Conquering Teachers’ Tech Anxieties a Recurrent Theme at iNACOL

Managing Editor

San Antonio

The enemy, as Mahatma Ghandi once said, is not hate. It is fear.

A lot of the attendees gathered for a big ed-tech conference here this week would probably agree with that broad-minded sentiment, at least as it applies to teachers’ experiences with technology.

One of the recurring themes emerging from the speeches, sessions and workshops at iNACOL’s Blended and Online Learning Symposium is that schools, tech companies, and educators need to take more creative and determined steps to help teachers overcome their anxiety and dread about using and experimenting with digital tools and platforms in their classrooms.

The tech-savviest educators and administrators will probably ask: What’s there to be afraid of?

But attendees at the iNACOL conference who work with teachers seemed to acknowledge that for many classroom educators, the answer is “a lot.”

There’s the fear that when trying out new classroom devices, tools, or apps, they’ll be made to look foolish in front of their classes. There’s the fear of having to admit that their students know more about a tech tool than they do—and that they may need to ask students for help.

There’s the fear that a new app or platform they were told would take 10 minutes to understand or set up will actually take three hours. There’s the fear that the same administrators who are telling them to use a digital tool in their class won’t be sympathetic if they labor to make it work.

And in many states and districts, there’s the fear that if teachers try and fail in testing out a new technology, they’ll get docked on their performance evaluations.

One of the keynote speakers at iNACOL’s event, KnowledgeWorks Chief Learning Officer Virgel Hammonds, talked about the anxiety that undermines attempts to bring new tech-based approaches to schools.

Hammonds, a former superintendent and principal, urged attendees to encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and occasional foul-ups among educators in their schools.

The message has to be “it’s OK to be vulnerable in front of kids, and in front of adults,” Hammonds said. Administrators and teachers need to “lower our collective cool factors.”

Making educators more comfortable with trying and falling short with new forms of technology was also a theme that came up during a session I moderated yesterday at the symposium, titled, “Why Are Some Teachers Tech Pioneers, and Others Tech Skeptics?”

During that session I presented survey data from the Education Week Research Center that offers hints about why some teachers are confident in their use of technology, and others aren’t.

Our research center created a “confidence index,” based on its nationwide survey of teachers. Educators who ranked in the top 20 percent for tech confidence were dubbed “Bulls,” and those in the bottom 20 percent were “Bears.”

One potentially surprising finding is that just a fraction of tech-skittish Bears—1 percent—describe themselves as resistant to taking on new digital tools. Teachers—both veterans and newbies, and across grade levels—generally expressed an openness to trying new forms of technology.

Modeling, and Buy-In

Yet another finding was that teacher working conditions correlated with their ed-tech confidence. Educators working in suburban, and relatively low-poverty schools were more likely to be confident tech users.

I was joined by two panelists during my session: Aubrey Francisco, the research director at Digital Promise, and Theresa Nixon, the director of educational technology and library services in the Knox County schools in Tennessee. Both of them offered ideas about how districts can help teachers overcome their tech anxieties, as did members of the audience.

Those strategies including having teachers model successful techniques in their classes, and share them with their peers. (That also requires schools carving out more time for teachers to plan lessons and talk about common frustrations with each other.)

They also emphasized the importance of administrative support—not just providing reliable tech help when digital tools break down, but encouraging teachers to try totally new instructional strategies.

One experiment that Francisco said has worked well in some schools Digital Promise works with, is when teachers allow students to take the lead on tech-oriented projects focused on storytelling and creative activities. During that process, teachers learn about the technology’s potential applications and gain confidence in their own abilities to lead a tech-focused classroom, she said.

“It’s empowering for both teachers and students,” Francisco said.

One attendee at the session said her district has taken the simple step of giving as many teachers as possible their own, take-home devices, encouraging them to familiarize themselves with their basic functions, and gradually, their broader capabilities.

In some cases, administrators want to help teachers with technology, but aren’t sure how. One administrator who attended the session said he often gets mixed signals from his teachers about what kinds of help they want. Is it tech support, or relatively basic tech training? Or broader training on tech’s potential uses?

Francisco’s group has looked in depth at how districts make buying decisions about ed-tech. Giving teachers a strong voice in ed-tech procurement is likely to nurture their buy-in, and their willingness and ability to help their peers master those digital tools, she said.

Nixon works in a state that in recent years has adopted new, tougher forms of teacher evaluation. In her district, administrators have been encouraged not to fault teachers when their classroom tech betrays them—which Nixon likened to faulting a teacher if an overhead lightbulb burns out during a lessons.

Tom Kilgore, a digital learning consultant who works with a regional center serving Texas school districts, said K-12 officials often buy technology without realizing just how much sustained support educators need to use it correctly.

There’s a lot of rhetoric about the importance of “student-centered” approaches in education, Kilgore said, but the attitude toward educators is often, here’s a new technology, “go forth and prosper.”

“In reality, teachers do have questions, and they need support in making technology work,” said Kilgore, of the Education Service Center Region 11, in Texas. “The key to technology helping teachers is really taking away some of the unknown factors.”

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