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The Missing Link: Training the Teachers to Use Tablet Technology

Being in the field of educational apps is exciting and I continually learn new facts. However, one of the most alarming ones that I am finding is how teachers learn about tablets and educational apps. In a 2014 report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they surveyed over 3,100 teachers and found that teachers learn about instructional technology “primarily by word of mouth from other teachers and administrators, at professional meetings, and online via search engines and social media” (p. 3). Additionally, a colleague and I surveyed 61 teachers about their use of tablet technologies and educational apps. We found that the top three ways teachers learn about apps are: (1) to inquire to a colleague, (2) to attend professional development sessions offered by school districts, and (3) to consult a website. Based on the two survey studies and their similar results, there is strong validity across them. However, my concern relates directly to the quality of the professional development sessions teachers attend.

Across the United States, many school districts employ instructional technology coaches (ITCs), and they are responsible for handling a district’s technology. At first, this seemed reasonable to me. Promote veteran teachers to the position of an ITC because they understand the technological demands placed on teachers and then task ITCs with providing teachers the professional development they need in order to use that technology effectively. After talking with many of these ITCs, it quickly became apparent to me that providing professional development is: (a) challenging, and (b) designing professional development sessions are not all these ITCs are tasked to do.

First, when ITCs are tasked with providing a professional development, it means they must learn the technology and then be able to apply it, usually across subject areas and grade levels. Examples of these technologies include hardware (e.g., SmartBoards and document cameras) and software (e.g., computer programs and websites). These technologies typically come with operating manuals, user guides, and online support. The difference with educational apps, however, is they usually do not come with these resources. An app is essentially a computer program that these ITCs have to “figure out” and then present their understanding of it to teachers via professional development sessions. There is an additional layer as well, which is the coach must be able to explain how classroom teachers across grade levels and content areas can use the app with their students. Recently, I talked with a coach from a mid-size, suburban school district who explained to me some of the challenges she faces.

Ruthie (pseudonym) has over 20-years teaching experience in the elementary classroom and she was recently promoted to be an ITC for her school district. Ruthie and I talked on the phone, and she explained to me that she spent her days researching instructional technology and then preparing professional development sessions about it for teachers. Having 20 years experience at the elementary level, as Ruthie explained, did not prepare her for instructing how, for example, high school math teachers could use specific apps. Though she was a teacher and had a career’s worth of experience, her experience was not the “round-peg-in-a-round-hole” experience she needed, so to speak. Although they are both teachers, the needs of high school teachers and Ruthie’s experience as an elementary school teacher were not aligned. This mismatch made for a challenging situation when Ruthie designs professional development workshops for middle and high school teachers of specific content areas.

Second, the responsibilities of ITCs often extend past only researching instructional technology and planning professional development sessions. For example, ITCs have to be knowledgeable about a variety of hardware and software, are often asked to solve technology challenges (e.g., reimaging computers, virus removal, installation/uninstallation of computer programs, technical support, website maintenance, etc.). Each of these tasks requires specialized skills and knowledge that ITCs must develop. Though they can attend workshops and conferences to learn some of these skills, to be proficient requires significant amounts of time for advanced study. Though we often want to think of ITCs as “Jacks-of-All-Technology-Trades,” they are not, and we need to be mindful of that.

To conclude this post, I am going to introduce Mishra and Koehler’s Technological, Pedagogical, and Content Knowledge framework (TPACK) to my readers, as shown in Figure 1. Though I have my critiques, which I will discuss in future posts, I use TPACK to guide my teaching and I urge ITCs to study TPACK and integrate it into their professional development. Over the following weeks, I will write future posts that further explain TPACK and its usefulness.

Figure 1: TPACK


Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org