Digital Learning? That might be scary…

School is heading back into session. With that comes changes for teachers and students as curriculum and tools to support teaching and learning have evolved. The possibilities, creative uses, and innovative implementations of technology in classrooms are being tweaked. Local, state, and national policy makers are paying attention as pressure for technology integration into the curriculum rises. Debates about the best tools, how to fund technology initiatives, the revision of eRate, and the equity or inequity of digital learning in certain communities arise. I appreciate all of those conversations and hope there will be some shifts that allow for all students to have improved learning experiences through technology use. But I am also struck by what I don’t hear coming from all of the back-to-school chatter….for some, digital learning is scary.

The great thing about digital learning is that there are literally endless possibilities of what a teacher can do with their curriculum if given the appropriate technology and supported on how to embed it in their classroom. There are tools, apps, websites, programs, tablets, and phones that can access information and produce amazing learning experiences for kiddos (and adults for that matter!). The scary thing about digital learning is that there are literally endless possibilities of what a teacher can do with their curriculum if given the appropriate technology and supported on how to embed it in their classroom. Because here is the kicker: teachers are often told to implement technology in their classrooms without that necessary support or the support is a one-time deal, while the technology is continuously evolving. That might be scary for some, but particularly for those resistant teachers.

This week I am helping facilitate virtual professional development sessions for teachers around the country and I am struck by two things. 1) I sometimes take for granted how difficult it is for people to leap into the world of digital learning and 2) It is a brave undertaking for the teachers to choose to join these meetings virtually. Here’s why and what I hope to see included in digital learning conversations moving forward.

During a math content meeting, we discussed this image create by Problem Based Learning math guru Geoff Krall:

Three Characteristics of an Effective Math Classroom

In the past, the PD session has focused on Quality Mathematical Tasks. This time, it focused on Social and Emotional Safety. At some point during that discussion, it hit me. This triangle works for digital learning too! Substitute “Quality Digital Learning Tools” for mathematical tasks and BAM! Digital classrooms should look like that!

But Geoff goes a bit further in his blog post on the topic. He not only discusses the need for all three, but that the breakdown of time spent on the three in his writing and conversations with teachers usually look like this:

Where Time is Spent Reading, Writing, and Talking

In other words, social and emotional safety does not enter into the conversation regularly. I would contend that is the same for digital learning. What I see and hear via social media and in conversations usually focus on the best tools and how to use them, but rarely talks about how to support reluctant technology implementers. Just integrate technology and you’ll be fine is like telling our kiddos just do the reading and you’ll pass the test. But that is not the reality. Students need help understanding the reading, drawing conclusions, and forming ideas and opinions about what they read. And when they struggle, the teacher supports them by remediation. But that is not what we are doing nationally to our teachers who struggle with technology integration. Those teachers who struggle with the concept of including technology in their classrooms not only need the technical help, but they also need to feel validated and supported as they struggle with what districts and students demand of them. How much time is spent building an environment where people who are hesitant to digital learning feel socially and emotionally safe? What are we doing to create that safe space in our schools for the teacher? That’s what I would like to see included in digital learning discussions.

I work in an environment where I forget just how challenging engaging in learning via a new tool can be because everything I do is digital and remote. But those who choose to be supported virtually are deciding to be vulnerable in cyberspace with other teachers that they may never meet in person and in an environment that may be unfamiliar to them. So kudos to them for being brave enough to try something new and for reminding me just how important it is to build those cultural structures online that allow for safe learning spaces. As I move forward thinking about how to support teachers implementing technology in their classrooms, I want to be more intentional about the social and emotional safety. Because change can be scary. But if I help create that safe environment in my online classroom, then hopefully others will create it and support one another in creating it in theirs.