The Responsibility of Schools of Education in Preparing Teachers to Teach With Tech

01/27/2016 12:18 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

This year alone, U.S. elementary, middle and high schools are expected to spend $4.7 billion on education technology. In a recent survey, 96 percent of teachers report that technology plays a significant role in their classrooms. Yet research suggests that only about half of teachers see the value in today's edtech tools. If you believe these recent accounts, some large portion of our nation's edtech investment is wasted--as digital tools and products go entirely unused.

Some of the blame lies at the feet of entrepreneurs and investors who are just beginning to incorporate end-user and teacher perspectives into product design. The dearth of data to help educators understand what works is another, well documented part of the problem.

But we are naive, as academics and educators, if we fail to consider the dismal record of higher education when it comes to preparing a generation of teachers and leaders charged with shepherding our edtech revolution.

Consider that today more than 90 percent of teachers and school leaders are prepared by more than 2,100 schools of education, each with its own point of view and approach to using technology to advance learning. Is there any sign that the higher education curriculum has evolved to prepare teachers for the demands of the 21st century classroom? For the most part, the answer is no.

Given the amount of tech pouring into classrooms, schools of education are well behind the curve when it comes to preparing teachers and administrators to evaluate, purchase and use technology; at best we are followers lagging the trends. According to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, there are no national standards for teachers of educators when it comes to integrating edtech into curriculum or classroom practice. None. This means we have no guardrails, even among the experts in higher education, to support the very people we prepare to enter classrooms and schools in the everyday decisions they make about the use of edtech products.

The challenge for schools of education is very real. We live in the crosshairs of the breakneck pace of the edtech evolution cycle (months, at most) and the change cycle in higher education (years, at least). In the last eighteen months alone, freemium business models have scaled across K12 schools and districts, dis-intermediating district purchasing and creating both challenges--and opportunities--that were unthinkable when today's entry-level teachers attended our schools of education four years ago. Responsibility is shifting: more than ever, teachers are involved directly in making or influencing the purchase of digital content and tools.

According to a new survey of over 4,300, teachers in the U.S., the majority call for a bigger role when it comes to creation and selection of education technology. Sixty-three percent of educators reported that they should be the primary decision maker for what technologies enter their classroom. However, only 38 percent are currently consulted during the process.

Schools of education - like much of academia - move slowly. There will always be a discrepancy between the pace of change in higher education and that of the technology industry. But the challenge is about more than the pace of higher education, it's about alignment and direction. For schools of education to develop curricula that "keep pace" with product development cycles and innovation, the task cannot be approached as one of training teachers and leaders how to use product X, Y or Z, which is essentially the way we address edtech.

If we move too quickly to map training to the current products suites, we run the risk of relevance: preparing students for a world that doesn't exist, and technologies that are passé by the time that these students graduate. A first step might be to explore how other fields, like computer science, medicine or engineering impart critical thinking skills and disciplines that enable graduates to adapt, learn, and improve as the workplace evolves. Schools of education should be no different.

We have a responsibility to help our students--future educators--think critically about the ways in which technology can create new efficiencies and promote deeper learning
And we have a responsibility to do what we can to shape the edtech marketplace, so that evidence of impact becomes core to product development and marketing as educators demand evidence for the claims of the technology providers. We must also help educators assess the limitations of digital resources and emerging risks like data privacy and security. The current debate over education data privacy and security shines a light on the challenge.

Embracing technology and keeping educators in charge of education should not be mutually exclusive. I worry that if schools of education don't take up the mantle of preparing the next generation of teachers and leaders, we'll face a wave of regulations--and incursion from state and federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, which, if pending legislation passes, will have unprecedented reach into our nation's classrooms.

Today's edtech marketplace is a noisy, almost cacophonous environment, making it difficult to determine the best product offerings for educators and learners. But if teachers and education leaders don't have the knowledge, skills or information they need to make the best decisions for their schools, we will squander the transformative potential of technology--and billions in public and private investment.

Schools of education are a great place to start. Our responsibility extends beyond the walls of the universities in which we work--our faculty and research resources are well positioned to study edtech. Together, we can develop the talent, guidelines, and protocols for embracing edtech, and start a conversation about what works.