The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Every student arrived with a smartphone. Ask a question, and instantly, thumbs began to effortlessly search for a digital answer. High school history had changed during my 21 year absence from teaching it. Now a professor of education at Baylor University, I returned to a local area public high school last fall on a research sabbatical, teaching tenth grade world history to more than 160 students.

I left my comfortable and sometimes isolating position as a university professor because I wanted to better prepare my own university students, who are studying to become teachers, for the challenges of teaching and leading in a 21st century public school environment. I knew that the only way to do this was to update my own perspective.

Tony L. Talbert

Although the university students I had been teaching for the last twenty years were deeply engaged in the application of digital technology as part of their learning context, it was the volume and frequency of exposure to the high school students who were perpetually digitally connected that caused me to realize that a new teaching and learning paradigm had to be embraced.

Related: Technology skills only scratch the surface of the digital divide

My return to high school allowed me to encounter students who considered digital technology not simply a tool for a specific task but instead a context for living and engaging in the world around them. It quickly became clear to me that the high school students I was teaching in 2013 ordered and perceived their world in a significantly different manner than the high school students I once taught more than two decades past.

The old teaching and learning paradigm where technology is a tool to be used for a singular purpose and then put away until it is needed again had made way for a new paradigm where technology is a context without a beginning and without an end. Simply put, in the lives of my high school students digital technology was an extension of themselves. Therefore, it was with this reality that I as teacher had to find a way to incorporate this new paradigm into my lesson planning and teaching method in order to more meaningfully inform and transform the minds and lives of my students.

Related: For the first time, schools in the nation’s largest charter network are investing in technology in a big way

In our personal and professional lives, many of us have come to accept the reality that technology is indeed an integral influence in our daily work and play as we are perpetually “living on the grid.”.

This reality isn’t necessarily transferred to the lived experience at school among many teachers. Ms. Jessica Webb, Instructional Technology and Media Services Director for Lorena ISD asserts that, “For them [veteran teachers] technology is still something that must be utilized consciously.” Webb explains that many veteran teachers work within the technology as tool paradigm and it takes a concerted effort to move in a direction where their teaching is more relevant to the tech-minded students of today.

Related: Billions more in spending for school Internet connections under FCC proposal

Jason Trumble

These teachers are comfortable hooking up a projector or filmstrip and displaying information far separated from the 24/7 connected, multitasking lives of the students, but they need motivation and support to incorporate technology into their classroom. Veteran teachers can find it difficult to mirror the context of students’ lives in the classroom because, to the teacher, digital technology is not a natural occurrence. Modern students are digital natives; they were born with and have grown up with devices connected. Lorena ISD is an example where the process of school is becoming more relevant to today’s student. In other places, the shift has already occurred.

Related: Q and A with Barbara Kurshan: New program trains educators online so they can teach online

Another example where technology is innovatively integrated as a context for living and learning among students and teachers can be found at the Belton New Tech High School@Waskow

Located in Central Texas, this innovative public high school sets the context of education in project-based learning with technology as the medium for content delivery and student expression. At Belton New Tech, learning environments break the traditional school mold looking more like the Google home office, with colorful décor, circular couches and collaboration tables that fill a large open space, than a traditional school.

Related: Educational technology isn’t leveling the playing field

An expansive video board loops the creations of students, while learners gather together typing on school provided laptops, discussing content and problem solving. Each classroom or is lined with glass illuminating the open learning areas, and Teachers facilitate learning as students feverishly attend to digital content delivered through computers and media.

There are no tools here, but there are ways to inquire, experiment, and express understanding as students navigate through school.

Related: When schools can’t get online

As I moved from the old paradigm tool to the new paradigm context one of the most influential resources that contributed to my practice as a teacher was the work of Dr. Ruben Puentedura, the creator of the SAMR Model (Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition).

The SAMR model offered me a way of thinking about and organizing my teaching so that my students and I collaborated on the planning and implementation on the use of digital technology in ways that provided a depth of exposure to the world history content and a breadth of engagement that fostered critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Related: How computer coding can increase engagement, provide a purpose for learning

“By embracing the teaching and learning paradigm shift where digital technology is a context and not simply a tool my students and I formed a learning community unencumbered by the traditional structures and schedules of a classroom.”

For example, both the traditional structure of teaching and learning and the types of products generated by students were changed. Core world history content knowledge that students needed to encounter were delivered outside of the classroom through digital technology such as online videos, webpages, discussion boards, and Twitter.

Face-to-face classroom time was then dedicated to the integration of digital technology through hands-on engagement activities such as simulations, inquiry learning stations, cooperative problem-solving projects, and primary source material investigation that reinforced a deeper understanding of world history content as it relates to contemporary culture and experiences.

Related: ‘Thinking computer’ that won on Jeopardy could help teachers

In essence, teaching, learning, curriculum, and digital technology were an infused context not restricted to the traditional two covers of a book, the four walls of a classroom, the six periods of a school schedule, or the eight hours of the school day.

By embracing the teaching and learning paradigm shift where digital technology is a context and not simply a tool my students and I formed a learning community unencumbered by the traditional structures and schedules of a classroom. Our classroom became dynamic and meaningful to all stakeholders who redefined the notion of a community of learners through active engagement enhanced by digital technology.

Related: Why schools’ efforts to block the Internet are so laughably lame

As I moved along the continuum, my students validated my contention that when teachers embrace the notion that technology is a context and not simply a tool, the results are that education is not simply for information but for transformation.

In this case I proudly admit, I the teacher became the learner as my students embraced the opportunity to introduce me to a new vision of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

In a phrase, this old dog learned a new paradigm. Thanks kids!

Dr. Tony L. Talbert is a Professor of Social/Cultural Studies Education and Qualitative Research in the School of Education at Baylor University. His 29 years as an educator has included service to and consulting for public schools, universities, governmental and corporate institutions.

Jason Trumble is a Graduate Assistant and PhD Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in instructional technology at Baylor University. He is currently researching the impact of technology on curriculum and pedagogy for teaching interns in various environments.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

8 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. This comes from someone who has likely never actually taught in a public school classroom. This is cute, but the majority of university professors are useless drones with doctorates who are happy to not teach their students, collect their paychecks and get off on being called doctor. It’s pathetic, and his assessment is stupid at best. I love how his entire article was how he did such a great job figuring out the kids of today (as if they are somehow hard to figure out.) Let’s be clear…kids today are smarter and more mature than ever. So, putting them in a technology box and assuming that they need this in order to succeed is pitiful. These kids could sit through a lecture or not. They could get their information from a computer or not. The assumption here is that kids are stupid and the great and glorious university professor is going to save them with his worthless doctorate and even more worthless teaching skills. I feel bad for the kids who had to sit through this drivel every day knowing that they were merely an experiment. Notice there’s nothing about the kids as people. All he talks about is his experiment and how it will make HIM look good. Typical selfish university professor/jackass.

  2. “Core world history content knowledge that students needed to encounter were delivered outside of the classroom through digital technology such as online videos, webpages, discussion boards, and Twitter.” As a current classroom teacher this statement is naive in that believing most students will take the time outside of the classroom to get this content knowledge. My experience is that most students would not do this but depend on the teacher or other classmates to provide the information. Technology is very useful in the classroom but has become a crutch for many students. They depend on it for not only factual information but for their “original” ideas.

  3. I don’t disagree that in today’s world technology is part of context. Dr. Talbert would be more helpful, however, if he illustrated his ideas with some specifics.
    Consider this paragraph:
    “Face-to-face classroom time was then dedicated to the integration of digital technology through hands-on engagement activities such as simulations, inquiry learning stations, cooperative problem-solving projects, and primary source material investigation that reinforced a deeper understanding of world history content as it relates to contemporary culture and experiences.
    What actually happened? Please give us some specific examples of what the students were studying, and give us some concrete illustrations of how the technology helped them learn.
    Without that, Dr. Talbert’s essay is no more than a collection of buzzwords and jargon.

  4. Is there any wonder why our education system is in decline. Please, somebody, what IS this guy saying?

    I can think of one real solution: Disband every single school of education in this nation.

    I studied math and physics and I can figure out most things and I accept high levels of precision and analysis. One more time. Exactly WHAT is this guy saying?

  5. This is a great piece. Latching onto this idea of information technology as a context, it presents an problem that is not discussed. I am an 8th grade teacher, and I notice that while the use of technology governs the students lives, the understanding of it does not. Many are woefully non-proficient of the inner workings of their technology. For many, saving a file is impossible. A similar context is driving. Many adults no nothing about the cars they drive, so when repairs are needed, they spend thousands of dollars and lots of stress fixing things that would have been very simple to fix themselves with proper knowledge. We are entering a world where, as Carl Sagan put it “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

  6. Digital technologies can allow learning to be more informal and expand beyond the temporal and geographic constraints of the classroom, but it all depends on the context. This idea of technology as a context can work well when students are engaged and motivated, but flounder when the subject matter deemed boring. The article oversimplifies students/teachers as digital natives/immigrants too much for my liking, but I’m sure differentiating between technology as a tool and context will help some educators rethink their pedagogy. But making this all happen takes a lot of trial and error…

  7. How great that you went to a school where all the students had smartphones. There are still schools where some students have flip phones. But the digital divide can be the subject of your next nearly unintelligible article.

  8. Waldorf schools do just fine without technology in the elementary grades. Montessori schools are of great benefit to a child’s development without technology – and actually promote social activity (I do not see this as a “skill”). A school can “sugar” up the elementary classrooms with all the laptops and so called smart boards and in a word it is a waste. I would rather my 6 year old be working with Montessori materials – hands on – that watching “Brain Pop” – I must agree with 95% of this pieces criticism found above. Sorry –

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published.