“If the computer does all that, what are we supposed to do?”
I had an interesting exchange with a teacher, while delivering a presentation on personalized learning with Khan Academy. At the time, I believed the best way to encourage teachers to use technology was to emphasize the time it could save. I focused on how a personalized platform would not only save time grading but would create easy-to-read graphs that enable us to better understand student strengths and opportunities for improvement. I had also shared with participants how students who were having difficulty with a question could take a hint or watch an instructional video to help with the question that they were answering.
To my surprise, one of the teachers in the workshop called out, “If the computer does all that, what are we supposed to do?” At the time, I felt discouraged and a but disappointed that this individual did not appreciate the strides EdTech has made in recent years. A decade ago, it was clunky and time-consuming; worst of all, it was hard to understand how the technology was improving outcomes for our students. I expected other teachers to be as excited as I was to learn that the latest wave of EdTech offerings had overcome these obstacles to meaningful classroom integration.
Instead, here was a teacher whose concern wasn’t about the difficulty in using technology, or even a question of its benefits: he was opposed to giving students access to this powerful tool because he was afraid it would do his job better than he did. This question, of whether computers can replace teachers, summed up the opportunity, and the challenge, of incorporating technology innovations into classrooms.
Will Computers Replace Teachers?
I had begun with the assumption that teachers would want what was best for them and their students, whatever challenges were involved. Like most assumptions, I have since learned that this one was flawed in a number of ways. Over the years, I have often replayed this teacher’s words in my head, and I’ve come to appreciate his comment as a guide on the importance of making teachers feel valued and supported when rolling out a technology initiative. Any type of change is difficult and stressful; incorporating new technology into a classroom setting can be especially hard. Teachers have anxiety that the technology will fail, that they will fail at using it, or even that their success will rob their job of purpose and meaning.
When teachers embark on a blended learning initiative, it’s important to help them understand that there will be changes to the type of work they do, but that the change will be gradual, comfortable, and valuable. Despite advances in Virtual Reality, we are nowhere near the point where a computer can do the things we expect from an effective teacher. Instead, computers can do some of the repetitive and tedious work that has historically taken too much time out of a teacher’s day.
Technology in Service of Learning
Instead of spending time correcting answers, teachers can use that time to interpret data and better understand their students. They can better differentiate their instruction, plan interactive lessons, and incorporate project-based learning that emphasizes higher-order thinking. Technology can give teachers the power to do the things they want to do but just haven’t had the time to accomplish. In order for technology integration to be effective, teachers need to be on-board with technology as an ally rather than a threat. Teachers also benefit from professional development on teaching in technology rich classrooms.
In many schools, technology is seen as an item on the to-do list, rather than a solution to existing problems. The first step to a successful technology initiative is to identify existing problems of practice, especially teacher workload. Schools that have a solid understanding of their strengths and needs can do this effectively. A school audit can be an extremely useful undertaking, as it can be difficult for insiders to take an unbiased look at their schools.
Schools that have successful initiatives also plan ahead – look for areas in your existing curriculum where technology use makes sense. Start by piloting small programs while looking ahead to consider where it makes sense to revise the curriculum to make use of technology. The 3-Bridges Design for Learning can be a useful framework in leveraging technology to enrich your curriculum.
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