Teachers Are Unsupported Consumers of Technology Learning

The following is a response to Dr. Tom Whitby’s recent blog post, “Teachers Are Poor Consumers of Learning.”  I enjoyed the post and, at first, totally agreed.  Then, I slept on it.  Check out Dr. Whitby’s blog here!

A while ago, I wrote a piece about the utility of the SMART Board in classrooms and, more specifically, the fact that teachers were given shiny new toys, told to use them, and left with no training or explanation.  The public relations effort seemed to trump any professional development priorities that may have existed.  Perhaps there was no money left to pay for training.  Perhaps there was no desire.  Hopefully, the reason for the absence of PD wasn’t lack of knowledge among district staff, although I have seen that too.

Either way, many teachers were left to their own devices when it came to using interactive whiteboards effectively.  Some were up to the challenge and developed amazing things.  Some were equal to the task, but got stuck along the way.  Many still use the high-tech board as a low-tech board (Post-Its, anyone?).  And a few have chosen to ignore that they have those boards in their classrooms at all.

Learning how to use technology is not that difficult, and is often really fun.  As blogger Tom Whitby points out, there really is no excuse for teachers to put off learning how to use technology when we all know that it makes huge differences in student engagement, performance assessment, project-based learning, connecting globally–the list goes on and on.  I’ve also (in agreement with Dr. Whitby) advocated that teachers be the learners that they want their students to be.  We should be learning.  All the time.

However, I have issues with some of the ideas in Dr. Whitby’s article for a variety of reasons.  In italics, you will find statements from Dr. Whitby’s post.  Underneath will be my rebuttal.  I have great respect for Dr. Whitby, although he doesn’t know me from Adam, so I hope that my rebuttals show him that due respect and professionalism.

“The problem is that the customer more often than not cannot articulate what the real objection is.”

Teachers don’t generally have this problem, especially if everything else is in place.  If a teacher is well-trained in instructional practices and can comfortably consider himself a specialist of learning and content, then that teacher will be able to articulate what their objections are.  I, too, have heard the “I have no time” excuse.  But one objection I hear even more often is, “I’m not quite sure how to integrate this into my practice.”  This is an important difference.

While being too busy is understandable, it may not be valid if the priority of tech integration is obvious. Being untrained or unsure how to use technology as an instructional aid, however, is valid.  From the stories that I’ve heard and the people I’ve talked to, this is a serious problem and the blame is not on the teacher.  Districts have long had a habit of showing the public that technology is here.  Make it visible.  What the public doesn’t usually see is the teacher who is left to his own devices when integrating it.

“…all along the reason for the objection is that they don’t understand how to use the product. The product is too complicated and they fear that they will fail at learning how to use it effectively, as well as looking foolish for all to see.”

I think that Dr. Whitby and I agree here.  When the teacher evaluations look for technology use, as well as effective teaching practices, and student achievement, this is scary.  I have had teachers come to me in near panic, asking me to show them how to run a lesson on an IWB, a document camera, Prezi–anything–that will help them look accomplished in the eyes of an administrator.  I don’t think of these teachers as those who should’ve been using their time to learn these things, mostly because they have!  They’ve tried to learn it, and may have even mastered the platform, they just don’t know how to launch it.  There are no models, there is no training, there is no systematic professional development.  Teachers do fear the idea of looking foolish and failing.

And when they do fail, Dr. Whitby suggests that they do what other tech customers do: they set the tech aside and ignore it.  The difference, of course, is that private consumers have access to tech support when they need it.  Do all teachers have this?

“As educators, do we throw up our hands and say that this is all too much, and there is not enough time for our students to learn all of the stuff that is out there? I think not!”

Again, Dr. Whitby and I agree one-hundred percent!  Of course we don’t behave this way.  However, students have an important asset that most educators don’t: teachers.  They have teachers who model the skills they need to learn, who mentor them, who offer advice, who track progress, who train them in the use of tools and resources necessary for their success.  This is a luxury for teachers–one which most don’t have.  There are still too few school districts who have mentorships for even their new teachers, much less teachers who are exposed to new technology.

I maintain that every time a new piece of educational technology is put into classrooms, there should be a team of mentors responsible (and accountable) for making sure that all teachers are accomplished in using that technology.  I’ve seen building technology committees put together for this purpose, with very limited success.  Perhaps this is because asking already busy teachers to account for the development of several other teachers is unrealistic.  The district (or building) needs to find effective, sustainable ways to make this work.

“Why don’t educators learn from their own teaching? Break things down into small bites of information.”

I think most of us do.  I also think that this is only the beginning.  There is a wealth of information out there about how to use technology.  There is relatively little (but increasingly more) information about using technology in our own classrooms.  And, as I pointed out above, the availability of ongoing training is almost non-existent.  I don’t think that breaking things into smaller bites is the real issue, or the overall fix.  I think this problem will endure until teachers feel supported and trained.

“As a teacher’s knowledge of technology increases, so do the skills of learning more, as well as the ability to teach more.”

Exactly!  Which is why the training, development, and mentoring I described is such an important, long-term investment that promises great returns.  Once teachers have become comfortable with the basics of the technology (platforms, devices, apps) and the basics of educational integration (research, collaboration, global communication, etc.), they will become the independent researchers and learners that Dr. Whitby describes.

Dr. Whitby is asking teachers to learn from their own teaching, which will lead them to success.  I agree, but for a different reason.  We teach our students to learn from each other and to collaborate with the assistance of a facilitator (their teacher).  Teachers must be supported and aided along the way, too.  This new century is about sharing and collaborating–isn’t that what we tell our students?


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

2 Responses to Teachers Are Unsupported Consumers of Technology Learning

  1. tomwhitby says:

    Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my post. I do need to make two points on your response. First, it is Mr not Dr. Thank you for making that mistake giving me the benefit. My perspective comes from 40 years in the classroom, both secondary and Higher Ed. Teaching has always been my priority.
    My second point is the thread of most of my posts. If we are to be better educators, we need to be better learners. If we are to reform education, we need to reform professional development. It must be focused and continual. Teachers are the key to reform, but they need the tools to carry that out. Too many things change over the course of a 40 year career in order for teachers to successfully self-teach themselves about what they need to know in order to stay relevant. They need leadership, direction, and support from a system that for the most part has failed in providing this. There are some districts that do. Some districts have strong, vibrant and thriving cultures of education. We need to model that for all school districts. Many, many districts claim to provide this, but if that were true, why are we all talking so much about reform? PD must be thoughtful, relevant and continual. It must be built into the educator’s work week, The race is not won on the track; it is won in the preparation.

    • Kris Nielsen says:

      Thanks for you reply, *Mr.* Whitby. I guess when I see the words “adjunct professor,” I feel it’s safer to err on the side of “Dr.” PhDs get touchy sometimes, you know. 🙂

      Anyway, I hope that we see the preparation start to materialize better in our school districts. That way, when we all hit the track, there’ll be nothing stopping us. Thanks again!

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