As a second grade teacher at a public school in Memphis, I’ve had a front-row seat to everything we’ve learned in the 20 months since the pandemic began.
That means I can see all the things we’re still getting wrong as the new school year continues. For many teachers, technology is at the top of that list.
Because unfortunately, technology goes wrong a lot — far more often than it goes right.
Yet, if there’s one thing schools and teachers have learned during the pandemic, it’s that we need technology now more than ever. Internet access and devices have been a lifeline to keep learning going and help us try to keep students on track. And, because of this, many schools are putting technology investments at the top of their list for how to spend the billions of dollars in funding from the Biden administration’s Covid relief plan.
In my classroom and in those of my peers, we’ve seen the potential that technology can have to truly transform the way that students and families engage with education. For example, the tool ClassDojo has made it easier for parents to stay up to date on student assignments and class news. During the pandemic, that’s been more important than ever as we navigate both remote and in-person learning.
We’ve also used videoconferencing tools to, for example, enable my students in Memphis to collaborate with pen pals in New Jersey, bringing together learners from different backgrounds to work together and see the world through each other’s eyes.
We’ve got living proof that technology can transform the learning experience for the better — but the past year has also reminded us of all the ways that it can go wrong.
My fellow teachers and I have gotten used to the vicious cycle of technology in our schools. Here’s how it works: First, schools invest in ed-tech without taking the time to learn whether the tool or product will actually work in their unique context. Or they choose a new program without providing enough guidance and professional training for teachers to use it effectively.
Then the tech doesn’t work as hoped, so teachers — and, often, students and families — stop using it.
Eventually, the school replaces the tech with something else, and the pattern continues.
It’s an experience we had with technology like Microsoft Teams, which we quickly learned was not well-suited to younger students. It wasn’t possible to see large classes on the screen, and you couldn’t see the students at all if a slide presentation was being displayed. Those are problems we would’ve spotted immediately if we had tested the software before implementing it.
We’re accustomed to the cycle at this point. But we’re getting tired of it. What will it take to break the cycle?
The problem is that schools aren’t listening to their teachers about what works where and why. That has to change. We’ll only be able to use ed-tech effectively if schools and administrators listen to teachers about the sorts of tools we need and get our buy-in before implementing any new tool or platform — and if we all learn from our peers in other schools.
Schools aren’t listening to their teachers about what works where and why. That has to change.
For the past two years, I’ve been part of a project called the EdTech Evidence Exchange that is taking a critical step toward making such changes a reality, aiming to tap the insights of teachers nationwide to understand what tools work in what contexts.
Our goal is to bring together educators from around the country to collect detailed, standardized feedback. It’s about making sure our voices are heard in a decision-making process that too often leaves out the folks on the front lines.
One of the most important elements of the exchange’s work is its effort to amplify teacher voices. The EdTech Genome Project — comprised of a group of leading researchers, educators and advocates convened by the exchange — has concluded that ensuring that “teachers consistently have a voice in shaping their work and the conditions and tools for that work” is one of the top ten most important elements in any ed-tech decision-making process.
That means involving teachers in decision making around not only what technology they need, but also how it gets selected and how it gets implemented.
In short, it’s clear that teachers’ voices matter. But too often, we don’t have the opportunity to speak up and be heard.
In the coming months, the EdTech Evidence Exchange will be gathering information from schools about how teachers are influencing ed-tech decision-making. We are confident that information will demonstrate the vital role that teachers can play in supporting the effective use of technology — in ways that can impact tens of millions of dollars in ed-tech spending.
Over the past decade, in classrooms around the country, teachers have embraced an idea we often call voice and choice.
If students have a say in what they learn and how they learn it, they stay more engaged and learn more. We should apply that lesson to the role of teachers in ed-tech.
Give us a voice and give us choice. We know what’s best for our students. And if you listen to us, we’ll help prevent the sort of wasteful spending that too often results in shiny new technology tools gathering dust.
Melissa Collins is a second grade teacher in Memphis, Tennessee.
This story about teachers and ed-tech was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.