Bells and Whistles or Transformative Learning? The Case for Ed Tech

A teacher can write 30 names on popsicle sticks, toss them in a cup, and have a pretty effective equitable calling strategy. Or a teacher can use a random name generator on the web to essentially do the same thing. Either way, good teaching is good teaching is good teaching, so what does it matter? Not so fast. That’s just bells and whistles. I argue ed tech matters, and can be transformative. Benjamin Herold of Ed Week recently wrote about this subject and the title of his article seemingly disagrees with me. In “Why Ed Tech is Not Transforming How Teachers Teach,” he claims many teachers are hesitant to adapt, that most teachers use ed tech to display a PowerPoint, but not much else. He claims most teachers use ed tech to make their job as teachers easier, but don’t use ed tech in ways that meaningfully transform learning for our students. As a social studies teacher, I cringed at the photo used to accompany the article–students staring off into space, with the caption, “Students in a classroom at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del., listen to a social studies lecture from their teacher.” Zing. The old boring history lecture narrative. As a history teacher myself, I sighed.

But if you get past the headline and really read this article, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ed tech can be transformative. Ed tech can help move a teacher from a sage on the stage to a guide on the side. Ed tech is not inherently ineffective, it’s just that not enough teachers are adapting. And this is not to say the responsibility solely lies on teachers. Are schools and districts providing enough funding for technology, training, professional development? Is our standardized testing culture incentivizing teachers to adapt and modernize, or are we incentivized to “drill and kill?”

In social studies, I see ed tech as providing one great advantage that is much more difficult in an unconnected classroom. Ed tech allows students to drive inquiry. The availability of primary and secondary sources on the Internet is transforming social studies education. Teacher and student generated questions can be explored through a plethora of instantly available multimedia sources. Students can source, contextualize, and corroborate those sources to make claims supported by evidence. But it’s not enough to ask students a question and set them free on an iPad or Chromebook. Sources need to be adapted for different reading levels. Sources need to be vetted to ensure they’re appropriate in content and align to standards and indicators. Assessments need to be carefully crafted to both assess student learning and provide formative data to teachers to guide instruction. Students need opportunities to demonstrate their mastery in a multitude of creative and rigorous ways.

This is where teachers, schools, and districts need robust ed tech resources at their fingertips. Teaching on an island is increasingly difficult in a student-centered, 21st century classroom. Lesson planning for student inquiry, with student choice, with abundant source material, is impossible without some help. Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook does so much of this work for teachers. Content is aligned to standards and indicators. Students can explore primary and secondary sources, in a wide variety of formats, differentiated by reading level, all with a click of the mouse. Ed tech transforms learning when it’s the right technology, used in the right way, for the right purpose. Easier said than done. But teachers aren’t asked to invent this stuff, there are great resources out there. Techbook makes inquiry more accessible for more teachers, and makes ed tech transformative, not just something that displays a PowerPoint.