EdTech, shorthand for “educational technology,” has a presence that extends beyond home computers and top universities. This shouldn’t come as a shock. Computers, tablets, and other advanced technology has become widely accepted as a part of daily life, and are now being incorporated into high school and middle school programs nationwide. 75 percent of teachers incorporate technology into their daily curriculum. EdTech is changing the lives of teachers and students in more ways than you would think, but the widespread adoption of tech faces many challenges and uphill battles.
What does a classroom look like in 2017?
We looked at four classrooms from Minnesota to Manhattan, and in every single one EdTech is making an impact at all levels of education.
Interestingly enough, they are doing so with similar hardware limitations. In Jason Blanshan’s classes of 7th-9th graders in the small rural town of Ortonville, MN they have both a one-to-one program and access to iPads via an "iPad cart". Taha Adib teaches 10th grade ELA at Democracy Prep High School in Harlem and uses a similar cart system for MacBooks. Sharing EdTech between classrooms is not uncommon.
Both Adib and Blanshan’s schools are implementing one-to-one initiatives. This means one school-provided device per student. Over 50 percent of teachers say they now have a 1:1 student-to-device ratio according to a 2017 survey. This usually means a Chromebook, in the case of Blanshan and another Minnesota school, Rodgers High School in the suburbs of Minneapolis. At Rodgers, students sign a four-year contract to rent and take the laptops home.
Most classrooms use a SMART Board, an interactive whiteboard. The SMART Board plays the same role as a whiteboard but the tech makes it easy to erase, switch between tabs, and organize information. For students, SMART Boards provide a source of tactile learning through interactivity. Live note taking on readings, solving equations, and filling out interactive worksheets as a class is just a handful of the ways SMART boards boost student engagement.
Readings can be found online, but mostly for non-textbook readings as textbooks are still used in many cases. Teachers assign homework and do all grade book work in a PowerSchool or equivalent grade keeping program.
Ryan Olson, a high school social studies teacher in Rodgers, MN, loves Schoology, a Learning Management System integrated with Google Docs to make resources more readily accessible.“I can create a Google doc and upload it to Schoology and it creates a copy for each student,” Olson said. “I also put all our learning materials I assigned [on Schoology].” Given how popular Google Suites, especially Docs, is in high school and middle school classrooms, this integration is crucial.
Programs like PowerSchool and Dean’s List bring teaching into the 21st century, and these are just a drop in the bucket of available EdTech. Adib uses GoFormative, a tool that turns PDFs into digital worksheets, to keep digital work organized and reflective of a physical worksheet. He also uses GoGuardian, which allows him to view and freeze students’ screens in order to focus attention towards the front of the room and to eliminate distractions. According to Adib, most students don’t find this invasive and “actually really like it,” specifically the function where he can control the student’s screen in order to explain a problem they may be having difficulties with.
Sarah Nordgren teaches fourth grade at a Manhattan elementary school for students with language-based learning disabilities. She uses Elmo, a document video camera that acts as a stand-in for the projector transparencies of old. With Elmo, any piece of paper you put on the screen (RIP transparent sheets), you can write on. This allows the students to follow Nordgren’s train of thought and hand as she writes, while allowing for an adaptable lesson plan.
The Changing Role of the Teacher
“The district expects us to be at a point where if school is cancelled, school should still go on,” Olson said. “Snow days are online learning days.”
At Rogers High School, Schoology and the presence of online assignments and resources are transforming the traditional role the classroom plays in the learning experience. The elimination of snow days in Olson’s district may be alarming if you’re a student (no more impatiently waiting for that announcement the day after a storm), but as a teacher, it seems indicative of the change that must come moving forward.
“It’s more important to be curating content so that students can absorb it, rather than getting up and talking about definitions of terms.“ Olson added, specifically citing his role as a social studies teacher. “It’s no longer important to know the capital of Egypt when you can Google that from anywhere you are in the world.”
When everything is Google-able, the role of social studies and science is no longer in just teaching the facts, but teaching research skills, media literacy, and identifying bias.
Since computer labs have existed in schools, students have been ‘taught’ research skills by being directed towards academic resources and away from Wikipedia. Carefully curating what students read and watch in the classroom is a great way to show them examples of bias while still showing appropriate content. This goes beyond simply teaching keyword skills in a database.
Some more specialized methods of teaching could not exist without EdTech. Sarah Nordgren’s students fall into this category. Dyslexia and ADHD are the most well-known of these type of language based learning disabilities. Nordgren uses the Orton Gillingham approach by following the program “Preventing Academic Failure” which emphasizes multisensory learning. Multisensory learning involves the use of visual, auditory, and tactile methods simultaneously to enhance learning. The key to this program, and teaching her group of students, is taking each day at the student’s pace, ensuring total comprehension before moving on to a different subject.
“Tech is essential, because everyday we are changing our lessons. The degree to which they understood it informs what I teach the next day.” Nordgren said. “Teachers used to have to plan so far ahead and it wasn’t changeable. I can be brainstorming different ideas for compositions and I can be typing it into the notebook as the students talk to me, it can be efficient and quick and malleable.”
Social media is perhaps the biggest influence on today’s students that didn’t exist 15 years ago. School is a place to not just learn in the classroom, but to learn how to be a part of a community. Teaching citizenship through social media is a difficult subject for educators.
“Ways we reinforce social norms in elementary school is a way of teaching people how to act towards other people, “ Olson said. “Schools are in a position where they are behind on how to address those things. We don’t think about it in a public health way.”
Olson addresses how bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse have not gone away. Educators have always addressed the problem and never the symptom when it comes to cases of fighting online abuse. He informed me of the #FreeReid controversy.
In 2014 at Rogers High School a student, Senior Reid Sagehorn, responded to an anonymous tweet about kissing a female gym teacher, with a sarcastic “actually, yes”. This resulted in his suspension, and an investigation into the teacher in question that could have potentially led to her release. It also sparked the #FreeReid campaign on Twitter, where students protested the school’s choice of suspension for the honor roll student and football team captain. While the campaign itself seemed ill conceived, and may have been interpreted much differently in 2017, the result is still that by your senior year of high school, there should be programs in place to teach what can and cannot be said on social media. It’s not a free speech issue; bad social media citizenship can affect the lives and careers of both students and teachers involved. Some schools are beginning to implement programs that teach this at a young age.
“We use a program called ‘Responsive Classroom’, Nordgren said of teaching social skills to her fourth graders. “We talk about social media and how to use it appropriately and how to stay safe and report to adults. Honestly, a lot of adults could use it.”
The Problem: Tech is built for consumers, not schools
Many of these schools received initial shipments of devices through donors or grants. But even a few years down the road, the true problem is coming to light. Tech gets outdated way too fast. These devices are made to keep consumers replacing their gadgets every other year — something more difficult for school districts.
“Our school just went through a referendum. We went to ask for money. It passed last Tuesday.” Blanshan said. “If that had not passed, we would not have been able to sustain [our one to one program]. We’ve been running in the red, dipping into the emergency balance.”
This is what happens when a small school district cannot afford getting new iPads every few years. Blanshan describes that their iPads are “from the stone age.” The software stops working, the devices begin crashing and the conveniences of EdTech begin to get outweighed by the inconvenience of dying, unsustainable tech.
Even Democracy Prep — a private institution with a reputation and financial backing — operates on the same cart system as Ortonville’s public high school. The rate at which technology needs to be replaced is increasing exponentially. Regardless of budget, this is a factor school boards ten years ago didn’t have to worry about. And, especially for public schools, our government isn’t exactly focusing on funding educational programs.
Is The EdTech Future Here?
While many things look different from when I was in high school five years ago, we are still grappling with understanding the role of technology in the classroom.
Not all technology is considered equal in the eyes of educators. Smartphones are universally frowned upon, some schools requiring students to turn them in at the beginning of the day. At the very least most teachers punish their use, especially in classrooms where students are using laptops for educational purposes — phones are an unnecessary distraction.
And yes, traditionalists, many classrooms still do use pencil and paper for many tasks, for a variety of reasons that enforce the ways technology cannot easily replace these staples of education. For Sarah Nordgren’s students, and learning disabled students across the country, reading physical texts are easier than reading off a screen. She still uses workbooks for math.
“For the most part we use pen and paper,” said Taha Adib, citing the cumbersome nature of unpacking, logging in, and booting up laptops as a barrier to using them for every single exercise within the limitations of a class session.
Right now there is no safe and secure way to streamline this process. It is the convenience that drives the appeal of EdTech. Taking notes in a notebook is more convenient for students, while online gradebooks are more convenient for teachers. Classrooms are not using technology for the novelty of it, but because it makes classroom processes more efficient. Both teachers and students must adjust to this, but it is in service of creating a future where students have access to better resources and learning strategies.