How Teachers Can Best Use Tech

By: Tom Vander Ark and Fredrick M. Hess
How Teachers Can Best Use Tech first appeared on on January 9, 2014.
Technology is creating a revolution that could profoundly improve our schools, but getting digital learning right is more about the planning than the purchase order. Education beats across the country have been speckled with nightmarish headlines about education technology failures in schools: big iPad acquisitions gone awry, melted chargers, broken screens, and students accessing social media on their school-granted devices. It seems like we haven’t had a lot to cheer about when it comes to digital learning. But who is really to blame here?
Of course, safety, security, and smooth execution of device roll-outs are important, but implementation glitches are to be expected when a school introduces any new system — both as devices need improving and as students, teachers, and administrators acclimate to using new technology.
Vilifying education technology is the wrong lesson. Technology is not the problem; what’s more important is how schools plan to use it.
It’s a huge mistake for schools to focus on acquiring more, or fancier, technology. Bulk purchases of tablets, smartboards, or handhelds alone won’t improve education. Technology is not a magic recipe for school improvement. Schools instead need to identify an educational problem and decide whether a new technology would address it. Technology should be a tool for teachers, students, and parents to do their work better.
For example, if students need more assistance, computer-assisted tutoring may help. If students need access to courses not available at school, virtual courses may help. If some students would benefit from rapid diagnosis and feedback, automated assessment may help.
There are four keys to helping schools maximize the educational opportunities that new technologies provide:
1. Establish clear goals for what students should know and be able to do. While conversations about technology often start with wish lists (“wouldn’t it be great to buy 1,000 iPads?”), buying devices should be the last thing on the list.
2. Focus on the educational problem that needs to be solved. Are teachers not getting enough coaching? Are advanced students feeling stifled in math or science?
3. Explore how technology can help solve those problems, perhaps by changing the assumptions of the old environment. Rather than assuming that schools can only provide tutoring if they’re able to recruit enough adults to pair up with students or staff in an in-school program, it’s possible to use online, computer-assisted tutoring to radically expand the pool of potential support. Teachers might get more coaching from virtual mentors, or they could record classes and get feedback from a faculty coach.
4. Rethink how funds are spent as new technologies create new opportunities to instruct, support, and assess, rendering some old expenditures unnecessary or duplicative (old-style textbooks, anyone?) while recommending new outlays.
This approach shouldn’t be a burden, it should be a breath of fresh air to educators frustrated by routines and rules that waste their time, temper their impact, and limit their ability to put their expertise and insights to work.
Districts like Mooresville, North Carolina, and Danville, Kentucky, have rethought instruction, the teaching job, and classroom culture, and used technology to turbocharge those changes. These districts and networks have clear goals and engaged teachers. Indeed, their teacher satisfaction figures are terrific, as is student attendance and interest. Mooresville has the second-lowest spending among 115 North Carolina school districts and was recently named the best school district in America by Scholastic.
We are in the early years of a learning revolution that has the potential to profoundly improve the reach and quality of American schooling. However, getting digital learning right is more about the planning than the purchase order. It’s not about the technology, but about what we do with it.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and coauthor of the new book, Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age. Tom Vander Ark is CEO of Getting Smart and author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World.
See how an underachieving district has been extraordinarily transformed in “Miracle in Mooresville: How One School District Defied the Odds.”
FURTHER READING: With Kerri Briggs, Hess also writes “Still Waiting for Superman: The School Leaders We Need.” Hess coauthors “Common Core: A Slippery Slope” with Michael Q. McShane and “How to Use Technology in Education” with Bror Saxberg. Edward Tenner contributes “Higher Education’s Internet Revolution.” Lise Eliot asks “Should Single-Sex Education Be Eliminated?”

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment


HBR took an opposing view; i.e. vilifying traditional education programs - Curious what you think.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.