How Coaches Can Support Powerful Learning with Technology Blog Series: Five Key Aspects of Teaching to Support Powerful Technology Use

Technology’s presence in the American classroom has been increasing for years with the promise to “transform” education. However, the history of educational technology (edtech) in practice is spotted with successes and failures, and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the widely varying degrees of effective uses of edtech as well as significant inequities in access to edtech and challenging and engaging content.

Technology is a tool and it is only as impactful as the learning experiences it is used to support. To address the disparities exacerbated by the pandemic, and to ensure that technology is leveraged fully for powerful learning, teachers need stronger supports to further their understanding of the best instructional uses of technology. Job-embedded, personalized, ongoing professional learning is a strong, evidence-based practice for developing the skills of teachers. Coaches play a pivotal role in enabling all of those elements of effective professional learning and should play a key role in supporting an equitable response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

To further understand the implications of technology on the instruction, coaching, and coaching programs needed to equitably recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Educational Technology (OET), with the support of Digital Promise, held a virtual convening of stakeholders from the fields of teacher coaching and technology-enabled instruction. During the convening, participants expressed their viewpoints on how we can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and leverage technology to build a more equitable and resilient education system. From these discussions, three key themes emerged regarding what is needed to build these systems:

  1. Instruction that effectively and consistently leverages technology;
  2. Coaching that equips and empowers teachers with the professional learning needed to stimulate powerful digital learning for their students; and,
  3. Systems that foster coaching for meaningful technology use in instruction.

This blog series aims to elevate key aspects of the above themes for the system leaders who oversee coaching programs for their consideration in the development or redesign of instructional coaching programs that powerfully, effectively, and consistently leverage technology. The following is the first blog in this series.

Five Key Aspects of Teaching to Support Powerful Technology Use

Missy Bellin and Kasey Van Ostrand

Stakeholders, convened by OET and Digital Promise, agreed that any discussion of coaching must start with this fundamental question: What kind of instruction is necessary for students to thrive in today’s rapidly changing world?

Through two days of online deliberation, a common theme emerged. Instruction, whether virtual or in-person, should strive to create powerful learning experiences that prepare students to solve tough problems whenever they arise, be it in the workplace, the community, or in their personal lives. Though not technology-dependent, powerful learning can be supported by appropriate and effective uses of technology that allow educators and learners to engage in tasks that may otherwise be challenging to accomplish.

While acknowledging the promise of technology, the convening participants were quick to point out that technology alone will not result in powerful learning. This has become increasingly apparent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as opportunity gaps widened among student groups even as use of learning technologies proliferated. Access to computing devices and broadband internet is necessary but not sufficient. Many students remain shut off from powerful learning opportunities, and teachers with the supports to develop innovative uses of technology are more commonly in learning environments that serve affluent and advantaged students. Even when access gaps are closed, white and affluent students are more likely to be provided with opportunities to use technology for creativity and problem solving with greater levels of mentorship from adults, while students of color and from low-income backgrounds are provided technology that is used more commonly for routine drills with lower levels of adult support.

In this blog, we discuss five aspects of powerful learning, enabled by technology, that can serve as the foundation for effective and equitable teacher coaching programs.

5 Key Aspects of Powerful Learning

1) Craft learning experiences that are authentic and challenging.

Increasingly, employers expect their employees to apply their knowledge and skills to solve complex problems, rather than to engage in repetitive tasks. To meet these demands, schools must provide students with modern learning experiences that move away from compliance and toward creation — experiences that are authentic and challenging.

Convening experts identified project-based learning and challenge-based learning, which focus on solving real-world issues, as two instructional practices that lend themselves to authentic and rigorous learning experiences. These practices emphasize collaboration between students, and often between students and their communities, to explore real-world problems, identify big ideas, investigate and communicate solutions, and take action.

Strategies for success:

  • Technology can support and enrich project- or challenge-based learning by providing learners with opportunities to use technology to conduct research; analyze and organize information; collaborate and communicate with their peers; publish what they have learned; and reflect on their actions.
  • Technology tools that support this type of instruction range from computer-aided design software and advanced authoring tools to social media platforms. For example, one convening participant described how educators might leverage social media platforms like Instagram — used by many students outside of the classroom — to allow learners to create engaging videos, collaborate with their peers, and publish their work.

2) Design learning to be personalized and accessible.

Each learner brings a unique set of abilities, attributes, and experiences to the classroom that influences how they learn. For example, students enter school with a diverse array of background knowledge, including diverse cultural customs and languages learned at home. Students learn best when schools make connections between educational activities and their background knowledge, leveraging diversity as an asset. As one convening participant wrote, “Students need to know they are seen, respected, heard, and reflected in their curriculum and learning activities.”

Yet often, the experiences that students of color, English learners, and other underserved students bring to the classroom are overlooked or undervalued. When that happens, educators are missing an important opportunity to connect with students and leverage their unique assets for powerful learning.

Convening participants also noted that social and emotional connections are an integral component of personalization. This includes chances to connect and collaborate with peers. This point is expanded on below. Students and teachers need to feel emotionally connected to the ideas and skills they construct and apply. We also know that negative emotions, such as anxiety or feeling like one does not belong, reduce the resources the brain can devote to cognitive tasks. For example, research has documented that stereotypes about which students excel in certain academic disciplines can make it more challenging for underserved students to be engaged in learning.

Strategies for success:

  • Technology can help teachers make learning more personal and accessible, resulting in increased engagement and improved performance. Tools and supports exist to accommodate and honor variability in learners. Notable examples include Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Accessible Educational Materials, and Assistive Technology (AT). Used well, technologies like text-to-speech tools can help those who prefer listening to materials as well as students with a wide range of disabilities, such as blindness, low-vision, and dyslexia. Likewise, audio-described and captioned videos may benefit a similar range of students, including students who are deaf or hard of hearing and students who are English learners. In contrast, certain inaccessible tools or formats can deny students access to content. Students are best supported when teachers design digital content with accessibility and consider issues of equity from the beginning.
  • In addition to the tools described above, convening participants identified culturally responsive teaching (CRT) as crucial to engaging students and deepening their learning. CRT uses practices that affirm students’ racial, ethnic, and linguistic cultures, especially those from historically marginalized groups. It is important in digital and distance learning — as it is in in-person learning — to move away from framings that position students’ racial and cultural differences as deficits to overcome. Finding textbooks that affirm the particular racial, ethnic, and linguistic cultures in each teacher’s class can be difficult. Digital tools and resources can provide an expanded range of curriculum materials and pedagogical approaches that bring in diverse cultural perspectives, affirm knowledge rooted in non-dominant cultures, and decenter white-dominant content and histories.

Convening participants stressed the importance of collaboration among educators to reflect on the role their own racial and cultural identities play in their instructional practices and their preparation for culturally responsive and affirming teaching. Renewed efforts are underway to incorporate cultural responsiveness and antiracism in professional teaching standards.

3) Focus on building agency, inquiry, and reflection skills.

To thrive in a constantly changing world, learners must have the capacity to adapt and continually learn new concepts and skills. This requires the ability to initiate and direct their own learning — often referred to as student agency. Student agency in learning has two components: knowing oneself as a learner and asking for what one needs. Students with high levels of agency demonstrate self-awareness by regulating their own learning and advocating for their learning needs. Educators should design learning experiences to scaffold the development of agency, inquiry, and reflection skills, and schools should create an environment that encourages students to exercise voice and choice over their learning.

Due to structural barriers in schools, underserved students are not always afforded the same opportunities to exercise agency in comparison to their peers who have not experienced the same marginalization. For example, research shows that Black students are at greater risk of inequitable discipline as their attempts to advocate and exercise student voice can be misidentified as “defiance”. Convening participants identified implicit biases as a barrier to equitable access to powerful learning and recommended that districts equip educators to identify how implicit bias impacts their practice.

Strategies for success:

  • To help students know themselves as learners, teachers should assess each student’s strengths and challenges and help them recognize and develop strategies that work for them in school and at home. Technologies like intelligent tutors can help students learn to self-reflect by giving timely and specific feedback that augments the teacher and supports a growth mindset.
  • To support students’ self-advocacy, teachers should create an environment that makes students feel safe and encourages them to seek support, ask questions, and take intellectual risks. Technology, like simulations, can help students explore and practice these skills, as well as create opportunities for students to advocate for themselves in a safe, controlled environment that provides feedback but protects them from punishment.

4) Support collaboration and connection.

To prepare students to address the challenges of the future, learning should involve working collaboratively toward a common goal and connecting with a broad range of people and resources. With technology, collaborative learning can take place between people who are not in the same physical location, who have access to different tools and information, and who identify with different cultural backgrounds.

As many know, collaborating is easier said than done. It requires constant attention and shared expectations. Teachers can support collaborative learning by emphasizing the social dimensions of learning tasks, encouraging learners to ask for help and help each other, and creating conditions where every student must contribute to the activity at hand in order for the group to succeed.

Strategies for success:

  • Technology can enhance collaboration by providing tools for group work, enhancing students’ joint attention to key elements of the task at hand, and by guiding students via “scripts” that help organize their activities.
  • Technology can also help learners make connections between what they are learning in different settings. For example, one teacher had English learners create digital texts that described their experiences learning English in school, at home, and in their personal lives.

5) Emphasize the safe and appropriate uses of technology.

To be successful lifelong learners, responsible citizens, and productive workers, learners need to know how to navigate the internet and digital media platforms safely and responsibly. Our education system must support learners in developing a wider set of digital literacy skills to accomplish this goal. While many students receive some kind of basic digital literacy training, students from low-income backgrounds often receive minimal or no training in the production of digital content and social networking skills — an omission that could hamper their success in the workforce.

Convening participants noted the importance of digital citizenship, of which digital literacy is an aspect. Digital citizenship is a set of orientations and practices that enable students to use technology in responsible, safe, and ethical ways, to solve problems, and to be forces for good. Being a good citizen in the digital world involves skills similar to those needed in the non-digital world, such as being respectful of different viewpoints. Additionally, students must develop new skills necessitated by the digital world, including an understanding of personal data and awareness of laws and policies around managing and sharing it.

Strategies for success:

  • Incorporate learning opportunities that allow students to develop digital literacy skills, and personalize lessons to meet the diverse needs and experiences of students.
  • Explicitly model the safe and responsible use of technology and management of data, and allow for low-stakes opportunities for students to practice these skills.
  • In addition to digital literacy, teachers and students must be data literate, so that technology can be used to effectively inform instruction and learning.

How can schools increase and support access to powerful learning?

Teachers should be provided with ongoing professional development opportunities and support to implement technology for powerful learning. Teacher professional development on the effective use of technology is a significant factor of the type and quality of classroom technology used by students. Providing effective training to teachers can help to close the digital use divide. In the next blog, we will explore how instructional technology coaching can increase access to powerful learning opportunities for all students.

This blog contains examples of resources that are provided for the user’s convenience. The inclusion of these materials is not intended to reflect its importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed, or products or services offered. These materials may contain the views and recommendations of various subject matter experts as well as hypertext links, contact addresses and websites to information created and maintained by other public and private organizations. The opinions expressed in any of these materials do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of any outside information included in these materials.

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Office of Ed Tech

Office of Ed Tech

The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.