Blended Learning

Teachers colleges struggle to blend technology into teacher training

Digital fluency of young teacher candidates can be an obstacle rather than an asset

Second-grade teacher Corey Gilman is the go-to person at his school for technology questions, but says he can’t teach his colleagues how to use these tools, as he does, to enhance teaching and learning.

Second-grade teacher Corey Gilman is the go-to person at his school for technology questions, but says he can’t teach his colleagues how to use these tools, as he does, to enhance teaching and learning.

MUNCIE, Ind. — On a typical day in Corey Gilman’s second-grade class, students view and listen to books on a Smart Board, following the text in their hardcover readers; they collaborate in small groups named for colors; and take turns using an iPod to listen to a reading of books they wrote by hand and then narrated. In between, they take “brain breaks” – 30-second bursts of moving and stretching under Gilman’s direction. All the while, Gilman’s iPad never seems to leave his hand.

Gilman, 26, is a self-proclaimed geek. Growing up, he built his own computers. He’s also a member of the technology cadre at Storer Elementary School in Muncie, making him the go-to person on everything from how to turn on an iPad to creating animation for the Smart Board. He’s had training on both, including more than 40 hours of Apple training. “I know that iPad inside, outside, backwards and forwards,” he boasts. “I can use it however I need to.”

Naturally, student-teachers who join Gilman’s classroom eagerly ask to be taught the tools he uses to hold the attention of his class of active 7- and 8-year-olds. While he can teach the “co-teachers” – as he calls them – to operate a document camera or rig an old boom box with three sets of headphones, teaching them how to use the devices in the same manner he does is a different matter.

“You can read all about it,” Gilman said. “You can see things online. But, until you get up there and do it and make the mistakes … it’s totally different. You really can’t teach it.”

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what college and university schools of education hope to do, as they struggle to keep up with public schools spending billions on classroom technologies and policymakers churning out studies indicating a growing need for digitally savvy students and educators. They’re trying to teach today’s student-teachers how to use the wide range of technologies – from old-school software and tools such as PowerPoint, videos and laptops to those ubiquitous tablets and smartphones – as classroom tools, not just as social devices for communicating with friends or playing games.

But because of rapid technological change, the need to fit more class requirements into a curriculum already filled with state-mandated courses, and the hiring practices of schools recruiting new teachers, many teachers colleges are finding it difficult to integrate technology education into their teacher preparation programs.

The result is a “to each its own” approach to teacher education, as the teaching colleges strive to work technology in without taking content and pedagogy out.

Related: A Silicon Valley-based Teach for American program dives into blended learning

Laurie Mullen, former associate dean at Ball State University, and John Jacobson, the current dean for the teachers college, say state-mandated requirements for classes in teaching reading and math have resulted in a competition for credit hours between content and pedagogy.

Laurie Mullen, former associate dean at Ball State University, and John Jacobson, the current dean for the teachers college, say state-mandated requirements for classes in teaching reading and math have resulted in a competition for credit hours between content and pedagogy.

With the first generation of fully digital students and prospective classroom teachers now wending its way through the education pipeline, instruction on how to physically use the tools of the trade is about as necessary as lessons on how to use a pencil or a keyboard.

But while would-be teachers are coming in comfortable with technology, this doesn’t translate into knowing how to use it to engage young minds or to tailor a lesson to meet the learning needs and styles of individual students. Although teacher candidates know how to operate the devices, they need to be taught how to use them to help kids learn.

It’s a matter of “re-paradigming,” say faculty and administrators at some of the nation’s top teachers colleges, describing the task they face. They need to get teacher candidates to re-think how they use devices that most have grown up with. In essence, instructors must tell their students, “You can’t take that into a school and use it the way you know how to use it,” said Laurie Mullen, former associate dean at Ball State University Teachers College in Muncie, and the newly appointed dean of the College of Education at Towson University in Maryland.

Just how schools of education go about getting students to re-think their approach to technology is as individual as the schools themselves. Although there are more than 2,100 schools of education nationally, graduating more than 190,000 new teachers annually, there are no national standards for teachers of educators when it comes to integrating technology into the curriculum, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a voluntary national association of teacher preparation programs.

“Presently schools of education develop their own technology-based curricula that build on best practices in the field, in compliance with the recognized standards in the profession,” Sharon Robinson, the organization’s chief executive officer, wrote in an email.

Robinson pointed to the International Society for Technology in Education and Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation (ISTE-CAEP) standards as the “recognized standards.” But an ISTE spokesperson said that although the organization has standards for students, teachers, administrators, coaches and computer science educators, “we currently don’t have standards for teachers of educators.” In addition, adherence to the standards is voluntary, she said.

Corey Gilman wrote a grant to get a single iPod he uses to help students with their reading skills.

Corey Gilman wrote a grant to get a single iPod he uses to help students with their reading skills.

For Towson University’s Mullen, the issue is getting teacher candidates to think about technology in developmentally and educationally appropriate ways.

“What we see is [candidates] coming into the classroom wanting to use apps,” she said. “Apps in and of themselves are fine. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have them think critically about the ways in which technology can help promote, but also inhibit, learning.”

An app can’t help a student teacher know what to do to get a child to understand a concept in math or social studies, Mullen and her colleagues point out. That’s pedagogy – learning how children learn and how to help them do so – and it is a fundamental element of teacher education. Used correctly, technology offers new tools to help expand pedagogy and make teaching more effective.

But many schools have to settle for simply making sure candidates are familiar with technology. Ball State doesn’t require undergraduate education majors to take a technology education course, per se. Rather, it offers an introductory semester-long course on how to use the MacBook, plus access to the college’s iCare Studio, created to ensure students and faculty are at least minimally comfortable with using technology.

It’s left to faculty – often modeling the use of technology in their own courses – to teach students how to use the technology in professional practice. For tech-oriented undergrads, however, there is one other option: educational technology.

Related: Teachers turn themselves into “detectives” to make blended learning work

“Would it be great to have a three-credit-hour or more course in how to do this and that [with technology]?” John Jacobson, dean of Ball State University’s teachers college, asked rhetorically. “We just don’t have the luxury of credit hours, because there’s just so much that has to be put into the curriculum now.”

He cited the state-mandated requirement for classes in how to teach reading and math, and, for teacher candidates in Indiana, training in suicide prevention.

“Content has become king over the last 10 years,” Mullen said, agreeing with Jacobson. “Increasingly we have competition for [credit] hours between the content and the pedagogy. It’s a terrible distinction.”

Matt Stuve tries out the latest in smart televisions from Apple in one of five innovative smart classrooms at Ball State.

Matt Stuve tries out the latest in smart televisions from Apple in one of five innovative smart classrooms at Ball State.

Compounding the teacher colleges’ challenge is the belief by some principals and administrators who recruit new teachers that a background in literacy or math is more important than a candidate’s technological know-how.

“I don’t look specifically for technology,” said Ingrid Grubb, the principal at Storer Elementary School who hired Corey Gilman. “We do our own training. You would get technology here before you left for another job.”

Tim Brown, principal of nearby Cowan Elementary School, said he looks for candidates who can show examples of ways in which they’ve used technology to enhance their lessons.

“Lots of times I see people fresh out of college who are excited about Smart Boards and all these things, but they couldn’t give me concrete ways that they’ve used those [in the classroom],” he said. “I want evidence that here’s a way that I’ve used iPads to get information across – that I used some sort of technology to enhance my lesson.”

Ball State, like many other teacher education programs around the country, is experimenting with various models to determine how best to work technology into its core courses and thus ensure that teacher candidates know content, pedagogy and technology. The model most often mentioned is titled “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” commonly referred to as TPACK.

TPACK isn’t a tool kit, but more of a construct or goal to which the colleges aspire, according to those who use it.

“It gives a philosophy for moving forward,” said Matt Stuve, director of the Center for Technology in Education at Ball State, as he drew three concentric circles on a piece of paper, representing technology, pedagogy and content knowledge. The point at which all three circles overlap is the “sweet spot” in which – ideally – faculty should be operating most of the time, he said. At Ball State, Stuve said, the faculty operates heavily in the content knowledge and pedagogy rings, but less so in the technology realm.

“It’s a beautiful picture of what education should look like if you get there,” Stuve said of TPACK. “But, what you should do on Tuesday – it doesn’t answer that question.”

Nearly 500 miles west, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Mary Herring is literally helping to write the book on TPACK. Associate dean at the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, Herring is co-editing the second TPACK handbook, a teacher-educator’s guide to infusing technology into teacher preparation. The first version came out in 2008.

For Herring, TPACK is not about the technology alone, but how it interacts with content and pedagogy. “It’s more an intermingling of the three,” she said, “and then deciding what are the opportunities that could be afforded.” She advises teachers to contrast this approach with the typical one of, “Here’s the content I want to teach, and now I have to go find what technology can do this for me.”

Related: Are iPads or Chromebooks better for schools?

At Northern Iowa, education majors take a technology-integration class, such as technology and design, which “talks about how technology can support teaching and learning inside the classroom,” Herring said.

As an example, she cited a professor who equipped students in a social studies methods class with iPads before sending them into the field to work with elementary school students. The future teachers had to plan how to use the iPad to support the learning taking place in the classroom and how to lead students through the learning process “up to the higher-order thinking skills,” Herring said.

Technology courses are state-mandated for special education majors like Christine Leimberger, who says technology is integral to developing individual education plans in special ed.

Technology courses are state-mandated for special education majors like Christine Leimberger, who says technology is integral to developing individual education plans in special ed.

If educational technology instruction sounds confusing, it’s because “it’s a work in progress,” according to Linda Patriarca, professor of special education and former dean of the school of education at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina.

East Carolina University requires teacher-candidates to take an introductory technology course in their first year. “It could be called introducing teachers to the tools,” Patriarca said. Students learn how to use interactive whiteboards, grading and instructional software, recordkeeping tools and tools that facilitate student engagement, she explained.

To ensure that students retain this information, the faculty “thread,” or integrate, lessons from the initial course throughout a student’s program, beginning with the first lesson that teacher candidates plan in their first methods class and continuing through to their student-teaching experience senior year.

From the outset, student-teachers must include in their lesson plans a way to assess whether children have understood the lesson; a clear set of goals detailing what kids are supposed to do and know at the end of a lesson; a list of the technology they intend to use and why; and, if they’re not going to use technology, an explanation.

The point, said Patriarca, “isn’t whether you use [technology] or whether you don’t – it’s when you use it and why you use it.”

Even when students aren’t taking a particular technology or assessment class, they are still required to make a systematic assessment of what they did or didn’t do when preparing or teaching a lesson, Patriarca said. “There are times and situations where you don’t have to use very sophisticated technologies in a lesson, but you’d better know why, and it better be a good reason.”

Students in Corey Gilman’s second-grade class use a mix of old-school and new technologies in the classroom.

Students in Corey Gilman’s second-grade class use a mix of old-school and new technologies in the classroom.

For Christine Leimberger, who just completed her sophomore year at Ball State, studying technology is not an option: It’s a state mandate. That’s because Leimberger is a special education major. Technology is integral to designing individual learning programs, she said. “Everything is individualized in special ed,” she added. “There is no cookie-cutter curriculum.”

As part of her major, Leimberger was required to take a course on adaptive technologies – devices intended to help special-needs students adapt to everyday life. Showing a student with poor eyesight how to zoom in on the screen on his laptop, for example, left her with a feeling of accomplishment. “He was so elated,” she said. “He could read for himself instead of his aide reading for him. It was really simple, and he was really excited.”

Not all students have the special learning needs of those whom Leimberger will be teaching, but virtually all students can benefit from learning that is enhanced by new technology. They key lies with how well that technology is used.

The Shenendehowa Central School District in Clifton Park, New York, requires candidates to teach a class as part of the hiring process, according to Anna Sugarman, the district’s professional development coordinator. “We can see whether they use technology,” Sugarman said, “and if they use it, do they use it with intention, so that they achieve the correct learning outcome that they’re looking for, or are they just using it simply as an activity?”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

Add Comment
comments powered by Disqus

Peggy Barmore

Peggy Barmore is a freelance writer, living in Albany, NY. She is a 2014 graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and holds a… See Archive