Don’t Forget the Teacher When Teaching with Technology

An outsider visiting an innovative Jewish day school might think that technology has replaced the teacher in the classroom. Kindergarteners build and program Lego robots to depict parashat hashavua. First graders develop fluency with math facts by playing games on iPads. Fourth graders videoconference with students in Haifa. Middle school history students use a video game to virtually become a printer’s apprentice in pre-revolutionary Boston, interacting with characters such as Paul Revere, loyalist merchants, Sons of Liberty and British soldiers. In each of these examples, students are using technology to actively engage in hands-on learning. It may appear that teachers have become obsolete. Yet in fact the role of the teacher has never been more important than in the technology-infused classrooms of today and tomorrow.

Teachers must thoughtfully integrate knowledge about pedagogy, course content and technology when deciding how to integrate technology in their teaching. The kindergarten teacher has her students use robotics because she believes that using technology to manipulate objects in the physical world embodies age-appropriate constructivist pedagogy. The middle school history teacher replaces textbook readings and worksheet assignments with a video game because he believes that by role-playing a character the students will better develop and retain an understanding of the conflict that led to the American Revolution.

The fourth grade Hebrew teacher knows that Skype video conferencing creates a meaningful opportunity for her students to use their language skills by developing a relationship with native Hebrew speakers. While this week the first graders use iPads to develop their math facts, next week the iPads will be put away because the teacher wants her students to hold manipulatives in their hands to develop their number sense. Decisions that the teacher makes about how to integrate technology determine the impact on teaching and learning. Digital technology in education has the potential to lead to tremendous innovation, yet used ineffectively it can also be an expensive way to reinforce traditional pedagogy.

In the past two decades, digital technology has become pervasive, impacting virtually every aspect of our daily lives. New technologies are having an impact on society at an unprecedented rate. Information distribution is now instant, unfiltered and free. Ubiquitous Internet access has radically altered notions of knowledge, expertise and access to information. Ben-David Kolikant points out that “the school system—unlike other cultural institutions such as banks, hospitals, the entertainment world, and the press—has not re-thought … goals and practices … in the digital age.” The environment in which students are growing up today is radically different than the environment in which their teachers came of age. The world in which tomorrow’s graduates will enter does not yet exist. And yet too many Jewish day school students are still learning in schools that were designed to train them to be part of the workforce of the 20th century.

Many educators are legitimately wary about proceeding with technology integration. Just because the possibility exists to use a particular technology in the classroom does not guarantee that using it is a pedagogically sound decision. Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler propose a conceptual framework that can be applied to help. They argue that the transformative impact of technology has altered the context in which teachers acquire knowledge to such an extent that knowledge of technology is now an essential and distinct element of teacher knowledge. Effective integration of technology in education is a result of the interplay between three elements of teacher knowledge: technology, pedagogy and discipline-specific content. Thus, Lee Shulman’s concept of PCK pedagogical-content knowledge becomes TPACK: technological-pedagogical-content knowledge.

As a teacher adapts lessons by introducing new technology to the classroom, planning decisions are guided by the teacher’s emerging TPACK. Teachers develop their TPACK as they acquire the skills and experience to make thoughtful decisions about the appropriate integration of technology in their teaching. This framework is helpful in understanding how teachers’ knowledge about digital technology impacts their ability to integrate it effectively and exercise teacher leadership. Significantly, TPACK is situated knowledge that exists in relationship with a teacher’s knowledge of specific pedagogies and content being taught. Knowledge of effective teaching emerges from the integration of what the teacher knows about technology, good pedagogy and the course content.

The TPACK framework suggests ways for both teachers and school leaders to encourage technology integration in a manner that ensures the focus is kept on actualizing educational goals, not increasing technology consumption. As teachers plan their lessons, the question they must ask themselves is not how they might increase the amount of time students spend using technology, but how can the technology help achieve learning outcomes. For example, a science teacher might develop ways that students can use the camera and microphone on an iPad to record data and observations from classroom experiments.

Teachers must keep up-to-date with innovations in technology because they are the ones best qualified to assess how any change might impact teaching and learning. Teachers can use digital technology to encourage critical thinking, collaboration and student empowerment in their classroom. For this to occur, it is far more important for thoughtful teachers to apply their emerging TPACK when making teaching decisions than to be able to download the latest app.

There is no shortage of free digital resources readily available to teachers, but the impact of each resource is dependent on the manner in which the teacher uses it in the classroom. A website with tremendous potential is IWitness, a tool for accessing the USC Shoah Foundation video archive of Holocaust survivor testimony. With well indexed video of over 1,200 testimonies, this website has the potential to transform Holocaust education, especially at a time when there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors still able to actually visit classrooms. The site allows students to view clips of the lengthy testimonies and search the clips by topic. Students can edit the footage to create short videos to show their classmates. In the right context, this can be a powerful educative experience for students. Yet the impact of IWitness is dependent on the ability of a teacher to apply his or her TPACK to develop lessons that are pedagogically sound. The teacher needs to be able to integrate knowledge of Holocaust education with an understanding of how students learn when viewing and editing film.

The concept of TPACK must also be applied to develop pedagogy for teacher professional development. Through hands-on learning experiences, veteran and novice teachers alike can participate in meaningful professional development that has the purpose to improve each teacher’s TPACK. The days of bringing in outside experts to lecture to a roomful of busy teachers are over. Professional development opportunities for teachers should expose them to examples of innovative teaching with technology and then allow for reflective talk with partners on how the examples could be adapted, or not, to their teaching practice. In this manner, each teacher will be able to connect the three elements of teacher knowledge that integrate in the creation of TPACK. School resources are more effective when allocated towards professional development than purchasing apps or SMARTboards.

It is vital that we don’t forget teachers when talking about teaching with technology. Although digitally empowered students take more ownership for their learning, and knowledge is no longer centralized in a person at the front of the class, the role of the teacher continues to be an essential component to effective teaching and learning. TPACK is a valuable conceptual framework to guide technology integration, ensuring that the role of the teacher is not forgotten. ♦

Jared Matas is a social science teacher and the technology integration teacher leader at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown, Massachussetts., @jaredmatas

Jared Matas
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning