Technology is essential to a 21st-century education. It can transform the classroom experience, and therefore improve student achievement and engagement. It can also provide teachers and students with a variety of educational resources that develop 21st-century skills, such as collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Technology can also enhance educational equity, as it can facilitate providing differentiated instruction that fits well with the specific needs of each student. However, multiple surveys (for example, this 2018 survey from PwC) tell us that many teachers in the United States do not have enough experience, resources, or training to use technology in the most effective ways, especially in low-income schools. Districts lose millions of dollars a year in unused education technology products, often because teachers lack the professional development support that would help strategically incorporate technology in their practice.
Our research on the Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 shows that when teachers have access to instructional technology coaches, they and their students use technology more frequently and in more impactful ways.
Our research suggests three ways that instructional technology coaches can help teachers use technology more powerfully:
Not only do teachers differ in the problem of practice they want to address with technology, they also vary widely in experience levels around technology in the classroom. As opposed to a one-size-fits-all technology training for teachers, coaching allows for support that is customized to the specific context of each teacher’s background, classroom, and goals, as well as the particular needs of the student population. A coach is able to meet teachers at their starting point, whether that means beginning with the basics, such as modeling how to set up a learning management system account, or working with an experienced teacher around more complex technology integration, such as having students collaboratively engage in design thinking with another classroom across the globe. As one eighth-grade DLP teacher put it, a coach can help teachers identify and implement technology tools in a way that is “right for what you need, and what’s right for your students.”
Trying something new can be intimidating, especially when teachers are concerned about how to salvage a lesson if use of a new technology tool fails. As one DLP teacher said, “It’s a little nerve-racking when I’m learning a new tool and the students are learning it at the same time.” Coaches allay these fears by providing teachers with low-risk opportunities to try new strategies and tools with a safety net. Prior to implementing a new tool in the classroom, they meet with teachers one-on-one to practice its use. During implementation, coaches model use, co-teach side-by-side, or observe the teacher while poised to jump in if necessary.
One DLP coach explains it to his teachers this way: “I’m going to ask you to try something new that you’ve never done before, but I have skin in the game too because I’m co-teaching with you. If it’s a complete disaster, you have another adult in the room to pull you out of the tailspin.” If a lesson fails or if the teacher needs to adjust course part way through, the coach serves as a partner to reflect with the teacher afterward on what can be learned from the failure. In this way, said another DLP teacher, the process of collaborating with a coach “really removes a lot of the anxiety around using technology.”
Teachers are often afraid to try new technology tools because they worry that they will lose control of their classrooms. Over the course of three years, we conducted 16 student focus groups to better understand this concern from the student perspective. Students agreed that technology use during class can sometimes be a distraction and provided examples of “disrespectful” behaviors by themselves and their classmates, such as using technology to send messages to their friends or watch Netflix, rather than participating actively in a lesson. However, they went on to explain that this occurs when they feel assignments are boring and irrelevant to their lives, and that this misbehavior does not occur when lessons are engaging and they “actually have a motive to learn.” An effective technology coach works with teachers to design engaging lessons and be responsive to student voice in how technology is harnessed in the classroom.
One early career high school math teacher was afraid that if she used technology to give her freshman students more independence and agency, productivity in the classroom would decrease. To assuage this fear, her coach suggested starting small with just one class period. Together, they piloted a choice menu of technology tools that gave students the opportunity to choose from a few different avenues of displaying mastery. Then, they met to discuss what worked and why, and to troubleshoot issues that arose. Seeing initial success with this "beta test," the teacher began to feel more at ease "letting go of the reins" and making her classroom less teacher-directed. By the end of her collaboration with the coach, the teacher found that her initial apprehension had not been warranted. “Using technology to give students the opportunity for choices and creativity really leads to more engagement," she reflected. "Their grades have gone up. The quality of their work has gone up."