Column: We should be inspiring our teachers to innovate with technology

Published Aug. 26, 2016

Although classrooms went largely unchanged for several decades, technological innovation today is moving at breakneck speeds. The new tools available to teachers have drastically changed the way they interact with their students, and the way the students interact with the materials being taught.

Back-to-school supplies of No. 2 pencils, markers and college ruled notebooks, while still useful, have been augmented by iPads, interactive whiteboards and web-based tools.

Education critics often see these simply as bells and whistles or just kowtowing to the shiny new toy. While there are some tools that are simply substitutes for the ones that came before, others take learning to a level not seen before.

It is vital that parents and policymakers understand the difference. More than 100 years ago, for instance, the chalkboard was a great teaching tool. It's since been replaced by interactive whiteboards, document cameras and tablets. Each iteration is slightly more functional than the last.

But the changes we're seeing today are not simply incremental augmentations of old tools. They are helping us move to a new paradigm. Technology today allows for penetrating new projects and assignments that weren't possible before, and tools that teachers can use that can drastically improve learning outcomes.

For instance, online polling platforms such as Socrative and Kahoot! make quizzing more fun and interactive for students because they provide invaluable immediate feedback to both students and teachers. With real-time analytics, teachers know if students "got" a particular concept, or if only some got it, and can immediately reteach or address gaps in students' understanding before moving on to new concepts.

Other interactive web-based tools such as ThingLink, PowToons, Prezi and Animoto allow students to create and demonstrate their own understandings of the content as they prepare their own interactive presentations. This is the juncture where deep learning takes place and students actually "own" the concept.

In the 21st century, our students will be more connected to electronic devices throughout their entire lives. It is incumbent upon teachers to take advantage of emerging technology tools to not only connect with and engage students, but also to prepare them to be ready for college and careers.

Unfortunately, teachers today are not only lacking the support to discover and master the numerous tools now available, but in the most egregious cases are actively hindered.

A student teacher here at Saint Leo University was recently prohibited by her cooperating teacher from introducing an innovative technique to the classroom. The supervisor saw this simply as "edutainment" and a waste of time, saying, "You have to stick to the curriculum."

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Educational leaders need to understand: You can stick to the curriculum and use technology. The two are not at odds.

They eventually reached a compromise and the supervisor agreed to allow our student teacher to try it for one lesson. Post-lesson measurements showed student comprehension off the charts and that 100 percent of the students were engaged.

Can you imagine the results if the intern had been allowed to use technology from the beginning of the internship?

The underlying issue with all this is the infatuation with standardized testing results. Legislators have insisted that test results are the be-all, end-all. Standardized testing permeates everything that happens in the classroom and drives curricular decisions. Substantial amounts of time taken away from the curriculum for testing is time squandered.

In other words, focusing on tests takes time away from focusing on the learner, and our learners now need effective use of technology in their school environments.

Saint Leo's education department began making the use of technology in classroom environments a priority in our teaching program in 2006, in response to real-world feedback from our recent alumni. Now, our students don't graduate without being exposed to and expected to use a vast array of technology tools. And we didn't stop there.

We held our third annual Teacher Technology Summer Institute in June, in which 20 area veteran teachers were invited to learn new tools and take them back to their classrooms to use every day. Through this initiative, Saint Leo not only serves local school districts, but we also prepare mentor teachers to work with our pre-service teachers.

The goal is to determine new best practices for devices that are ever-changing. The sooner we unlock the potential of the tools, the sooner we can unlock the potential of the teachers to use them. Only then will today's students reap the benefits that weren't available for previous generations and be prepared for a digitally connected life.

Candace Roberts is a professor of education at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo.