Five Ways Teachers Can Use Technology to Help Students

Thomas Edison once said, “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools…our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.” Amazingly enough, however, one of our nation’s most important inventors was proven quite wrong. The American education system has a remarkable resistance to innovation and the classroom experience has changed very little in the 100 years since Edison’s prediction.

Advances in information technology have revolutionized how people communicate and learn in nearly every aspect of modern life except for education. The education system operates under the antiquated needs of an agrarian and industrial America. The short school day and the break in the summer were meant to allow children to work on family farms. Schools have an enduring industrial mentality placing students in arbitrary groups based on their age regardless of their competencies.

Technology has failed to transform our schools because the education governance system insulates them from the disruptions that technology creates in other organizations. The government regulates schools perhaps more than any other organization. Rules govern where students study, how they will learn, and who will teach them. Education regulation governs the relationships of actors in the system and stymies the impact of innovative technologies. Furthermore the diffuse system of governance creates numerous veto points to limit innovation.

To overcome these obstacles, we must persuade teachers that technology will empower them and help their students learn. We argue that there are five strategies for successful teacher adoption of education technology and that these principles will help fulfill the potential that Edison saw a century ago:

Schools must use technology that empowers teachers. Teachers rightly reject education technologies that divert their attention from instruction. The best education technologies enable teachers to do more with fewer resources. Communication platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr enable dynamic communication with students. Teacher-empowering technologies include mobile apps that grade written student work and provide lesson plan databases. School systems need to aggressively track what works for their teachers and put all other unworkable technologies aside.

Teachers should treat the adoption of technology as part of lesson planning. One of the major drivers of bad policy is policy churn. New district leaders want to make their mark adopting new policies and jettisoning the old. This constant changing of priorities makes beneficial reforms difficult to implement. Teachers can incorporate technology directly into their practice and insulate their students from the deleterious effects of policy churn. For example teachers can use Khan Academy or other online resources to improve remediation. Systematic adoption of technology at the classroom levels limits the damage of shifting policy maker priorities.

Teachers should not fear open-source technologies. Many mistakenly believe that education technologies are expensive and complicated to use. Open-source technologies are stable, secure, and compatible with other platforms. Organizations both small and large use open source devices every day. Many businesses use open-source servers for their efficiency and costs savings. They often have large communities that provide high quality customer support. Best of all, open-source technologies often cost less than proprietary products.

Use online education portfolios to evaluate students. Educators have known about the benefits of paper based portfolios for generations. Portfolios allow students to express creativity for difficult to assess subjects. Teachers can choose from a variety of online portfolio providers tailored to the needs of their classroom. They also serve as a platform for students to demonstrate growth. Online portfolios have many advantages over paper based options because they cost less and allow for more robust outreach. Online portfolios are also amenable to a wider variety of formats including video, music or other interactive features.

Teachers should embrace the Common Core State Standards. Common standards make teaching simpler. Teachers have to write lessons that comply with district, state, and national standards (e.g. NCTM or NCTE). Having a single set of standards eliminates redundancy and conflicting guidelines. Furthermore universal adoption of common standards will support future technological innovations that aid teachers. From a technical perspective, standards facilitate the development of new technologies. Innovators can focus on developing tools that better serve students rather than solving technical challenges of interoperability created by multiple sets of standards.

Undoubtedly weak financial support inhibits the adoption of education technology. Despite this obstacle, teachers working together have tremendous potential to reform education. Every day teachers face choices about how to implement the curriculum and instruct students. Those moments are opportunities for teachers to engage in education reform that has a real impact on students. Teachers should use education technologies that are inexpensive, easy to use, and improve student learning.