In the beginning, educator technology usage may not be very pretty

Joe Bower asked if showing teachers how to make self-graded quizzes for students using Google Docs had any value. Specifically, he said:

When technology is used to accelerate the worst forms of pedagogy, we should all cringe, turn and run away.

And those who endorse this crap should be ashamed of themselves…

He said in a later post that


JourneyI actually like Joe’s pithy phrase a lot but, as I said in my comment:

we usually have to give people the time and space to transition from old practices to new. This usually means that new uses of technology look very much at the beginning like old educational practices but with a few more bells and whistles – what Bernajean Porter likely would call ‘Adapting Uses’ rather than ‘Transforming Uses’ [see].

So do the examples you show transform educational practice – or move us to better practice? No, probably not. But they may be a necessary first step toward something better? (and may make teachers more efficient, freeing up some time for them along the way)

When I’m invited to speak somewhere, I tell educators that I see (at least) two big transitions ahead of us. First, there is a tremendous need for us to move more of students’ day-to-day work up the cognitive ladder so that it more often encompasses higher-level thinking skills. Second, we need to recognize that we no longer live in an analog, notebook paper world and that schools should be pulling these digital technologies – which are radically transforming every other information-oriented societal segment – into our learning-teaching processes in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and (hopefully) powerful.

These transitions will be heroic journeys – epic changes – rather than ‘snap your fingers and they happen’ events. But what do we do while we’re making these transitions?

If teachers are engaging in instructional behaviors that we might consider less desirable, does showing them how to do those more efficiently with technology help them transition out of those practices or reinforce the status quo? Does introducing the technology tools potentially open the door to better practice or does it simply further solidify current practice? Do we hook technology onto what they already know and do – even if it’s not the greatest pedagogy – with the end goal of getting to a different place, or do we reject those practices and advocate immediately for something new and different?

Image credit: Wanderer

36 Responses to “In the beginning, educator technology usage may not be very pretty”

  1. In workshops and elsewhere, I like to suggest that we need to recognize our role as the generation who did technology badly.

    But if no one takes those brave stumbling first steps, running will never be possible.

  2. I have used many digital tools and gadgets for learning and teaching. Sometimes they have been poor examples of pedagogy but as a learner I have also grown with experience. I am now able to focus on using these tools in ways that engage and embrace 21st century learning.

    Also I liked the self-graded quizzes, I can think of many way they can be used positively. They also show someone who thinks about how we could use these many tools for learning. That is what being a 21st century learner is all about.

  3. Very well said. As a school board trustee who is, well, “digitally infatuated” as a friend put it, I was feeling some frustration that more teachers and administrators don’t “get” the technology. Now I have come to a place similar to the one described in this post. My hope is that as teachers collaborate and learn from their peers, this will come. People have to get there on their own. Just keep planting seeds: the seeds will sprout.

    And then there’s the kids. I heard a story from a parent the other day. Her 14-year-old daughter was complaining that the technology tool her teacher was trying to teach them was “hopelessly outdated. Mom, me and my friends quit using that 3 months ago!” ;-). That push-back will have an effect too.

    I think we also have an advantage in Alberta, in that the province seems to be an early adopter of tech initiatives. That will also pay off.

    Lastly, people who poke the bear (like Joe Bower) and people who plant seeds (like me) are both needed to get us where we need to be.

  4. I think it is a very slippery slope when we begin pigeonholing “worst” and “best” pedagogies. They all have their place. I have seen very effective direct instruction and very ineffective project-based learning. Of course, I have seen the reverse as well.

    To me, “poor pedagogy” is ANY pedagogy that is ineffectively operationalized.

  5. People have to start somewhere and when you start often you are using the tool mechanically, over time you start to understand the innovation and start to incorporate the innovative part of the tool. People who introduce technology have to be constantly aware that teachers are at different stages of their understanding and use of a tool and both challenge and support that learning by teachers.

  6. I am in the middle of my career (assuming I can work for the next 20 years) and I am consuming as much information about technology as I possibly can. Our students are part of a digital nation, and we will not help them to compete in the new world order unless we embrace the change ourselves. I have incorporated a variety of new technology into my classroom like blogs, online grammar sites that correct work immediately, and wikis. Some of this worked well and some, well, as the title says, was not that pretty.

    What I have learned is that we do not have to embrace EVERY new form of technology to come down the cyber super highway. Not all of it is going to make students better learners or help them to learn content more thoroughly. We need to be discriminating and choose the tools that will work for the group sitting in front of us. I can teach the same course for three years in a row, using the same books and use different Web 2.0 tools each year because the groups of learners are different and have different needs, not that the material is any different.

    At the end of the day, my job is to help students learn content that will help them compete for jobs in later years. Sometimes that will mean using new tools to do “old” work, but that is because the “old” work is actually still relevant and important. Sometimes that will mean doing different projects that ultimately have the same end goal as paper and pencil work. That is not wrong, in my opinion, as the result will be a stronger student.

  7. While it is true that we all have to start somewhere, this statement really doesn’t help us to get where we want to go.

    Where we start is important, and if an educator is encouraged to see technology as a perpetrator of the status quo, aren’t we pushing them in the wrong direction? Couldn’t we aspire for something better than that?

    @Steve Ransom: You’re definition of poor pedagogy (ANY pedagogy that is ineffectively operationalized) concerns me. Are you saying that as long as a pedagogy is instituted “properly” and is operationally effective and efficient to accomplish whatever it’s inherent goals are then it is good pedagogy? I hope I’m misunderstanding your definition…

    I think one of the comments on my blog to this discussion summarizes the “make more time” argument:

    “These types of programs are so appealing to those in control of education because it provides data and fast. It won’t free up time because there will be just more of it to come.”

  8. @Joe,
    I find your concern of my statement somewhat elitist. Are you suggesting that there is a hierarchy of pedagogy, ranging for bad to good? Are you saying that, for example, all direct instruction is bad and that all constructivist-based instruction is good, regardless of all of the mitigating variables?

    What I am suggesting is that any pedagogy does not exist in a vacuum. It requires effective operationalizing, and that any choice of pedagogy must match the intended goals.

    If you want to get someone across a chasm that may divide two extremes of pedagogy, telling them to just jump is not always the most effective strategy. Yes, we all have to start where we are at… and aspire for greater things. People have varying capacities for how far and how quickly they are going to move. You can bemoan this fact all you want, but it isn’t going to change. You can whip them if you’d like, but it’s not going to work. Some will require teasing and coaxing.

    But perpetrator of the status quo? I don’t always make the best decisions… or the most effective ones. I’m human. I try to learn from what I do and see and observe in others. When I fail or make a less-than optimal choice, I don’t ever think I am a perpetrator of the status quo.

    I do most certainly agree, though, that many have the intentional goal of preserving the status quo. That is most certainly something quite different and counterproductive to the goal of seeing technology as transformative and powerful.

  9. @Steve,

    Not all pedagogies are born equal. Nor are they relative.

    Have you read Young Children Reinvent Arithmetic by Constance Kamii?

    Here’s a taste:

  10. From your linked post: “If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

    No one [here] is arguing for this, Joe. The blatant ignoring of developmentally appropriate practice here in this analogy is astounding.

    I am most certainly not trying to support or justify a primarily behaviorist paradigm of learning. It’s my hunch that neither are those who you label with the scarlet letter of “perpetrator of status quo”. They, too, may just need a supportive, learner-centered climate in which to re-evaluate practices and beliefs as they take some new risks and re-discover the joy of learning.

  11. I agree with Joe Bires. We do have to start somewhere and this is the generation that is revolved around technology. The reason why many people dislike the idea of update is because it may take them awhile to learn it. Even though it takes time to learn new things, it will benefit you in the long run. Teachers are supposed to be role models as life long learners.

  12. Are we as forgiving of University Professors and their integration of technology as an elementary teacher?

    Scott, I wrote a bit of response to some of your questions at the end of your post.

  13. If we hook technology onto teachers poor pedagogy, we have made the unfortunate jump to “the technology IS the point”. If this happens, what the hell is the point?

    Larry Cuban is in the process of analyzing 10 years of data comparing a school before it went 1:1 and then after. His preliminary discussions seem to suggest the tech is just used to reinforce the old. Guess the technology isn’t quite as transformational as we would like to think.

    • Cuban’s conclusions are likely the result of his studying of its effects in a school. The biggest problem with this is a misconception that schools have a monopoly on learning. The other problem is that for 1:1 to be effective, as Cuban points out, all teachers and administrators have to be on board with shaking the pedagogical tree and willing to shed long-held preconceived notions and myths of what and what is not good practice. This is very difficult to do with a system ruled largely by hereditary thought. If new institutions of learning were created around the technology another problem would arise in that you cannot do a before and after study since there would not be anything to compare the after to. A better approach would be to collect anecdotal and qualitative examples of learning accelerated or transformed by technology (in school or out) and use that data to inform practice.

  14. @Jerrid

    True, if we simply continue poor teaching practices with new bells and whistles, then we’re just putting a new shine on something long past its prime, like a worthless car with a new paint job. New fonts and cute pictures on assignment sheets don’t make kids learn better. However, some disciplines do lend themselves to using new tech to reinforce old goals. Writing a narrative is still an important part of an English curriculum. Students will still complete the same assignment, but will now maybe publish it to a blog, so their audience increases exponentially. They will invite dialogue from others, thus expanding their own understandings. This seems a good combination of both doing things differently while also doing something different. Combining this assignment with other tech tools would also be beneficial, but what then is the purpose of the assignment? To work on narrative writing skills or to use Web 2.0 tools? Or both?

    • absolutely. Tech can and should be used to enhance the good things we already do, but if tech becomes the goal, there is a problem. One of scott’s questions hints at tech being the goal. The question about hooking tech on bad pedagogy. We should probably address the bad pedagogy first, then add the tech.

  15. I agree with Steve: I have seen really effective direct instruction– often done as a delivery of “the basics” of a topic, thus freeing everyone to get on to more exciting, individualized material sooner. Many lessons are a mixture of old, new, whole-class, individual… whatever. Kids don’t all need the same strategies, anymore than they all need the same numbing page of fill-in-the-blank exercises. And I have seen project-based instruction that was nothing short of a cop-out by the teacher to turn kids loose & hope they learn. They will, of course, but it may not be related to what you claimed to be teaching!

    Clarity about the purpose of a lesson is absolutely the central starting point. Knowing your kids is also crucial. And these priorities haven’t changed, even when everything else seems fluid.

    BTW: I also find it amusing that the splashy ad in the upper right corner of this page is for an online drill & kill math site. Talk about perpetrating! I guess it’s an imperfect world, eh?

  16. Carl is correct:
    “A better approach would be to collect anecdotal and qualitative examples of learning accelerated or transformed by technology (in school or out) and use that data to inform practice.”

    If we continue to evaluate technology as it is integrated into our current education structure we will be forever disappointed at the results.

    “all teachers and administrators have to be on board with shaking the pedagogical tree and willing to shed long-held preconceived notions and myths of what and what is not good practice.”
    Trying to get everyone to do anything in a system that is as loosely connected as classrooms in a school is difficult and trying to foster stronger connections between school and classroom goals (aka “standards”) just fosters greater resistance. Rather we need whole new structures that are technology infused that foster learning rather than instruction.

    • Shouldn’t the school goal be to foster learning rather than instruction?

    • Joe, you make great points regarding the quotes you posted. I am lucky to work in a district that really promotes infusion of tech into classroom instruction. I’ve been surprised by the number of people in my district who might still be resistant and the reasons are always the same. Not enough time, not enough resources, doubt about effectiveness. Another big problem we are facing is the threat of merit pay based on student performance. You can be sure that if a teacher’s job is on the line, the pedagogy she will lean to will be the most efficient means of getting the content across to the greatest number of students. Teaching to a test will become the goal and anything new or interesting or risky will be forgotten. We need strong state-backed initiatives that allow teachers to be daring and try to bring in tech as much as possible.

  17. @Esme
    It should do both.

  18. School should be fostering learning. I think we have moved from the role of instructors to faciliators of learning. It is not enough to plug what we have been doing into technology and consider it integrated technology. These new digital tools should create new instructional strategies. The problem I see (at least around me) is that no one has stopped to teach the teachers. The teachers with whom I work with who expose their students to digital tools are the one’s learning it on their own. Amazingly, it seems that the teachers who are upfront about learning it along with the students seem to be the most successful.

    • Meg, you nailed it. There is no time to teach the teachers technology and use of the tools. Seems to me, teachers are teaching each other and sometimes the kids and teachers are learning together. Isn’t that part of a new paradigm?

  19. @Meg and @Esme

    I do agree that schools should be fostering an atmosphere of learning, that is, helping students to understand that learning goes beyond the classroom or a particular assignment. Teachers should foster inquiry. However, schools cannot stop instructing, and some instructional strategies are still okay. We may be speaking about different ages. Younger students obviously need direct instruction about specific topics, do they not? But once the topic has been presented, good pedagogy would ask students to determine a line of inquiry related and then allow them to go with it. This may also include directly instructing students about Web 2.0 tools, though.

    I have begun to work on professional development that will teach me about certain Web tools because I found that the most efficient way to learn the tools I will need to help my students grow as learners. I did this because I am not given enough time at school. Often my students do teach me.

  20. I have been teaching for five years now and it is becoming very obvious to me that my students are becoming more and more advanced in their use and understanding of technnology. I do not beleive that I as a teacher can master all forms of new technology available in the classroom, but it is my responsiblitly to stay as current as possible. It is the responsiblity of the school system to offer new technology and training to its teachers so that they may challenge their students in new and different ways. Students have been inundated with technology for most of their lives effectivly making them fearless with new forms of technology. Compare that with teachers who are afraid of most forms of new technology and you have a problem.

    • Mike, you have a good point. But what if we give a training session & nobody who really needs it comes? I am the Tech Integrator in our small independent school. The 2 of us in the IT dept have tried after school sessions rotating through the days of the week… Saturdays… it’s never convenient for those who need it most. It’s true, others eagerly take us up on every offering. But does anyone have a flash of illumination for reaching that stubborn remnant?

      • Lin,

        As someone who also is trying to reach often-reluctant audiences (in my case, administrators), this quote from Seth Godin resonates deeply with me:

        If your target audience isn’t listening, it’s your fault, not theirs.

        In other words, if they’re not buying what we’re selling, we have to reframe the sales pitch. Have you ever asked them ‘What would it take to get you to … ?’

  21. @MikeRuark mentions that our students have been inundated with technology their entire lives. This is a very important point because in most cases our students are more tech savvy than their teachers are. Our world has changed to the extent that traditional teaching no longer prepares students for life beyond the classroom. Whereas our parents were prepared for the world upon acquiring a traditional ‘text book’ education, today’s students will be grossly underprepared if limited to this same type of education. Technology is not going away and it is the responsibility of educators to guide their students toward the ethical, responsible, and productive use of it. I do not agree that technology in and of itself is the goal. Rather, technology is the conduit through which students should be learning about their world and their place within it. There are many fantastic ways in which technology can automate teaching, but the focus should be on collaborating with students in innovative; teaching them to interact with their peers; both locally and globally.

  22. @Lin Jenkins: I attended an informal workshop that was really helpful. It was put on by the school district for municipal candidates and school board trustee hopefuls on how to use social media to campaign. People of all levels of tech/internet savvy showed up and in a highly interactive, but somehow personalized session, I learned a ton. The presenter asked lots of questions of the group and really listened to the answers. Perhaps a workshop where the main topic seems like it isn’t tech (as in this case, winning an election) might work? Less intimidating? I find I have lots of gaps in my knowledge – I see other folks doing things, think “That’s cool.” but I am embarrassed to ask because, a day later, it seems like everyone knows how to do it. So I try to figure it out myself. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I ask my kids;-). Perhaps open up such sessions to parents, or the community. When the recalcitrant group you speak of, sees how much they learned, and how comfortable it was, it might help? Like student-centred learning? Ask them what they want to know.

  23. Scott,
    As it happens– yes, I have. I’ve seen and bought into Seth’s quote. In fact, asking them formed most of my MS research. (; n=48 of 60 FT faculty members so far)

    Having asked when, for how long, with what incentives, etc., we (my department of 2) are trying to be guided by the results. This month we offered 2 possible topics, based on comments we got over the last few weeks, & the one that got 5 votes first was the one we offered. It does not follow that those 5 folks showed up, though.

    I also teach, so I know that some of the “excuses” are entirely valid (coaching, department meetings, etc…). That’s one reason we offer the training sessions weekly, not monthly, and on a rotating basis. There’s always a “last adopters” contingent, though: teachers who still use their desktop as their primary document storage place and tell the kids not to bother with print preview, because it’s too complicated. etc. Some of these people are caring, dedicated, and beloved teachers, open to all kinds of experiential learning. (As a school, experiential learning is our strongest suit.) Alas, they’re also tech-phobes. I can sit down one-on-one, and help with a given crisis, but that crisis will recur and that teacher will be back, a little abashed, but no further. I suppose I could cut them loose & stop “enabling,” but other than that (and I hate the idea)– I’m stumped. And open to suggestions!

    (Esmé– happily, we do also have faculty members who are excited to open up new ideas if there’s scaffolding there for them: middle school teachers using blogging instead of written lit log responses, or Spanish teachers assigning 5th year classes to read articles from a different Spanish language newspaper online & write responses to the editor. Lots of very cool stuff. Seeing how comfortable others were can sometimes be even more threatening; I hear “I know my partner got it & she loves it and would even help me–but I can’t learn that stuff.” (A response which I know for a fact she would not accept from a kid!) Opening workshops to parents et al…. interesting idea!

    • I wonder if you could get them to sign something. For example, you could say, “You said you wanted [insert topic here]. Great! Here’s what we have for you. What date/time would be good for you? Great! Please sign this commitment form (or whatever you want to call it) and we’ll remind you a couple of times closer to the date. Thanks so much! Looking forward to it!” Or something like that…

      The idea would be to get them to affirmatively – in writing – put their name down for a specific topic of their choosing at a specific date/time that they said worked for them. This would be different than them simply expressing general interest in some topic at some date/time to be determined later. Somehow you have to get them to have some ‘skin’ in the game, some feeling of obligation for attendance. Once you have that, then they feel guilty if they don’t show?

  24. @Lin, as a tech lead teacher in my former life, I found the best way to address reluctant colleagues was to engage them in casual conversation first. When they thought I was going to nag them (not saying you do) about what they could/should be doing in their classrooms, they were automatically defensive. Generally they avoided me entirely. I don’t know if you are working shoulder to shoulder with your reluctant staff, but perhaps an impromptu visit to a staff room at lunch to get to know people before asking them to come in for sessions might make a difference. No one really wants to give up their free time, but if you establish a relationship with them first, they are likely to be more agreeable to extracurricular sessions.

    Techno-phobes don’t feel safe enough to ask questions, right? But once they feel there is a relationship in place, or a positve rapport has been established, they will feel safe enough to come to a session. Hopefully they will be more likely to talk about what they would like to learn too. Once they have attended a session or two, they might be more inclined to try to do some different things with their students, things they never before would have dreamed possible.

  25. All– I seem to have hijacked the thread & I apologize. Though I really value the dialog, so I’m reluctant to withdraw!

    @Scott– Contracts: that’s a great idea, & I have proposed it to my colleague; thanks!

    @Deanna– I was a classroom teacher here for several years & the tech lab where I hang my coat is across from the teacher workroom. Plus, my room has both networked printers– and the chocolate stash! (I learned this technique from my husband, an associate dean who says he advocates for management by chocolate.) I interact with some of these teachers constantly, as well as seeing their kids for tech classes. It’s a small faculty, and I think we have a generally easy and positive relationship as people. Our school has even implemented a requirement that each teacher have a technology goal this year. And I must admit that many of my coworkers have made real strides, to their own gratification and mine; but we still have that last few, the ones who seem to have given up on their own ability to learn. I liked your comment that “technology is the conduit through which students should be learning about their world and their place within it.” I agree. I think teachers need to become one conduit through which the kids meet and master those tools.

  26. By the way, my sig file reads “Technology is a tool, not a discipline. Nobody sends their kids to the pencil teacher.”

  27. I’m always fascinated that some people strive to ‘poke the bear’ in order to further the conversation and how some people ‘poke the bear’ only to tout the infallibility of their own positions.

    Together, we create wisdom from the ‘bumping’ together of ideas… providing we are willing to let those ideas change once they are released into the conversation.

    @Joe, while you have some ideas worth considering, if you aren’t willing to engage with and consider the ideas of others, then coming here to ‘push’ your ideas at the expense of others is a rather narrow perspective… Anybody in education who can claim to be able to categorize other’s practice as “crap” (your phrase, not mine) might be well-advised to revisit the old rocks… glass houses meme.

    Just sayin’.

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