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Quality Access to Learning: Teachers and Technology

Guest post written by Wendy Heckert. Wendy is a former English teacher and department chair. She is currently working on an Ed.D in Curriculum and Teaching from Boston University.

Preparing students to participate in a global society is the underpinning of education reform these days. To address this national initiative, schools are changing their teacher evaluation systems, adopting the Common Core standards, continuing with high-stakes testing, and increasing the push for technology as a key tool to learning. Of course, all of this relies on school funding, but that topic is for another time. In this post, I want to focus on the use of technology as a tool for improving teaching and learning. I believe reforming education comes down to one important phrase: quality access to learning.

As we know from the national conversation, the push for more technology in schools is based on the belief that it will increase student achievement, especially regarding our competitive edge as a nation. Who doesn't want students to achieve? Who doesn't want our country to be competitive? However, if we take a closer look at what this national push looks like in many schools, we find this assumption: if standards and testing are common and technology provided to schools, then students will have quality access to learning.

During my tenure as a teacher and department chair in a large urban district, I experienced this assumption first hand. My high school's Associate Principal worked aggressively to get technology to teachers. She believed wholeheartedly that it could improve our teaching and learning, i.e. test scores. We each received a personal desk computer, the libraries received enough computers for an entire class to use at one time, and each department received an Interwrite Board. While this was necessary and appreciated, she did not succeed at providing teachers with professional development. Yet, she often commented on the teachers' lack of use of these tools. I learned through my close work with teachers that their use varied based on their technological know-how and motivation to learn. I tried to dedicate department meetings to learning about these tools--how it could support their teaching. Unfortunately, our time to learn was often overshadowed by the high school Principal's priorities, which were not focused on teachers' use of technology. Ironically, the technology we did acquire could have supported her priorities if more teachers knew how to use it well. We were left to figure it out on our own. I struggled with finding the time to learn the tools and with creating opportunities for teachers to learn. Consequently, not much innovation happened with these new tools, although there was great potential as some teachers were able to demonstrate. So I watched as useful technological tools were treated like the classroom notebook.

When I started teaching high school English, no one challenged my assumption about the role of the classroom notebook. Many used it for housing students' notes and class handouts. Some even went as far as to prescribe the notebook's divisions. Assumptions were often made based on students' academic level: "higher-level classes know how to use a notebook", or "lower-level classes don't seem to care." What I realized was that most kids regardless of GPA or interest in school had little clue how to use the notebook as a learning tool. It was just a required object that took up space in their locker or lowered their grade because they forgot it. More importantly, I did not even know how to use it as a teaching tool. It was in preparation for my third year of teaching that I considered the purpose of the notebook and how to use it effectively. Besides discussing its purpose with my students, I taught them how to use it as a resource. This required a lot of modeling as well as restructuring my lessons to require its use. I could not have done this without considering its purpose in my class, experimenting with its use, reflecting on the experience, and observing students using it. Once I integrated the notebook into how I thought about and planned my daily instruction, it became a meaningful tool for both me and my students. The kids "who didn't care" brought their notebooks to class and everyone increased their access to learning. This change did not happen overnight. I first had to become aware of my ignorance regarding the class notebook, a common tool in everyone's school experience. This required the time and motivation to contemplate ways to improve my teaching and my students' learning experiences.

Whether we are discussing the use of the class notebook or a software program, the point is the same. There is a learning curve when considering how to integrate a tool into one's teaching or how to teach students to use a tool for learning. Thus, we must not assume because everyone has been provided or are required to use an educational tool, they possess the know-how. We must not assume that learning how, why and when to use a tool is simple, or that all teachers even think critically about its use. Most importantly, we must not assume that technology in and of itself will give students quality access to learning. This is where many initiatives fall short. Before students can gain access to quality learning experiences via a technological tool or any educational tool for that matter, teachers need quality access to their own learning. Schools must provide teachers with adequate time and guidance to learn how to use technology, and to contemplate its impact on pedagogy and student learning. This is imperative if we want all students to develop 21st century skills. This is even more critical for students who are disengaged. Technological tools can support differentiated instruction and motivate students. There is much potential for technology to support teachers' efforts to provide quality education for all of their students. But like the class notebook, technology in the classroom can become just another meaningless means to learning and another superficial teaching tool if its purpose and usage are not fully understood.

So here I make a plea, not to schools, but to education technology companies. Please become advocates for teachers' access to quality professional development: time, experimentation, reflection and guidance. This is especially important if you want your products used successfully. Ideally, companies would provide free professional development services to schools. This can be done in a variety of ways, but that is for another post.

While the class notebook may soon be replaced by a note-taking app, its effective integration into the teaching and learning experience is simply not a given. Time to learn is just as important for teachers as it is for students. Teachers' quality access to learning must become an immediate priority. Our country's future depends on it.

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