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An exuberant crowd of ed tech investors, entrepreneurs and their publicity staffs are converging at the ASU/GSV summit in Arizona this week, with claims that tech tools can transform education and solve the achievement gap.

Venture capitalists will be out in force at the innovation summit also known as “Davos in the Desert,” and they’ll be pushing investment in education products and services that encourage technology-based instruction in a booming ed tech market that attracted $650 million in capital investment last year.

I’ll be listening for voices of teachers. It is their frustration, skepticism, enthusiasm and willingness to embrace new ways of learning that will help us all better understand the digital revolution that has arrived in some classrooms – and is bypassing others.

Teachers and technology in the classroom
Mario Martinez, a graduate student in California State University Northridge’s teacher preparation program, examines a high school algebra test he created for a class assignment. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

Teacher views are essential in the debate, but not always heard. In recent years, more have been attending the sprawling South by Southwest Edu festival in Austin, raising their concerns and triumphs in a sea of product promotions. Many that I spoke with are embracing technology in schools, as long as they are trained to use it and understand both its limitations and possibilities.

I also had a chance to talk to two generations of teachers recently; one a newbie who is teaching second grade with Teach for America in a new charter school outside of New Orleans, the other a third grade veteran in suburban New York.

The TFA student has a large class and is excited that all of her students are getting tablets next year. She is a huge fan of blended learning and its ability to meet the different needs of students at their own level. Her students are comfortable with technology and hugely excited when they master lessons using a variety of software. More than anything, she wishes her students could utilize Dreambox Learning, which allows students to master key math concepts online.

I’ll be listening for voices of teachers. It is their frustration, skepticism, enthusiasm and willingness to embrace new ways of learning that will help us all better understand the digital revolution that has arrived in some classrooms – and is bypassing others.

The third-grade veteran was envious. His school has spotty Internet access. All third-grade classrooms share old laptops on a cart. His is a common experience; lots of schools are technologically challenged. A 2010 survey from the Federal Communications Commission found that half of U. S. schools have “lower speed Internet connectivity than the average American home.”

I’m curious to learn more at ASU/GSV this week, where I’ve noticed a few panels with titles such as “Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want From Digital Instructional Tools,” or  “Educators in Charge: What Educators Want from Classroom Technology.”

This discussion matters because it turns out many teachers aren’t getting the help the need to better use and understand technology.

In anticipation of this week’s summit, I called Matthew Tullman, co-founder and president of digedu, a Chicago-based provider of digital education that works in partnership with 42 K-12 schools in 12 states. The company recently undertook a survey of over 600 teachers and found that 50 percent feel they are inadequately trained in technology.

Question: What has to change to help teachers become better trained in technology, and why does it matter so much?

Answer: Teachers are excited about the possibilities of technology, yet they are still limited by some of the realities – the lack of hardware, infrastructure and training. They have such amazing capabilities in their daily lives, and it’s like taking a step back once they get in the classroom. They need the hardware, the support and training to do what they know is possible. If you can get them comfortable and show them the why, you can get buy-in and they will be using the technology and accumulating the experience and working knowledge necessary. Technology is benefitting us in every aspect of our life, so we have to move toward meaningful use of it in the classroom.

Q: How can you address the technology gap in districts that don’t have the money to spend on it?

A: A thoughtful, holistic approach is the first step. It will require an idiosyncratic approach. Every district has different goals. I think the solution is to look at the budget and identify what are the goals are and what are we spending money on. If you look at consumables, workbooks, textbooks and a lot of the money we are spending on 1.0 tech, like interactive whiteboards, there are ways we can bridge the gap more quickly. It’s about reallocating what we are spending already.

Q: What’s the best way of working with teachers to help them get more comfortable using technology in the classroom?

A: There is a very thoughtful approach in Miami, where they are rolling out a three-year [technology] plan. In the first year, teachers explore, play, fail, experiment. In the second year they have a minimum requirement for usage. By the third year it’s a mandatory experiment. Play/learn is critical for the comfort gap.  And the second step is support and that relates to training. What makes the biggest difference is letting [teachers] play and experiment with low risk scenarios. You can also build in a button that lets them talk to any former teach live. It’s a safety button. You can click on it and speak to someone fluent with [the technology] and identifying issues and instructional challenge. We also take students in every grade and train them to troubleshoot tech issues. In terms of fixing it and supporting teachers in classrooms, it’s incredibly effective.

Q: Are some teachers threatened by technology, and would they prefer to stick to traditional methods?

A: I don’t see that. It’s absolutely the case in that all of us knowledge workers are threatened. We all have to be thinking and growing and staying one step ahead of technology, but in many districts it’s the opposite. We aren’t to a point where we are graduating kids who have the skill sets and know-how and fluency to operate in a highly technological world. You can’t do that from a static textbook.  We are a long way off from where we want to be. We have to equip students with know-how and skill. I don’t think tech itself will improve learning. It’s meaningful use of technology that can impact learning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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  1. I’m not sure that the big future of technology in the classroom is about teaching all teachers to be better users of the technology. When we consider every child, our results so far suggest that approach has not worked for ink and paper text books, or the overhead projector, or “smartboards”, or, for that matter, the yellow Number 2 pencil. I’m betting that the future will see technology as a replacement for many, if not most teachers. I can see us keeping the real classroom magicians who will then use technology as a way to touch 250 and more children. And the money to pay for the technology? Cut the teacher workforce by 75% and there will be a surplice of funds for technology. I think we have to seriously consider a new model, one that is not solely dependent on putting a great teacher in every classroom, all day every day, for every child. Technology used in very different ways than we use it now could likely be a huge part of that new model.

  2. Although I’m sure most teachers find Mr Butzon’s comment a bit intimidating, he underscores the increasing responsibility placed on the student to learn in a learner-centered classroom. I find, however, that establishing scenarios in a learner-centered environment often requires a lot of teacher input. From personal experience, I’ve realized that at this point, there’s a place for the teacher. In twenty years? Maybe Mr Butzon’s scenario will ring true! But, then again, maybe not! Let’s embrace the technology and enjoy the ride.

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