Digital learning, educators, swords, and shovels

Arguably the biggest challenge to moving to digital learning is ensuring that educators are prepared for this massive shift in teaching and learning. Many have argued that our current teacher prep programs don’t do such a great job of getting new teachers ready for today’s schools; given that, it’s hard to believe they are well-positioned to prepare future educators for blended learning, flipped classrooms, personalized instruction, constant data use, and so on.

Seeing districts struggle mightily over Section C of RTT-D, where these issues come to the forefront, has made me realize just how enormous a problem this is; I imagine just about every district in America is going to have to face some variation of this problem over the next five to ten years. (Full disclosure: I’ve been providing advice to a number of districts on their RTT-D applications.)

Apple toss

Well, thank goodness for TBFI’s volume on digital learning!

I consider Bryan Hassel a friend, and I admire his work greatly. But I publicly crossed swords with him and Emily Ayscue Hassel over school turnarounds a couple years back. So I’m no simple shill for their products. But they’ve done us all a service with their chapter on teaching in the digital era.

They argue, running against the grain, that teacher effectiveness may be even more important in the digital era than today. The things that technology can’t replace are the things that most differentiate teachers; so teachers with those skills will become even more valuable.

Unlike some, they readily admit that schools of the future may need fewer teachers, but they argue that there will be more options and more fitting options for most of today’s teachers in the new era because what it means to teach will take many different forms.

Moreover, with the right strategies in place, excellent teachers will be able to reach more students than ever before, and average teachers will become more effective, both because they will improve thanks to new supports, but also because they will be able to work solely in their areas of strength. Even teachers considered ineffective today would be able to find jobs in tomorrow’s schools because a number of lower-skilled, but still important, roles will need to be filled, such as monitors in computer labs.

Technology, they argue, can help free up the time of the best teachers so they can do more personalized instruction and mentoring. The sidebar on time-saving, productivity-enhancing tools is worth lingering attention, as is the section on “Boundless Instruction.”

Thorns
Teacher training and development are thorny issues for digital-learning policy.
Photo by Renee Wilson.

They dedicate some time to discussing teacher training and development, among the thorniest of issues in this area. Though they highlight more problems than they solve here, a number of suggestions, especially related to certification and a stronger federal role in some discrete areas (very interesting) are compelling.

In a future post (or set thereof) I’m going to discuss one of the biggest and underappreciated conundrums faced by policymakers and practitioners today: that we can’t simultaneously fully pursue the standardized, common assessments (PARCC/SB) associated with CCSS while committing ourselves to personalized learning and all of its implications.

There is gargantuan tension between expensive, complex, homogenized grade-specific, end-of-year assessments used to measure “proficiency” for accountability purposes and the individualized learning ethic of personalized pacing and ongoing interim assessments to assess subject “mastery” regardless of a student’s age or grade. I think we may have unintentionally dug ourselves a gigantic hole, and because no one has noticed, both sides are still digging.

The Hassels shine a light on one particularly troubling aspect of this tension—how the nation’s new, vigorous, rigorous approach to teacher evaluations may be sensible today but could be downright archaic in the new digital learning era.

Finally, one interesting you-can-eat-the-cake-and-have-it-too element of the Hassel’s paper is that technology can reduce costs and the overall headcount of what are now considered “teachers,” but, because new roles will have to be created, districts and their labor partners need not fear massive job losses.

If you care about human capital and/or you think this digital learning stuff has legs, you really ought to give this paper a read.

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