This fall, as part of our #ETTchat series, Communications Editor James Daley will be chatting with our EdTechTeacher instructors about some of their favorite tools, apps, and strategies for the classroom. In this post, he chats with co-founder Justin Reich about the question Is All This Innovation Working?
In his role as co-founder of EdTechTeacher, Justin Reich has spent years working with schools and districts to help them implement technology initiatives and find innovative, student-centered ways of using technology in the classroom. One of the guiding principles for Justin, as well as the rest of the EdTechTeacher instructors, is the idea that technology integration should go beyond simply replacing pens and paper with screens and keyboards, and aim instead at using the creative and collaborative potential of technology to create transformational learning experiences for students.
However, after working with hundreds of schools and districts, Justin has noticed a troubling trend: while most schools have had great success developing small groups of teachers who are truly dedicated to making the most of technology (what he refers to as “pockets of excellence”), it is very rare that an entire school, or even an entire grade, has committed to the systemic changes in teaching practices that EdTechTeacher advocates. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Justin about some solutions and strategies that he believes could help schools transform these pockets of excellence into school-wide transformations.
One of the biggest barriers that Justin has found to this type of school-wide transformation is fact that most schools are not taking the time to evaluate their technology teaching practices. While most schools do engage in various types of broad-based evaluation, Justin has found that it’s exceedingly uncommon for schools to focus on any specific initiative, especially technology initiatives. Furthermore, on the rare occasion that schools do engage in this type of focused evaluation, they often limit themselves to surface-level issues, like how much time students spend using technology, or the degree to which students report their technology use as engaging or helpful. While these types of superficial measures can be helpful for more logistical purposes, they do very little to determine the degree to which technology is actually having a positive effect on student learning.
Part of the problem, Justin argues, is that school leaders are not setting learning-centered goals for their technology integration. While most schools do engage in some type of goal-setting at the onset of a technology initiative, the goals tend to focus on logistical issues, like those mentioned above. Instead, schools need to be setting goals that focus more on how student learning is going to be different and better as result of students’ experiences with technology.
Even then, however, setting the right types of goals is just the beginning. The most important part is doing the work to determine whether or not the school is making progress towards those goals over time. For example, if a school sets out a learning goal that students should become effective collaborators and communicators, and then invests in new technology that they believe will allow them to collaborate and communicate better, they still need to look back at a later date to determine whether or not their students have actually gotten any better at communicating and collaborating.
Unfortunately, even when they do have learning-focused goals, the majority of the schools that EdTechTeacher have partnered with simply don’t expend the time or resources to develop a school-wide plan for evaluating whether or not their initiatives are working.
According to Justin, the first step, towards developing such a plan is simply to choose a method of evaluation that is doable and then do it. For schools that don’t have the bandwidth to conduct in-depth evaluations, a great jumping off point can be something simple like surveys or interviews. As long as the surveys and interviews focus on learning goals over logistical issues, they can provide valuable information without a great deal of effort.
There are lots of ways to effectively conduct interviews for evaluation. One simple way that Justin suggests is to bring all of the department heads together and ask for their opinions on how the technology initiative is going, and what improvements they think could help the school reach its goals. Another simple way to get started is to informally talk to groups of students about their experiences. Choosing a few random students, buying them pizza, and asking about how they’re using technology can provide lots of important insight. These types evaluations may not provide any quantifiable data, but they can still be helpful in assessing how a technology integration is going, and they’re a whole lot better than not doing anything at all.
While surveys and interviews are a great starting point, the more powerful and effective evaluations center around examining student work and looking directly at what’s going on in classrooms.
One of the most effective strategies for in-depth evaluation is taking samples of students work, examining them closely, and seeing what story they tell about the school’s progress over time. As Justin argues, “If we’re trying to get students to adapt new learning practices and develop new skills and capacities, we should be able to see it in the work that we ask them to do.” For example, if a school is trying to build students’ capacity to use the Internet to research new kinds of sources, the variety and quality of the sources that students actually use in their papers should improve after the onset of a technology initiative.
Another form of evaluation that can be really powerful is a practice called Instructional Rounds, in which teachers take turns visiting classes and observing the day-to-day practices of their peers. It’s important to note that this type of evaluation involves more than simply dropping in to check things out. Schools must take a more systematic approach, wherein they define specific teaching goals, and then observe to see if those goals are being accomplished. For example, if a school purchases new computers with the goal of improving student creativity, they would want to sit in on a number of classes to see whether or not students are frequently engaging in creative work using technology.
No matter how schools decide to conduct their evaluations, the most important step is that they get started. As Justin argues, “You can’t improve teaching and learning in any context if you don’t assess what you’re doing to see if it’s actually working… And this is especially true for technology initiatives. If you want this huge investment to actually produce a return in terms of improved teaching and learning, then you need to evaluate, assess, and improve.”