start by stating their beliefs and biases. Of course it helps when one has full confidence and belief in her agenda, as Gisele does.

Kudos to Susan Patrick and everyone at iNACOL for running another highly successful conference!

OECD report looks at mixed results from using computers in education, stresses the need to get technology right

A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Students, Computers and Learning, questions the value of using computers in education. The report is illuminating and important, but some articles and blog posts covering the report, such as Time to close the laptops – and improve learning, get the key findings wrong. A closer look reveals why.

The OECD report compares PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores between countries with different levels of computer use. Among its findings are:

“…where computers are used in the classroom, their impact on student performance is mixed at best. Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And perhaps the most disappointing finding of the report is that technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Put simply, ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.”

This is an important report from a highly respected organization; these findings and the report’s recommendations should be considered by anyone advocating for or implementing an education technology initiative. But the analysis and recommendations are neither simple nor predictable.

“One interpretation of all this is that building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement. Another interpretation is that we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; that adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

If students use smartphones to copy and paste prefabricated answers to questions, it is unlikely to help them to become smarter. If we want students to become smarter than a smartphone, we need to think harder about the pedagogies we are using to teach them. Technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching.” (emphasis added)

In the foreword to the report, Andreas Schleicher, the Director of the Directorate for Education and Skills for OECD, says this:

“The findings must not lead to despair. We need to get this right in order to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st-century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world. Technology is the only way to dramatically expand access to knowledge. Why should students be limited to a textbook that was printed two years ago, and maybe designed ten years ago, when they could have access to the world’s best and most up-to-date textbook? Equally important, technology allows teachers and students to access specialized materials well beyond textbooks, in multiple formats, with little time and space constraints. Technology provides great platforms for collaboration in knowledge creation where teachers can share and enrich teaching materials. Perhaps most importantly, technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants with tools for inquiry-based pedagogies and collaborative workspaces.”

Despite some of the ways the report has been characterized, it does not suggest ending the use of computers in schools. Instead, it points out that technology can be used effectively, but that it often is not well implemented, and our understanding of how best to use technology is still evolving. Most educators already understand this, but still the report is a helpful reminder of the challenges facing teachers and schools that are using, or expanding their use of, technology.

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