Boni Hamilton has been evaluating how technology works in the classroom for more than two decades.
She has written two books about integrating technology in schools and wrote a doctoral dissertation about how computers are actually used in classrooms and the barriers that stand in the way of what are considered best practices. For her dissertation, she spent more than 400 hours in schools observing technology use.
She knows the ins and outs of various devices, tools and resources, and she understands the value of professional development for teachers as well as the importance of teaching students about digital citizenship and how to evaluate sources on the internet.
But just as powerful a component in determining the effectiveness of technology is the culture of a school. And what makes up that culture are all sorts of wildcards that teachers have no control over.
“As technology changes, the culture of the school changes,” she said. “Every new thing changes your culture: devices, new administrators, new initiatives, professional development. Every new thing changes how it has to happen in the school and how your culture works. We march along like it stays the same. It’s a huge topic that is underacknowledged.”
Understanding the effects of a school’s culture will help teachers get around barriers to using technology well.
“Every building, every classroom, every district has a culture about technology use and it behooves teachers to get themselves in a position to think about all the unmentioned, hidden things that affect culture,” she said. “I know teaching is a heavy duty. But I’m watching a whole lot of technology use that is really not promoting students’ creativity and critical thinking. What it’s doing is reinforcing worksheets. A digital worksheet is not better than a printed worksheet.”
Here’s a look at some school culture factors that Hamilton sees as influencing the effectiveness of computers in the classroom.
Types of devices. Make sure you know what devices the students use and what devices the teachers use – and the differences between them.
“If you don’t know that the student devices don’t do what your computer does, then you have a barrier right away,” she said.
Hamilton has seen those barriers firsthand. Two of the schools she observed were introducing 1:1 devices.
“The devices arrived the week before school started,” she said. “So, the teachers themselves had MacBooks, full computing devices. Their students had either iPads or Chromebooks, which the teachers didn’t get their hands on. So, the teachers were unaware of how different the students’ devices were.”
In the classes with the Chromebooks, the students and teacher were literally not on the same page. The Chromebooks had no ad blockers so the students were distracted by ads that were not on the teacher’s MacBook.
“I watched kids clicking on ads and going to different pages, exploring other things and the teacher was totally unaware of that,” she said.
With the iPads, students came back from winter break to find their devices featured a YouTube album with a picture not appropriate for elementary students, Hamilton said.
“And the music started playing automatically. The teachers didn’t know what was going on because their machines didn’t do it. And it took them a while to figure out, ‘Oh, something changed when the iPads were updated.’”
Tech training: The amount of professional development teachers have access to also affects culture. Administrators often assume that teachers who are tech savvy in their personal lives will be naturally good at using technology in the classroom. That is not necessarily the case, she said.
“Teachers have a lot of experience with tech in their personal lives,” she said. “But that’s not curriculum-based, not pedagogically driven uses of technology.
There is no instinctive link that goes from personal use of technology to pedagogical use of technology. It is not a natural transition.”
Ideally, teachers would have a technology coach who will work side-by-side with them. That, however, is rare, Hamilton said.
“My experience is that the integration technologists who are at the district level can hardly get their feet in the doors of schools because they’re considered an extra and just that much more work,” she said. “And that makes it very hard for them to do training.”
Hamilton urges teachers to seek out their own mentors. Ask, “Is there anyone in this building who is really good at using technology who wouldn’t mind helping me?”
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Acceptable use of computers: In some schools, technology is used so narrowly that it inhibits what a teacher can do. Hamilton saw that students at one school were only allowed to use the reading app on their iPads.
“So, a teacher might walk into a school where technology is used to catch kids up. And so they do drill-and-skill practice programs. That’s all they do,” she says.
Teachers who have learned that this is not an effective use of technology may find themselves at odds with other teachers or the principal.
Room to experiment: In group teaching situations, there is pressure not to deviate from what the rest of the team is doing. This inhibits innovation and experimentation with technology, Hamilton says. A teacher with ideas about using technology has to either sell the team on it or risk being on the outs.
There also has to be some freedom for students to explore. Too many times, Hamilton says, closely directed technology exercises deprive students of the chance to learn from their mistakes.
Student proficiency: Student proficiency with technology also influences a school’s culture. When teachers assume that all students are fluent with technology, it creates another barrier.
At a rural school where she was observing, Hamilton discovered that half the fourth graders had rarely used technology. She advises teachers to ask these important questions:
“What kind of knowledge do kids have? What opportunities do they have to learn skills? What opportunities do they have to learn safety? To learn research skills? If they haven’t learned those things I know where I have to start. In terms of culture, who teaches kids about digital safety and information literacy? Whose responsibility is it? And does the school have a plan at all? I found most schools don’t have a plan.”
Teacher voice: Teachers can help create a healthy school technology culture by getting involved in the decision-making process.
“I think a teacher has to be an advocate for a culture that encourages technology use in creative ways,” Hamilton said. “Administrators who make decisions about devices often don’t know enough about teaching to know whether those devices are good teaching devices. Teachers should be advocating to be part of that decision-making because that’s going to influence the culture and what you can and cannot do.”