Whiteboarding “Uneven” Learning

Too often, we preach technology for technology’s sake in education.  Not wanting to be the last industry sector to adopt the latest toys or shiny playthings, we rush out to acquire that which we may not understand or appreciate.  As a result, we have that which is cool or cutting edge (at least for the next 10 minutes), but we often lack the training, support, and expertise to truly put it to use in the classrooms that need it the most.

Case in point — interactive whiteboards.  Over at Education Week, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo has this piece on the impact of interactive whiteboards in K-12 classrooms.  Asking the impact of such technology on teaching, Manzo has come back with a disturbing answer — “uneven.”  For some, such technology is a godsend, an ability to bring 21st century tools into a 21st century learning environment, helping better integrate student interests and inclinations into a learning style that can maximize outcomes.  For others, these pricey investments are used as nothing more than glorified chalkboards, reducing the latest bells and whistles to a 21st century reincarnation of Little House on the Prairie learning.

So why are such tools and technology “uneven” when it comes to improving teaching and learning in the classroom?  From the cheap seats, there are two major differentiators between those who are utilizing such technology effectively and those who might as well be banging rocks against those expensive whiteboards — integration and expertise.

From Manzo’s piece and from tales of good education technology across the nation, we know that teachers who effectively integrate technology into the wants and needs of both students and society are the ones who succeed.  To put a finer point on it, it isn’t what we teach, but rather how we teach it.  Putting Chaucer’s or Dickens’ greatest works on a Kindle does not teach handheld technologies. It uses handheld technology to deliver some of the greatest literature the world has ever read.  It provides content in a way that many of today’s students are better used to dealing with, opening their minds with great tech so we can feed them time-tested technology.

In far too many schools, we still “de-skill” students, unplugging them from the mediums they are most comfortable with to teach through methods contemporary to the buggy whip.  We unplug our students, believing that laptops, iPods, cellphones, and even whiteboards have no real place in teaching the three Rs.  As a result, students fail to see the relevance of their education as they judge the delivery and not the content.  In our quest to boost high school graduation numbers and build a more educated workforce, we should be doing everything and anything we can to better connect students to those learning and opportunity pathways.  That not only means technology, but it means well-integrated tech.

That leaves us with expertise.  We can’t simply install a new whiteboard in a veteran teacher’s classroom and expect her to use it like the salesperson originally demonstrated.  If we are to utilize ed tech effectively in the classrooms, we need to provide all teachers (and not just those designated tech teachers or affiliated with the business departments) with the skill and support to use available tools.  That not only means supporting ed tech “experts” in the schools, like we would reading or math experts, but it also means ensuring that all teachers have a basis of understanding and know how for how to put new tech to use in their old classrooms.  From interactive whiteboards on down, technologies can impact reading to foreign language, math to science, history to theater.  But we can’t make teachers walk the path alone.  We need to support them.  And we need to make clear that technology is the tool, and not the teacher itself.

In past years, schools across the nation have turned to federal programs such as the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program to provide the funds and guidance necessary to seed technology professional development in the classroom.  But at a time when ed tech has never been more important to the future success of our schools and our students, programs like EETT have all but been discarded like an eight-year-old operating system.  When the program was originally envisioned less than a decade ago, Congress intended for EETT to provide approximately $1 billion a year in PD support.  A small drop in the bucket when it comes to federal education spending, but the earth, moon, and stars for the ed tech community.  EETT never reached that intended target, and today the program only receives $100 million in federal support.  That’s one-tenth the funding to support thousands of schools at a time when technology, innovation, and turnaround has never been more paramount.  And one-tenth the intended funding at a time when supporting, encouraging, and developing qualified and effective teachers has never been a greater priority. 

Are whiteboards the solution to our struggling schools?  Of course not.  They are just the latest example of what technology has to offer.  We asked this question of one-to-one computing a decade ago.  We’re starting to ask it of options like iPhones and Twitter today.  The point is not the technology itself, but how well positioned our schools and educators are to receive the latest and greatest industry can produce.  Those teachers who understand (and are supported in) how to use technology to make instruction more relevant and interesting to the student will always thrive.  Those schools that are regularly providing educators the professional development and ongoing support to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing learning environment will always succeed.  

When we invest in our classrooms, our ROI should never be defined as “uneven.”  At a time when technology in education is the quickest path to meaningful improvement, we must make sure we are investing in the people and conditions to ensure success.  Interactive whiteboards alone can’t do it.  Teachers who understand the full power and reach of those whiteboards (along with the next big three things to come down the pike) can.

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