Your school just invested in a new set of Chromebooks or iPads. Now what?
In a study of 140,000 classrooms in K-12 schools across 39 states, more than half showed no evidence of students using technology to gather, evaluate, or use information for learning. And in nearly two-thirds of the classrooms, students didn’t appear to use technology to solve problems or work collaboratively.
For many schools, this isn’t for lack of technology. Most classrooms have access to at least one computer or mobile device, and 77% of school districts have high speed broadband. The problem is that many schools haven’t figured out how to leverage technology to accelerate and enrich learning.
In my work as an education researcher and product manager, I’ve observed dozens of schools and interviewed hundreds of teachers. And I’ve noticed that technology usage usually fits into one of two categories: independent practice or procedural support—such as writing an essay in Google Docs.
The problem is that many schools haven’t figured out how to leverage technology to accelerate and enrich learning.
One area in which I almost never see technology used effectively is during core instructional time. When it’s time to engage deeply with a text and learn new concepts and skills — the teacher-led learning time — the devices tend to go away.
There’s an incredible opportunity here, and by and large, we’re missing it. When our students start their careers, technology won’t be relegated to the margins of their work; it will be front and center, every day. We have the opportunity to show them today how technology can become a truly meaningful part of their learning journey. In doing so, we can teach our students essential lessons about inquiry and agency—skills that will propel them throughout their careers.
When our students start their careers, technology won’t be relegated to the margins of their work; it will be front and center, every day.
It takes a leap of faith for teachers to incorporate technology into their core instructional time. The challenge of bringing technology into teacher-led lessons is real, but each year, more districts commit to meaningfully incorporating devices and digital content into their core curriculum. Tackling these challenges pays off.
In the digital age, students must learn how to apply what they learn to build something new. Our nation’s employers report that creativity and critical thinking are the most valuable skills an employee can have. These skills can’t be taught using traditional methods of instruction.
For the schools fortunate enough to offer devices in the classroom, three key challenges keep technology out of most teacher-led lessons:
- Technology sometimes fails. The pace of a year’s worth of standards can be punishing. Teachers can’t afford to lose precious minutes to distractions or bugs.
- Teachers have a lot on their plate. There’s already so much material out there. It takes lots of time for a teacher to read through a Lucy Calkins unit of study, let alone incorporate a new digital tool into their lesson.
- Apps aren’t designed for the whole classroom. Most educational apps and games are meant to be used independently by students. Using technology designed solely for individualized instruction neglects the rich learning that emerges from collaborative work and classroom discussions.
We need to better leverage technology to help transform learning and prepare students for success outside the classroom. To do so, we need to introduce students to environments that are authentically related to what they will experience later in life. We can do that by thinking strategically about these challenges.
The good news is that it is very straightforward to weave useful technology into core curriculum in meaningful ways:
- Technology sometimes fails. → Insist on quality. While we’ve grown accustomed to rough edges in our consumer apps, that’s not okay in a school setting. Developers need to hold a sky-high quality bar for uptime, usability, and accessibility. School leaders should be prepared to cut any programs that don’t honor the value of each minute of the school day.
- Teachers have a lot on their plate. → Curate the right resources for your students. We need to get choosier about the resources we use. Many districts find that basing a curriculum entirely around the resources of one publisher isn’t a particularly effective strategy for nurturing growth and engagement. That’s like reading all of your news from one source. Breakthroughs in data analytics are making it possible for us to identify which materials work best for which students in which contexts. Let’s use that to our advantage.
- Apps aren’t designed for the whole classroom. → Design for collaboration. Think beyond individual resources, apps, and games when building a digital curriculum. Districts should look to solutions that streamline peer feedback, classroom polls, and flexible groupings. Even in districts without 1:1 devices, digital content can be used to provide context for academic standards and spark classroom discussion and inquiry.
I know from experience that implementing these shifts isn’t easy. I developed Frontier’s inquiry-based lessons precisely because I’ve seen technology relegated to independent practice time and testing. If it’s to be used effectively, educational technology needs structure and scaffolding for students and teachers alike. Frontier gives teachers the lesson framework and curated online content they need to unlock opportunities for inquiry and agency during the most important parts of the school day.
Dr. Michael Nager, Superintendent of Long Island’s visionary Mineola Union Free School District says it best: “In a digital world, if we’re teaching facts, we have a problem.” It’s no longer enough to spend core instructional time teaching from the textbook.
It’s no longer enough to spend core instructional time teaching from the textbook.
When we fail to make technology a meaningful component of our curriculum, technology becomes a filler around the edges of the real learning. Instead, let’s take full advantage of today’s digital world as we empower students to solve the complexities of tomorrow.