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I recently read yet another article that questioned the effect of using technology in education. I believe it stated that there are 3.6 million educators using edtech as the basis for the post. The post itself was well done, but throughout my reading I was troubled by what defined an edtech-using educator. How is it determined that an educator is truly an edtech user?

I have been in meetings where educators had to fill out questionnaires asking about their technology experience. They claimed to be technology-using educators based solely on their use of Power Point for lectures. Technically using Power Point for a lecture does require technology, but that is like claiming to be a social media guru after using Facebook to only follow some family members who post their family vacation pictures at every opportunity.

If we were to do a survey of ten educators who claim to be edtech-users and six of them base their claim on power point lectures alone, and two use tech to send digital worksheets to their students, and the final two educators have students using tech apps for collaboration, curation, communication and creation of content, we could confidently claim that Edtech is not having a great effect on learning. It would be effective for probably less than 20% of the students. The next obvious question would be, how much of an effect is tech having on learning in the classes of those final two educators alone? I imagine the resulting percentage would be a much more positive influence than the other classes, but we lump everyone together.

If we are to establish data on the effects of technology in education, we need to first establish a valid method of evaluating the information from a level playing field. We need to evaluate the experience of the educators claiming to use it. Teachers, who have been identified as users of tech to teach need to, at the very least, be digitally literate. Consequently, we first need to define what is meant by digitally literate. It should not require that a person needs expertise on every application available, but it does assume at the least a comfort with some tools for collaboration, curation, communication and creation of content, the very things we want our students to learn. How many schools can claim a majority of their teachers and administrators have such a comfort level with technology?

In order to determine the effect of technology on learning for students, we need to establish the effects of technology on teaching for teachers. Let us collect data from tech-savvy teachers who model tech use as much as they would hope for their students’ use to be. We need to clearly state what we expect a technology-literate educator to be. It is no longer acceptable to allow educators or administrators to determine what they are minimally going to commit to when it comes to learning tech for professional development. We have reached a point where what was minimally accepted even five years ago is not acceptable now. We must have higher standards for educators if we have certain expectations for students. The education system does not create what society demands for students to survive and thrive in this technology-driven world. It does however need prepare kids for that very life.

Of course this will never be a popular position to take with most educators. They have all attended school for years to prepare for their positions. Their preparation to become an educator was left in the hands of the colleges and universities under the scrutiny of accreditation organizations. The question is how do those institutions stay relevant in an ever-changing technology-driven world?

If the demands of the world that we live in keep evolving and changing at a pace never before experienced in history, we need to adjust what we are doing to meet those demands. We cannot count on 20th Century methodology to prepare our kids for 21st Century demands. Before we redefine what we expect from our students, we need to first redefine what we expect from their educators. If we need to determine if technology is having a positive effect on learning, we need to determine if it is being equally provided to students by educators who have a thorough understanding of technology and are flexible enough to meet the inevitable changes that technology fosters. As always, if we are to better educate our kids, we need to first better educate their educators.

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I remember way back in split roadthe 70’s, I think it was Time magazine that came out with an article listing the most difficult jobs in America. I remember it because at the top of that list was the job of an eighth grade English teacher. Time based its list on the number of decisions an individual had to make on the job. Of course as an eighth grade English teacher I felt Time was 100% right in recognizing my contributions to society.

Contrary to what many uninformed critics might say, teaching is a very difficult and time-consuming job. Teachers need to balance relationships of family as well as their relationships with students. Teachers need to balance family time and preparation time for students. Teachers have also in many instances been scapegoated as the root cause of a perceived failing education system. Teaching has been further complicated because of the rapid change occurring each day in our computer-based, digitally driven society.

All of these factors affect every teacher in different ways. The overall effect however seems that many educators feel that they have a difficult job that they are dedicated to, but they are constantly coming under attack from people who don’t get it. Many teachers have to follow mandates that they find fault in. They are being asked to meet demands without being afforded the time or preparation to successfully accomplish them.

Innovation is loudly called for, but support and time to develop that innovation is barely whispered about. Accountability and evaluation of teachers are still subjective concepts in many schools making them a possible threat with less progressive administrators. Innovation and experimentation can be a perilous road for a teacher to take in this current world of education. Failure, although a very strong basis for learning, is still viewed by many as something that must not happen at any cost, especially in teacher evaluations. In order to deal with all of these pressures one answer is to rely on things that worked in the past. Teachers may rely on what worked in the past without objection. It worked before, so it should withstand scrutiny again. The elephant in the room is that if we shift the goal of education from enabling real learning to obtaining better, standardized test results than test review will trump innovative lessons.

Teachers need to resist hunkering down in the successes of the past. This will not provide our students with what they will need for their future. Our learners are different. Our tools for communication, collaboration, and creation are different. Our society is demanding skills from our learners that are different. The world in which we now live is different from when many of our teachers became teachers. Things will continue to change faster than ever before in history.

We as educators cannot take the safe path of teaching from the past. Innovation is important, even if it is not wholeheartedly supported by our system. Professional development should be prioritized for teachers to evolve as constant and continuing changes take place. Teachers need to personalize their own learning, because few schools will provide what is needed to evolve professionally. It is not a comfortable road to travel. It requires time, persistence and commitment. It will involve both failure and success. It will require leaving comfort zones that are the biggest obstacles to change. It will not happen overnight. It is a continuing journey that will begin with taking a first step. As teachers we need to develop in spite of the system, or that will become the very goal of our kids.

We cannot seek safety in our teaching of the past. It would come at the expense of our students. We need to be innovative in our teaching. We need to be relevant in our learning. The system’s lack of commitment to real, respectful, thoughtful professional development, collaborative time, and innovation may be a deterrent, but it should not be the excuse not to innovate. We have the tools and abilities to circumvent that system until it has time to catch up if it choses to do so. We can never let our comfort zones take precedence over our students’ learning.

If we are to better educate our kids, we need first to better educate their educators.

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One undeniable fact Polar bear on Iceabout teaching is that teachers not only need to be masters of content within their subject area, but they must also be masters of education as a subject. Another undeniable fact is that neither of those subject areas looks the same as when any teacher first mastered them. One effect of the integration of technology into our society is that change in almost everything is happening at a pace never before experienced by mankind. As much as some people may yearn for the simpler times of the past, life will continue to move forward as the natural order of society requires.

The influence of additional information on any subject may often affect how we deal with that subject. In our history, once we had more information on the effects of smoking, smoking habits of millions of people changed. Once we learned what we now understand about the benefits of physical activity, several sports related industries were spawned. Once we learned what we now know of communication, several music and print industries disappeared while being replaced with better in many ways. If we do not take time to understand new information and how it interacts with what we do, we, as a profession, may go the way of typewriters, photographic film, super 8 film, 8 track cassettes, landline telephones, or block-ice refrigeration.

I always viewed education as a preparation for students to learn enough content and skills to use for creating their own content in whatever field they decided to enter. Teachers residing in schools were the keepers of information. Schools determined who got what information and when they got it. Information for kids was determined and dispensed by the teacher. Control and compliance were the keys to the information and allowed for the orderly distribution of content. This was education or centuries.
Now, with the advent of technology and the unlimited access to what often appears to be limitless information, as well as access to untold numbers of people through social media, there is a great change for those who understand it. There is also a great change for those who do not choose to understand it. The cold hard fact here is that technology is now providing us with the tools for “Do It Yourself Learning”. It is not the “mail order courses” of days gone by. It is a real way for some students to circumvent the system that is in place and at their own pace and their own direction learn what they choose to learn. All of this can be delivered in whatever form a student determines is in his or her learning preference, text, video, music, or live face-to-face interaction. There may come a time for some that they will learn in spite of their teachers not teaching them what they need in the way they need it.

In the past I have always said that a computer could never replace a teacher, because learning was based on relationships. Today, I am not so sure. In a profession that is information-based, we must acknowledge that information undergoes change. What we knew a short while back may no longer be relevant in a rapidly changing world. Both areas that teachers are required to master, their subject content, and education have both undergone change no matter when it was any teacher mastered them. Staying up-to-date, relevant, on information in your own profession is a moral imperative. We can’t expect what we learned as college students to carry us through a 30 or 40-year career.
Time and money are often the reasons educators give for not seeking to develop further professionally. They are powerful reasons indeed, but not insurmountable. A fear of technology by many is also offered up as a reason for lack of development. I have come to believe that these are just the excuses, while the real reason for the lack of professional development for educators is the comfort of the Status Quo. Comfort zones are obstacles to change. It may be change itself that most are fearful of. We can’t all agree that change is needed in education, and then refuse to change as individual educators. The system can’t demand change of teachers without examining its own professional development programs that have been so ineffective over the centuries that PD has been offered. Colleges can no longer continue to produce teachers based on a twentieth century model of a classroom teacher.

Anyone entering teaching as a profession must do it with the awareness and a commitment to life long learning, because the teacher you come out of college as, is not the teacher your students will need. It will forever be a changing and evolving position. Teaching is not an easy job. It requires teachers to be uncomfortable with change for a lifetime. However, if we are to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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snapshot-cameraIn a world where we emphasize branding systems, organizations and even people with all the positives, while downplaying all the negatives, it becomes very difficult to get an accurate picture of something so obscured with both what is real and what is hype. Nowhere is this more evident than at any public occasion where a school/district administrator describes his or her school’s/district’s success in being a model of 21st century learning. It is on such occasions that buzzwords and acronyms play such a significant role in confusing the picture of where we really are in education.

I am always wary of any administrator’s description of programs within their schools as if one successful program supported by a few progressive and passionate educators in a school is typical of all that is going on throughout the district. I am equally wary of teachers in public sessions presenting progressive lessons supported with technology and student voice as typical lessons employed by all of their fellow educators in their school or district. This is also a practice of our professional organizations in Education. They promote themselves as leading edge tech drivers for learning, while their sponsors, tech companies, drive most of that and not their members, educators.

We should all share with others great things that we are doing in education. These are the very things needed to inform and inspire others to step up as well. We should not however sell it as the norm for the school unless it is. More often than not however these are exceptional examples for a very good reason: others are not replicating them.

Of course the obvious question, to me at least, is: If this description of progressive, tech-supported, collaborative, student supported learning is so positively impactful in describing a school or district, why aren’t we pushing for it through our policies, professional development, and money? Why are these things still the exceptions to the rule in education? If the control and compliance strategy of the 20th century is not what is being touted as an exemplar for 21st Century learning presented to the public, why is it still so prevalent in the system? Why are we not reframing our definition of an administrator and teacher to be digitally literate? Why are we not giving voice to all constituents in a school community? Why are we not promoting a school culture that supports collaboration and technological competence for all life long learners that includes all administrators, teachers and students? Why are we not providing authentic, respectful, differentiated Professional Development to our educators?

We should have pride in our schools. We should share with people the wonderful things that are being accomplished. Teachers should share their most successful lessons with other educators. If however we take those snapshots of great things and convince or even imply to people that this is the way all learning is taking place for the sake of branding, it is a step too far.

There is a need to assess exactly what the skills are of our educators of varied ages who have come from various backgrounds and experiences in order to provide what each individual needs in PD. There is a need for every school to examine what their school culture is, in order to align it with what they want it to be. There is a need to define what a 21st Century educator is in order to move a majority of educators out of their 20th Century mindset.

When someone is painting a picture of his or her contribution to the learning of his or her students, it should be limited to that alone. Teachers and administrators should not imply and we should not assume that their snapshots of their classes or projects are the feature film of the entire school’s learning environment. Their accomplishments and those of their students however should be a model to get schools to evolve to a place and time where it is representative of the entire school’s learning environment.

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We often hear that the most influential element in a student’s life is the teacher. As an educator this can be both an honor and a daunting responsibility. It elevates the status of a position, often viewed by some as public service, to that of a valued mentor. This would all be well and good if education could truly be defined as it was for centuries in the past. Students were empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of their teachers. If this were in any way true today, and a teacher was able to pour all of the knowledge contained in his or her head into the empty vessels seated in rows before him or her, the teacher would still not be imparting enough information for an adequate education in today’s world. Our world, as well as information itself, changes and evolves at too fast a pace. Teaching and learning are evolving and many of the old concepts no longer apply.

Unfortunately however, many politicians and some educators buy into this traditional model of what an educator should be, and base teacher evaluations on it. In many states a teacher’s evaluation will be predominantly based on how well his or her students perform on a standardized test. That test performance has de facto become the goal of education.

What makes all of this so complicated is that kids are not widgets. They are complicated. It may be true that a teacher may at times be the most influential factor in the classroom for some kids, but not for all kids, and not every time. Kids do not leave everything at the door of the classroom so they can have their vessels filled. All of their problems travel with them. The difference between kid problems and adult problems is that, hopefully, adults have learned coping mechanisms, but kids have not.

Teachers do not just address that part of a kid that is in school to learn. The whole child with all of his or her problems must be addressed. Learning, no matter who is the teacher takes a back seat to safety, hunger, health, and emotional stability. When it comes to kids we need to first address Maslow’s Hierarchy before we can get to Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is never a consideration in a teacher’s evaluation.

Kids today are entering schools after traveling through neighborhoods that might be considered war zones in some countries. Kids are coming from homes where education is not a priority at all. English in many homes is a second language at best. Kids are coming to school not from homes, but cars or shelters. Beyond the complications of urban poverty, we have large regions of the country experiencing rural poverty with different problems for kids, but the same results. Their problems and needs take precedence over learning in school.

How can we possibly assess and evaluate a teacher’s performance without assessing and evaluating each of his or her students? The tests that students are forced to take may be standardized, but the students themselves are not. Each student is different with problems that affect their ability to learn each and every day with varying intensity. That is what complicates learning and teaching. How can there be simple solutions with so many complicated variables?

To complicate things further for teachers, they must also deal with the red tape of shortsighted policies. Policies often put in place to address issues that have little to do with educating a child. Teaching involves dealing with the whole child and all of the complications that come with it; yet, we are told that a standardized test for all is the answer. It is the golden measure. It will tell us how much each student has learned and how effective each teacher was in teaching without regard for any other factors beyond the grade on the test.

With standardized testing and all of the curriculum materials and extras that go along with that making a BILLION dollars a year for a few companies, I fear it will be with us longer, but we have already lived with it for longer than we should have. We cannot however allow politicians to use these tests to decimate the teaching profession and public education beyond repair. Yes, we need to evaluate a teacher’s performance, but it must be done fairly and in consideration of what the job really requires. It can’t be done in a way that simply ignores what it is that teachers are being required to do every day they report to work. Teaching and learning have nothing to do with empty vessels. Politics and politicians however might better fit that description. Maybe before we can better educate our kids, we need to first better educate our politicians.

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We are now better than fifteen years into the 21st Century and educators are still discussing what role technology plays in education. The fact of the matter is no matter what educators, who are mostly products of a 20th Century education, think, our students today will need to be digitally literate in their world in order to survive and thrive. Digital Literacy is a 21st Century skill, but therein lies the rub. Most of our educators have been educated with a twentieth Century mindset using 20th Century methodology and pedagogy at best. I dare say there might be some 19th Century holdovers as well.

Digital literacy is recognized by the developers of common core to be important enough to be included as a component of the curriculum. This will however vary and be dependent on what each individual teacher knows, or does not know in regard to his or her own digital literacy. In other words teachers without digital literacy in a 21st Century education setting are illiterate educators for the purpose of this discussion. We can certainly wait for attrition to clean out the system, but that might take years at the expense of our kids. It also does not address a further infiltration of even more from entering the system.

These educators are not bad people. Many may be willing to change and learn to be digitally literate if it is prioritized and supported by administrators. The problem there is that digitally illiterate administrators fail to recognize the need, or understand how to support the new skills required using a new 21st Century mindset. That is not to say all administrators fall into this category, but certainly too many for any needed change to happen in a timely fashion do.

There certainly is enough blame to go around for what places the education system in this predicament and much of that lies in education programs from our institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, too often student tech skills and digital literacy are assumed and not formally taught in schools of higher education. If students are getting by with email and desktop publishing it is assumed that they are “digital natives”, a term that has cut short education for digital skills in America.

The biggest problem we have with any digital education is the rapidity at which things change.This will only get worse as technology evolves. People learn something; they buy into it; they get comfortable with it; and then it evolves to something else. That comfort level is hard to shake, so change is slow, if it takes place at all. The system also generally fails to recognize the need to prioritize and support change in a way to keep all staff relevant. It is also failing to prioritize digital literacy for incoming teachers.

If we were to prioritize Digital Literacy as a job requirement it might speed up needed changes. Once colleges realized that placing their students in teaching positions required a knowledge of digital literacy they would need to revamp their curricula accordingly. An influx of digitally educated teachers would go a long way in changing the culture of elementary and secondary schools in regard to their acceptance and priorities concerning new tools for learning and the integration of technology and education.

We have always required new teachers to have specific skills in order to secure a job teaching. We also required that they demonstrate those skills before a job could be offered. I can’t think of one hiring committee, of the hundreds I participated in, that did not require a writing sample. How many teaching candidates are offered jobs without someone seeing them teach a class with a sample lesson? It would not be a stretch to require candidates to exhibit their technology skills for consideration.

Prioritizing digital skills will also signal a need for existing staff to get comfortable with change rather than retaining the status quo. It will shake up comfort zones to enable forward movement. It will also force administrators to get some game of their own. They will need digital awareness in order to objectively observe teachers using technology for learning.

Digitally illiterate educators will soon be irrelevant educators and that hurts all educators. As a community we need to support change and digital literacy or we may become as relevant as a typewriter, or film photography. If we are to better educate our kids, we must first better educate their educators.

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When it comes to the use of technology for learning within our education systems there seems to be two different pictures of our current status. As a connected educator interacting online with many other tech-savvy educators, I see an image of a slow, but steady evolvement of technology-driven innovation in education.

As a person who travels the country engaging educators in conversation, face-to-face conversation, wherever, and whenever the opportunity arises, I get a very different picture. I see a status quo supporting a 20th century model of education with little professional development that is directed by districts to update their teachers. Too often I am getting stories of administrators discouraging change and teachers not willing to evolve beyond where they are. I am not sure how to get an actual picture of what education really looks like today when considering the branding, public relations, and political posturing that is a constant in the system. I do believe we have a distorted view of what education in the 21st century actually looks like.

Of course anyone reading this post will match it up against his or her personal experience to judge its accuracy, but I am not sure that is the total perspective needed to make that judgment. Few schools will stand up to say they support the status quo in education. They will point to whatever thread of innovation that exists in their school and portray it as the rule rather than the exception.

Of course the political climate in this country does not support innovation in education since standardization and high stakes testing determine status and funding for schools. Teachers needing to rely or survive on their students’ test results are hesitant to go beyond that which is required in order to retain their own livelihood. States attempting or succeeding in doing away with tenure leave innovative teachers dependent on the whim of politicians, vocal parents, or popular sentiment without regard for due process in matters of retaining a teaching position. That is hardly a catalyst for innovative change.

Most new ideas have more enemies than friends. Education needs new ideas and people who can stand up and lead those ideas over rather perilous roads to completion. For this to succeed we need to make sure educators are being exposed to the latest and best ideas for learning through professional development. Once they have the knowledge, teachers need to be supported in collaboration with others to refine, plan, and implement ideas. Once in place, time and support must be given in order to develop, assess, refine, and improve the idea. All of this takes time and time translates to money.

Money for education is rarely seen as anything but a problem. We fund education through taxation and that is a burden and also a rallying cry for politicians. If education were as much a priority as defense is, there would be no burden. Since education funding is political however, it will always be political and subject to the ebb and flow of popular trends, economic downturns, and popular myths. None of this supports innovation.

Innovation is change and most people are not comfortable with change. It requires risk. The bigger the risk, the less likely the change will occur. Couple this with the fact that most people want the best and most up to date education system in the world. We are left with some, if not most, administrators, the folks in charge, painting a rosy picture of innovation and modernization with whatever programs, small portions of programs, or even lessons their schools have to offer, giving the impression that it is system-wide.

Yes, there are some wonderful schools doing wonderful things with progressive education leadership and teachers who are supported with PD and time to do wonderful things. There are also schools that focus on the tests and maintaining what they believe the status quo provides stability and predictability to cope with required standardization and high stakes testing. Control and compliance for teachers, as well as students, are the proven commodities in these environments.

The question is where are we now, and when will we get to where we need to be? I tend to think we are not yet supportive enough of innovation. Support requires action, not just spouting off words. We need brave leadership to stand up to status-quo supporters. No, not everything from the past is bad. We need to determine what has value and what needs to be changed in a computer-driven society that looks very different from what it was in the 20th Century. Change is disruptive and a conservative institution like education does not tolerate disruption very well. We all need to look at education as a needed investment for our kids and for our country. An educated citizenry is our best defense for dealing with things we have not yet imagined. If we are to better educate our kids, we need first to better educate their educators.

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