Introduction to Education Technology and Education Reform
The impact of educational technology on education reform is still in play as the system clings to a paradigm ill-suited to the 21st century. Over 20 years ago, Trilling and Hood (1999) advised educators to “remember education in the U.S. is firmly lodged in a political process where it is far easier to secure support for quick fixes that attack symptoms than it is to find the political will to confront the root ailment of an elaborate education structure designed for an age that just passed.” This slow movement from the Information Age to the Digital Age might have continued if not for the pandemic. COVID-19 radically disturbed our educational paradigm as most elementary school, middle school, and high school students were sent home to learn remotely. Administrators, teachers, parents, and students have been thrust into an inescapable paradigm shift and forced to examine the role of technology in education reform.
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Overview of Educational Technology
Educational technology has its roots in WWII military training when U.S. forces harnessed the power of technology to quickly train men and women using the most efficient and effective means. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that ed tech entered U.S. classrooms with the introduction of computers into schools (Solomon, 2015). Educators weren’t sure why or how to use them in the classroom, but their potential to upset the current status of education and offer new dimensions to teaching and learning piqued the imagination of innovative teachers and administrators.
One of the first organizations to recognize the potential of technology to change the educational paradigm was the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Formed in 1979 under the name the International Council for Computers in Education, its initial focus was on teaching students how to use computers to enter “an onramp to the ‘information superhighway'” (Sykora, 2015). In 2007, the next iteration of the standards tipped the focus from learning technology skills to using computers to learn. In 2018, the most recent standards were released with a focus on equity, digital citizenship, team and systems building, continuous improvement, and professional growth.
In an announcement of the standards, Curt Mould, Director of Digital Media, Innovation and Strategy for Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin, stated: “The world our students are walking into is increasingly global and diverse — and technology is often the leverage point needed to bring global and diverse ideas together. In this regard, technology can be a game-changer in our schools. We need a new plan to help operationalize our work for the long-term benefit of our students” (as cited in Passat, 2018). Most educators looking forward could see the profound impact of technology on student learning and the advancement of learning outcomes.
In the 1980s, the most popular computers in schools were made by Apple Computer, IBM Corp., Tandy/Radio Shack, and Commodore. Then, in the 1990s, technical innovation completed the shift from print to digital with the introduction of a wide range of digital tools, including:
- Multimedia computers (1990s)
- CD-ROMs and DVDs (1990s)
- Interactive whiteboards (1990s)
- World Wide Web (1995)
- Mobile and other digital devices
Many different tools played a role in bringing technology from the world of business to the classroom. However, the effort to integrate technology into schools and harness its power to reform education largely depended on the growth of education software and the extension of the 2D library to the 3D universe of the internet. As ed tech became more popular and online delivery more accessible, online learning opportunities grew.
For example, Let’s Go Learn (LGL) designed and delivered adaptive online diagnostics with realtime reporting to assist teachers in aligning a student’s level of learning in math and language arts with a particular grade level. Teachers could then begin to individualize classroom learning with a focus on learning gaps and ongoing progress. LGL continued to meet the demands of educators for powerful individual learning tools with lessons developed using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for all students, particularly students with disabilities.
For over 20 years, Let's Go Learn has been offering best-in-class, personalized assessments in reading and math. See for yourself!More info...
Learning Games and Productivity Tools Push Computers into Schools
Educational games such as Oregon Trail, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego, and Math Blaster offered teachers and students the opportunity to reinforce objectives and develop critical and creative thinking skills aligned to learning standards and lesson plans. With their innate ability to drive intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and their apparent effectiveness in skill-building, educational games were pulled into classrooms. Gamified learning became a staple of active learning.
Productivity tools also entered the environment. Microsoft delivered products that changed communication along with mathematical processes and calculations: MS Word (1983) and MS Excel (1987). Apple was gifted with a hypermedia application, Hypercard, with the mandate that it be offered to educators for no cost. Tech-savvy teachers used it to create new learning experiences, “ranging from interactive stories and dinosaur databases to hypermedia applications involving audio and video as well as computer text and graphics” (Bull & Harris, 1991).
Email became a popular communication tool as more households and businesses adopted personal computers. Between 1996 and 2004, four services emerged: MS Internet Mail and News (1996), Hotmail (1996), Yahoo Mail (1997), and Gmail (2004). Language arts teachers began to incorporate different formats for written communication as the internet became available to schools and technology integration flourished.
From online books to digital portfolios, from individualized reporting to online courses and game-based learning, educational technology was set to disrupt the paradigm for K-12 education in the U.S.
One of the biggest changes brought about by educational technology relates to the evolving role of the teacher in the classroom. In the paradigm that existed from the 19th century, the teacher provided information to the students and the students received it and parroted it back. As society moved into the Information Age in the 20th century, this model became less useful; the deluge of content and the proliferation of technological tools profoundly altered human and device-to-device interactions.
Telephone, radio, television, computers, mobile technology, smart devices, and artificial intelligence transformed U.S. culture outside of school and eventually entered the classroom. Educators no longer controlled information, and computing devices became teaching assistants. Students’ learning processes changed as their experiences outside of school contrasted profoundly with the sit-and-receive model. The role of the teacher continues as teacher education courses bring innovation and younger teachers bring their own tech-savvy to the classroom.
“The ‘heart of the reforms’ is that ‘in order to learn the sorts of things envisioned by reformers, students must think…students do not get knowledge from teachers, or books, or experience with hands-on materials. They make it by thinking, using information and experience’ (Thompson & Zeuli, 1999, p. 347). And in order to understand how to support students’ thinking, teachers must also think because the reform calls ‘for very deep changes—even a transformation – teachers’ ideas about and understanding of subject matter, teaching, and learning’ (Thompson & Zeuli, p. 350)” (Finley, 2000).
Integrating Technology into the Classroom
Computer labs and centers
Initially, computers sat in the back of the classroom or in a center. Use of a computer was often seen as a reward for finishing more traditional classroom work. By 1989, while only 15% of households had a computer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 97% of schools had at least one (Solomon, 2015). As educators recognized the benefit of computers in educational programs, they moved computers from the lab back into the classroom to promote student access throughout the school day.
Moving from the Lab to 1:1
From the computer lab, computers moved back into the classroom so that teachers and students could readily access educational resources. More districts and schools began to implement 1:1 ratios of computers to students. Classrooms composed of students at all levels of content knowledge and performance could clearly benefit from differentiated instruction and software programs that introduced, informed, and guided them to deep understanding. And students who were at varying stages of learning English, as well as students with disabilities, could make ongoing progress through individualized instruction.
Benefits of Technology
As the educational system continued to integrate technology into the classroom, teachers and students benefited in terms of learning and preparing for college and career in the 21st century.
“Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and handheld devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. Technology also has the power to transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching. This model links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.”
—U.S. Department of Education
The U.S education system has struggled since its beginnings to provide an equitable education to all students regardless of location, ethnicity, learning ability, learning difference, social-economic status, or disability. Today a key issue in providing equity for all is access to technology, electronic devices, and quality instruction and educational activities. The quality of education provided to students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, and English learners has continued to lag, as we have seen since mandates tracking performance by disaggregated group were put into place. The everyday lives and futures of these groups depend on this equity. To add to this dilemma, the integration of technology into education has caused a further digital divide.
Jason Trinh, an expert in technology and equity, stresses that having access to technology allows students to learn in an environment that best suits them. Technology helps educators offer students a broad range of learning styles with the appropriate media and individualized programs with additional direct instruction, practice, and interactivity. For example, Let’s Go Learn’s personalized learning path is composed of lessons that not only offer supplemental direct instruction and practice but also provide gamification, music, song lyrics, animation, and characters.
As the teacher role has evolved from purveyor of information to guide and mentor, students have been able to take an active role in their education, which increases both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Rosalyn Washington, a digital learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools, offers this reason for using ed-tech and instructional technology: “[T]o excite and empower and engage students with diverse learning experiences and content” (as cited in Zalaznick, 2021).
Collaboration and Creativity
Technological advances and digital tools have catalyzed new levels of creativity and collaboration. Students have access to content that until recently was available only in academic tomes, library stacks, and labs. Through collaboration, they can work with peers or ask questions of scientists, writers, and philosophers of all countries, backgrounds, and opinions. The full impact of this freedom has probably not been realized, but there are already plenty of examples of young climate advocates, inventors, writers, and influencers taking advantage of this expanded access to information and expertise.
Disadvantages of Technology
One limitation in technology’s ability to serve educational reform is its unavailability to the students and schools most in need of its benefits. According to Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, about 18 million households have access to the internet but can’t afford to pay for it (as cited in Klein, 2021). Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, commented on the 2021 Infrastructure Bill: “While there’s been a huge strategy by many school districts to provide hotspots [and get] connectivity to students who don’t have it, there are still large swaths of the country that are too rural or remote” (as cited in Klein, 2021). The problem of equitable access to devices and the necessary connectivity to use them at home and school continues to plague the U.S. educational system.
Additionally, some educators, parents, and students have stressed that technology is not the perfect solution to equity and individual student needs. “In the current political climate, where high-level policy solutions are either stymied or slow in coming, perhaps teachers, researchers, and those in the broader education community globally ought to look smaller and focus more closely on the site of instruction. I argue that if we focus on the classroom as the location for reform, not only will the changes be more immediate and widespread, but also the students—the true and only constituency in education that matters—would benefit” (Tow, 2019). Meeting the needs of every child takes a community of families, educators, politicians, and social and health workers, and it involves heavy lifting to undo past institutions and processes and focus on the individual.
“In the current political climate, where high-level policy solutions are either stymied or slow in coming, perhaps teachers, researchers, and those in the broader education community globally ought to look smaller and focus more closely on the site of instruction. I argue that if we focus on the classroom as the location for reform, not only will the changes be more immediate and widespread, but also the students—the true and only constituency in education that matters—would benefit.”
As with all connected technology, drawbacks include data privacy and cyberattacks. Because of the spread of connected tools and programs during the pandemic and remote learning, the U.S. Department of Education has increased its oversight and updated its guidance. The department also provides tech assistance to schools and districts (U.S. Department of Education, 2021).
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) General Guidance for Parents or Students (newly updated)
- Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA) General Guidance
- Frequently Asked Questions on Photos and Videos
- FERPA Regulations
- PPRA Regulations
Online tools for special education
Difficulty of Evaluating Technology in Education
A major source of confusion in educational technology stems from the difficulty of evaluating the technology. This is rooted in the confusing nature of how ed-tech publishers advertise their products. In addition, there has been a push for third-party studies that are supposed to evaluate whether a product works. But the reality is that many products will show good results if you implement them with an at-risk student population and provide a higher level of time on task. Consequently, most publishers have positive studies. Key challenges are:
- Misleading marketing of products
- Ambiguous definitions for words such as “diagnostic” and “personalization”
- Flawed research studies that show Pollyanna-ishly positive results
Educators can overcome these challenges if they first have a pedagogical model for executing high-level goals. A superintendent may want high levels of parent engagement, a focus on at-risk students, all children reading by 3rd grade, etc., but these goals will not be obtainable without a model to operationalize them.
Educational technologies are like tools for a carpenter. You can’t use a hammer to drive in a screw. Likewise, you can’t use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. You can buy a good quality screwdriver and a good quality hammer, but if applied improperly, they won’t work.
Ed-tech tools too need to be applied properly. Tools that provide assessment won’t work if used with the wrong student population. In fact, choosing the wrong assessment will:
- lead to less equity at underperforming schools
- disproportionately misclassify students into special education programs
- perpetuate low academic achievement for students who have historically underperformed
A Checklist for Educators to Better Evaluate and Implement Instructional Technology
The first step in evaluating and implementing an educational technology tool or program is to carefully look at the tool in question and apply it to the situation, ignoring the marketing pitch of the publisher.
Evaluation questions to consider:
- What population of students are you looking to serve?
- How far behind are these students?
- How complex is the subject matter?
- Is the root of the problem solved with grade-level content or content many years below grade level?
- Can the teacher practically support students in the classroom or in a small group setting?
- What is the diagnostic range of the assessment tool in question or the assessment tied to the instruction?
- Can it find gaps for an 8th-grade student from the K to 7 level?
- Does it have the necessary granularity, or are the scores summative?
- Does the tool analyze why a student is struggling?
- What is the nature of the instruction?
- Is it applied appropriately and at the student’s zone of proximal development?
- Can at-risk students cognitively access the instruction?
- Does it use engaging approaches that we know help students learn tough topics–for example, music and animations?
- Does it end with a reality check and ask tough questions?
- Will this tool address the foundational gaps in my target student groups?
- Can my teachers actually implement this tool?
- Will my principals buy in and support this tool?
- Does this tool support the top three current district initiatives that dominate our academic focus on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis?
Impact of COVID
In the spring of the 2019-2020 school year, U.S. governors and school district administrators shut down schools to stop the spread of COVID-19. According to Edweek (2020) the shutdown impacted about 51 million public school students. This initiated an incredible shift from teaching and learning in classrooms to using technology for remote teaching and learning. Marlo Gaddis, Chief Technology Officer of Wake County School District, said what many other educators have also expressed: “The whole pandemic has been like a big proof of concept for 1-to-1” (Klein, 2021).
Need for Ongoing Professional Development in Technology Use
As the Information/Digital Age continued to disrupt education, teachers and administrators saw the need for pertinent professional development increase exponentially. Teachers no longer had the burden of being the sole purveyors of education, but they did need to have deep knowledge of digital resources in the educational content for which they were responsible: “Educators must also be well versed in how the technology works. This is necessary not just for equity in virtual and hybrid learning environments, but also for blended learning activities in the classroom. Using devices and apps as a substitute in an activity for which pen and paper would suffice is not a meaningful use of the technology” (Trinh, 2021). The job of the administrators who are bringing new technology into a district should always be to operationalize it for all users by asking:
- How is the district administrator going to use the tool?
- How will the principal use it?
- How will a teacher use it at the classroom level?
Administrators should then provide Professional Development at multiple points: initial training, follow-up application training, and of course, on-going support and reflection.
Regardless of how and when schools and districts return to a new normal, COVID-19 has disrupted the educational expectations of society as a whole: “Now, with recent advancements in educational technology and the near-perpetual use of these tools for the past year and a half, there’s no going back to the way teaching and learning were done before. Many districts are embracing the future” (Konopelko, 2021).
As the effects of the pandemic recede, many students return to the classroom but with an eye to how technology can enhance their learning. Some classrooms experiment with remote days to deal with teacher shortages and outbreaks of COVID-19. As Hargreaves (2021) writes, “So the answer is not to smash all the screens. Instead, we need to embrace our inner Luddite: Retain the uses of technology that offer distinctive benefits, yet ruthlessly eradicate the uses that lead to toxic effects.”
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