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Ed-Tech Supporters Promise Innovations That Can Transform Schools. Teachers Not Seeing Impact

Training, experimentation lacking

Apr 23, 2019

By Benjamin Herold

The following article is an excerpt from that published in Education Week, April 23, 2019.

Despite continued hype, K-12 educators remain skeptical that new technologies will transform public schooling or dramatically improve teaching and learning.

That's according to a new, nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center. Fewer than one-third of America's teachers said ed-tech innovations have changed their beliefs about what school should look like. Less than half said such advances have changed their beliefs about how to improve students' academic outcomes. And just 29 percent felt strongly that ed-tech supports innovation in their own classrooms.

"Most ed-tech is pretty conservative, in the sense that it meets an existing need, not a future-oriented vision," Mehta said. "It's not surprising that teachers don't see such tools as fundamentally changing their views about what schools should be doing and how students should be learning."

Still, the tepid beliefs about the role of education technology are likely to raise eyebrows, in part because they are so deeply at odds with the messages coming from the ed-tech industry. In countless marketing campaigns, companies have billed everything from Chromebooks to the latest virtual-reality tools as innovative ways to create incredible new learning experiences for students…

In the business world, for example, experts say distributed leadership, a culture of experimentation, and lots of training and support are often the difference between a new technology collecting dust or ushering in a game-changing way of working.

Those are lessons that some K-12 leaders…have started to learn. The benefits include an appropriate emphasis on maintenance, sustainability, and evidence of effectiveness, all of which are often lacking in schools.

Too often, though, such low-key efforts are ignored in favor of headline-grabbing promises that later fade away. For educators, the results include innovation fatigue and a mounting cynicism about technology's long-term potential to improve schooling…

From television to desktop computers to classroom clickers, there's a long history of teachers using new technologies to fit their established practices, rather than new technologies totally changing what teachers do.


A Surprisingly Static Technology Ecosystem

 Ed-Tech article Chart A

That kind of incremental innovation appears to apply to new digital tools, as well.

In its survey, for example, the Education Week Research Center asked 700 U.S. pre-K-12 teachers about the most innovative way they've used technology. The most frequent responses involved using digital tools to spice up existing activities and assignments—gamifying lessons with quiz app Kahoot!, perhaps, or using Google Slides to add a digital component to classroom presentations.

After that first, basic shift, attempts to innovate often seem to sputter.

Fewer than half the teachers surveyed said they have meaningfully changed the ways they use digital devices, learning apps, or instructional software over the past three years. Just 16 percent said they've meaningfully changed how they use other technology hardware.

Experts say there are a couple ways to make sense of such trends.


Tepid Belief in the Power of Technology

 Ed-Tech article Chart B

…public school districts are generally compliance-based bureaucracies. Decisions are made at the top, then reinforced by layers of supervisors and managers who view their primary responsibility as making sure the people below them avoid mistakes, Goldsmith said. Teachers are given little autonomy and support to innovate on their own.

Big structural factors are also at play. Standardized-test-based accountability systems and schools' notoriously slow purchasing cycles, for example, both inhibit the kind of rapid iteration and continuous-improvement cycles that many private businesses now prefer.

And then there's new research from the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that teachers are significantly more risk-averse than workers in other fields.