Why Edtech Specialists Should Focus on Transformation, Not Tools

In the last decade, schools have dedicated tremendous resources to deploying technology into the classroom. As they invested in hardware and software, they began employing educational technology specialists to incorporate technology that improves pedagogy. Ideally, these specialists partner with teachers to design unique and creative experiences using new technology to boost engagement and risk-taking.In practice, however, teachers tend to seek out specialists for a technological solution that makes an assignment or grading practice more efficient: A teacher takes a new tool or technique and applies it to previous content or assignments. These interactions are transactional rather than transformational; they enforce the status quo. And ultimately, they make it harder to transform learning in the long run. To create a successful system between specialists and teachers:1) it must be simple,2) both parties must collaborate and must be willing to try something new,3) it must apply to all disciplines and all divisions, and4) it must be self-sustaining. Enter: the mission of the “Create and Share” department.At the most basic level, the goal of the Create and Share Department is to help teachers and students create and share unique activities, projects and opportunities, and to extend instruction into new contexts. The diagram above is a roadmap to help department members ensure that their work results in transformational classroom experiences for students and teachers alike. Here’s our breakdown of what each of those parts look like. Collaborative InstructionInevitably, any successful partnership between teachers and specialists depends on mutual interest and equitable effort. Both parties have to commit to building something interesting and unique. This requires collaborative instruction. A teacher asking for a piece of tech to employ in her own way, or a teacher asking for a second pair of eyes when using tech in the classroom, just won’t do. That’s a transaction, not a transformation. Specialists should insist on planning with, and teaching alongside, the faculty with whom they work. The instruction doesn’t have to be perfect; the assignment doesn’t have to work exactly as planned. Optics are half the battle. Collaborative instruction indicates to students that the adults are working together, taking a risk and producing something new and meaningful. If anything it probably helps for there to be a few hiccups along the way. That way students get to watch two adults model resilience, compromise and quick, adaptive thinking.What it looks like: The simplest example of collaborative instruction is co-teaching. Specialists can also connect the teacher’s classroom to another teacher and classroom inside or outside the school; that collaboration can happen with a peer classroom or with a classroom of younger students eager to learn from their peers. Specialists can also act as facilitators connecting a classroom with a professor, a journalist or an expert in the field of study.Authentic EngagementWhen students are provided instruction and mentorship from the teacher and the specialist, they stop thinking about what they have to turn in. This is especially true when they’re primed to take risks using technology to build something for a larger audience. Instead, they begin thinking about what they’re going to publish, and how their expanded audience will interact with their content. This authentic engagement yields unique, creative and detailed projects. It also increases retention and the likelihood that students will go above and beyond in terms of effort and output. If executed correctly, students become intrinsically motivated to apply a new skill to the real-world, or provide their own solution to a problem.What it looks like: Imagine a middle school math teacher who works with her specialist to create an interdisciplinary, maker-and-technology-infused lesson covering concepts like scaling, common denominators and equivalent fractions. The school recently constructed several new playgrounds, so the teacher and specialist collaborated to revamp the unit by designing the new playgrounds in CAD modeling software. Students reached out to the playground construction company to acquire architectural drawings so they could match these drawings with their own measurements. By combining math instruction and new software, students applied their math skills to an authentic scenario.CAD software can enhance authentic engagement. (Photo courtesy of Sam Moser)Applicative Risk-TakingSuccessful partnerships inherently require a little risk-taking; a teacher has to give up “normal” instruction time or her usual project in order to embrace a tech initiative. But the most successful collaborations increase the risk-taking factor considerably because they must also inspire students to take risks as well. One important way to elicit risk-taking in students is to take something they have been learning in class and apply it to a real-world scenario. Specialists must be able to make the connection between classroom technology and the outside world. Consider the following: How does the instructional technology connect the classroom to other classrooms, to the school community, to the local community or to the global community? What it looks like: In middle school social studies, one teacher decided to transition from her analog, interactive notebooks (papers, glue and crayons) to digital ones. Not only did the specialist show her iBooks, he planned several meetings for instruction and experimentation. The new notebooks provided similar assessment data while letting students demonstrate what they know through multimedia. Students jumped at the opportunity to record themselves reflecting on their assignments, demonstrating creativity, excitement and analysis of their progress from a metacognitive angle. This transformation empowered the teacher to assign projects with multiple means for demonstrating comprehension—including songs and short plays. Students felt empowered to include more multimedia creation in this class and beyond.Sustained Interest and InitiativeA truly successful classroom collaboration between teacher and specialist is just the beginning of what students will be able to do with new instruction, tools and audiences. When projects go really well, they imbue students with an interest and initiative to pursue a cause or passion beyond the classroom. But it’s important to remind our students to continue to create and share. Teachers and specialists should push students to network with those who have a similar passion or curiosity. Depending on age, this could be peers within the school, other teachers or professionals. In addition to providing real world connections, assignments should include examples from real-world practitioners. In an age of social media, often those practitioners produce quality content and their reflections on each other’s work in real-time. Often they will respond to requests from teachers and students!There is no way teachers can solicit this type of engagement and output on every project, which is fine. But we should design for sustained interest and initiative anyway, because it is hard to know what, when, how and why a student gets motivated to work beyond the classroom to pursue his or her own passions and curiosity.What it looks like: Many classes create digital portfolios based on student projects and interests. With the help of a specialist, teachers have asked students to reach out to a professional and interview him about their research paper, to build a lab notebook online and share it with other students, and—in one elective—to make an effort to get published on another site, publication or conference. Not only does this process satisfy the needs mentioned at the outset—simple, collaborative, new, applicative—but perhaps most importantly, it’s self sustaining. While it’s not feasible to accomplish all of the steps perfectly, it is important for our students to see how the education they’re getting and the tools that they have access to can help them break down the classroom and school walls and connect their work to the real-world. And it’s equally as important to help teachers understand that specialists can help them do the same thing in their work. Much like the specialist’s goal, that realization can be truly transformational.