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Why the Digital Revolution Hasn’t Revolutionized Education…And Four Things We Can Do About It

by Kate Wolfe Maxlow

You’ve bought the most current and groundbreaking technology for your schools. You’ve done the training session for all your teachers.  And yet, how often have you seen any of the following?

  • There’s a crate at the front of the room where the teacher has students put their 1:1 devices immediately upon entering, lest the technology become a distraction from “real” learning.
  • The teachers uses their whiteboard, but only as a super fancy projector.
  • You realize with excitement that your teachers are fighting over who gets to check out the laptop cart…but only so that they can have their students practice drill-and-kill style achievement tests.

When the Digital Revolution started, educational leaders rightly proclaimed that it had the power to make learning accessible for all students…yet somehow, years into this revolution, socioeconomic status is still a number one predictor of student achievement.

“What went wrong?” you ask yourself. “And more importantly, how do we stop it?”

The answer is simpler than you think:Technology doesn’t change student outcomes—teachers do.

While we need to be purposeful with the technology we put in the hands of our students, we need to be just as purposeful—if not more—with how we support our teachers’ implementation of these devices.  One thing we’ve learned at Hampton City Schools is that the one-and-done professional development just doesn’t cut it; we’ve seen the outcome and it’s a crate full of iPads in the front of the classroom.  To make this revolution into a Revolution, we know we need to take John Hattie’s advice from Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement and follow some simple rules for incorporating technology into our district’s instruction:

1. Technology should supplement, not supplant, effective instruction.We all know teachers who can move mountains in terms of student learning, all without ever pushing the power button on a single device.  Technology is not a cure-all.  It cannot replace amazing teachers, the relationships they form with students, and the learning they inspire. And it’s insulting to our teachers to suggest otherwise.

What technology can do is present information in new and interesting ways.  It can provide students with chances to create and connect in high impact ways that are either incredibly difficult or downright impossible without technology.  Technology is not a stand-in for good pedagogy, however; in fact, good technology instruction uses those same pedagogical principles that ensure successful learning.

Therefore, when we work with teachers on how to implement technology in their classrooms, it’s on us to admit that technology isn’t going to save the world.  What it is going to do is give teachers one more tool in their toolbox, one more way to possibly reach reluctant or struggling learners. And that’s what teaching is about: refining our craft with ever more strategies to meet the needs of a roomful of individual learners.

2. Train teachers, then train them some more. It’s imperative that before the technology ever gets into the hands of students, teachers have a chance to explore and learn the technology itself in order  to develop ideas for how to fold the technology into their current practice. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because more and more Millennials are joining the teaching force, we don’t need to train them; even our younger teachers are used to using technology for personal means rather than as an effective tool for learning. Hattie reports that it can take up to ten hours of pre-training for teachers to fully understand and incorporate a new technology their teaching repertoire.
But ten hours…where on earth are we going to get 10 hours of pre-training these days?  One thing we’ve found in Hampton City Schools is that we have to be agile in our Professional Development. It can’t all be about sit and get. We have to be willing to go to teachers, to do job-embedded training, and to provide multiple venues for them to explore and learn on their own.

3. Use technology in many different ways.The human brain craves novelty. Just like we can’t have students take Cornell notes day in and day out and expect students to come motivated to learn, we have to make sure that our teachers have a variety of technology strategies. Today’s coolest website can quickly become tiresome if used too often.

Moreover, we need to help our teachers constantly ask themselves, “What is my goal in this lesson, and what activities—technology or otherwise—will best help me reach it?” For instance, if a standard is asking a students to communicate, does it make sense to have them on a drill-and-kill style website?  Or do we need to have them posting and commenting and sharing their work in some fashion?  Remind teachers early and often that it’s less about the cool new technology, and more about what we’re asking students to do.  This kind of purposeful planning can help us remember not to keep trotting out the same technology activity over and over, but to instead provide our students with a variety of worthwhile learning experiences.

4. Turn over the learning to the students.This might just be technology’s greatest superpower: It allows students to take control of their own learning.  This is tricky, though, because that does not mean that we just hand a device over to students and expect them to teach themselves.  Rather, we need to be facilitators of ethical, purposeful, safe technology use—and provide our students with direct instruction on this.

This can look a variety of ways in your classroom.  As a for instance, let’s say that a student asks you when the War of 1812 took place.  Old school thinking, in which the teacher is the fount of all knowledge, would have the teacher simply provide the answer.  Slightly muddle new age thinking about be telling the student, “Why don’t you Google it?” A way that actually has the teacher help facilitate the student learning how to use technology in an appropriate manner to gain content would be to ask, “Excellent question.  What query do you think we should type into Google to get the answer that we’re looking for?”

In short, we need to do a better job helping our teachers understand both the powers and limitations of technology.  We need to provide them with the supports around both good pedagogy and effective technology use.  And most important, we need to admit the truth: technology is not going to remake education overnight. What it can do, however, is help us build a better system, intentionally, brick-by-3D-printed brick.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as: an elementary school teacher; an instructional coach; a Director of Innovation and Professional Learning; and a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. She truly believes that 80% of the world’s problems can be solved with the right formula on the right spreadsheet. She can be reached at

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