Amid All the Cool Edtech Tools, Liz Kolb Keeps the Focus on Learning
As an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, Liz Kolb teaches future teachers how to best use technology in the classroom. But the idea that she would be a teacher of any sort wasn’t something that she foresaw early on in her life. In fact, she struggled in school, hampered by speech impediments and processing issues.
“When you're struggling in school, you don't necessarily think you're going to become a teacher,” she said.
Her turnaround came in her later high school years when a few teachers helped her realize that she just learned differently from her peers. And she discovered she could flourish as a student but she just had to use to different tools and resources to get there.
“That really changed the whole trajectory of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do,” she said. “It really set me on a course of wanting to work with struggling learners like myself, who maybe felt like the education system wasn't built for them, but I wanted to show them that they had opportunities and paths within it.”
Her trajectory since high school has been particularly steep and accomplished. She has gone from high school social studies teacher and school tech coordinator to college professor, researcher, prolific writer and book author. In her 23 years as an educator, she has become a thought leader on edtech and an advocate for applying learning science to how technology is used in the classroom.
In recognition of her accomplishments, Kolb is a recipient of the 2020 ISTE Making IT Happen, which “honors outstanding educators and leaders who demonstrate extraordinary commitment, leadership, courage and persistence in improving digital learning opportunities for students.”
Helping teachers understand learning science
Kolb’s involvement with edtech takes many forms:
- As a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan, she teaches preservice K-12 teachers about how to use technology in the classroom.
- She is the author of four books on edtech: two on the use of cellphones in the classroom; a parents’ guide on children and cellphones; and her latest, “Learning First, Technology Second in Practice,” on learning sciences and edtech.
- She is the creator of the Triple E Framework, which allows educators to evaluate the effectiveness of technology in the learning process.
- She is the president of the Michigan Association for Computer Users and Learners.
- She is the author many articles for professional organizations including ISTE and is a frequent presenter on edtech.
For all her involvement, Kolb sees herself as a conduit between research on learning and edtech and practitioners. She knows from her experience in schools that teachers don’t have time to dive into learning sciences research. It’s also not part of most teacher training programs.
“When I was a tech coordinator, I was just kind of rolling with it,” she said. “I didn't understand the research behind the learning sciences and technology and how all that works together. So, it's important to me to try to reach out and help practitioners understand the learning sciences and the research and how to make it very practical for the use of edtech. I think that's the reason why I do write so many blog posts and articles and practitioner pieces.
“I really want to get the research out to teachers in useful and digestible ways. … So I kind of feel like it's my role to make sure that it’s getting out there to the people who need it.”
Struggling students respond to tech tools
Kolb took an indirect path to her edtech-focused career. She began as a social studies teacher and pursued edtech opportunities as they arose.
Early on, she discovered that those struggling students she wanted to help really responded when she used technology in the classroom.
“I found myself integrating a lot of technology into my classroom and into my projects and in choices for my students,” she said. “They wanted to do that kind of work. And in doing so, I was kind of elevated, in a sense, to being known as a tech-savvy teacher. Of course, this was back in the early 2000s when if you knew PowerPoint, you were tech savvy.”
Her tech-savvy reputation led to her becoming tech coordinator and teacher at her Cincinnati high school. She taught students how to use tech tools – for web publishing, flash animation, video editing — and she organized the school’s edtech resources, including professional development and budgeting.
That experience convinced her to pursue a master’s degree from Ashland University in Ohio in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on educational technology. She went on to the University of Michigan to pursue a Ph.D. in instructional technology, which she earned in 2010.
It was during her doctoral studies that she began to understand the importance of applying learning sciences to the use of technology. As a teacher and tech coordinator, she had been very tool-centric.
“I was the person who would go to a conference and run through the vendor halls and find out about as many tools as I could,” she said. “Then I would try to shove them into either my classroom or, when I was a tech coordinator, my teachers’ classrooms. It felt like I was doing the right thing at the time, trying to use all this shiny new stuff. I was getting a lot of accolades for that, and principals were patting me on the back.”
From tool-centered to learning-centered
But as she progressed in her doctoral program she realized that what she was doing was “gimmicky and a surface-level use of technology,” she said.
“It wasn't always getting to the learning,” she said. “It looked good to an outsider that we were making fancy iMovies about habitat. But then if you actually sat down and asked my students what they knew about habitats, many of them probably couldn't tell you very much. But they could tell you everything about editing in iMovie. And so sometimes the learning would get lost, because we were so focused on making space to use these really fancy tools.”
That realization changed her approach from tool-centered to learning-centered. “What are the learning targets? Where do we want our students to be? What do we want them to get out of this activity?” she said. “And then we look at what tools make sense to support that, and really enhance that and add value to it.”
That approach led Kolb to create the Triple E Framework to help teachers choose edtech that engages, enhances and extends. Its aim is to use edtech tools to foster student engagement with instructional goals.
Kolb said an existing edtech framework called TPACK was heavy on theory and didn’t translate well to the classroom. The Triple E Framework is a rubric with a series of nine questions that determine if an edtech tool engages students while enhancing and extending learning.
Feedback has been positive, Kolb said.
“The main feedback that I've heard is that it is really easy to use,” she said. “It's helped to provide tech coaches with a way to kind of guide teachers. And it has provided administrators a way to help to assess their teachers when they're watching a unit with technology.”
Over the course of her career, Kolb has seen the shiny appeal of edtech tools wane and a more thoughtful approach emerge.
“There is kind of a trajectory that we've been on,” she said. “It started very much with being very tool-centric. Teachers would get big accolades because they were using the latest tools, or they were using it in a way that was very complex.
“What I've seen in the last few years, especially around my framework, is that technology coordinators, administrators and even teachers are taking a step back and saying, ‘All right, I have all these resources and tools, but now I actually want to see if there's value to the student learning, not just that they're fun, they're actually adding value.’”
Jerry Fingal is a writer who focuses on education, edtech and creative learning strategies.