American university professors do not teach education students a universal, tried-and-true method for how to incorporate technology in their classroom instruction. That the digital revolution evolves at a rapid pace and that technology has become so subject-specific means universities cannot address these shifts and create a standard curriculum. As a result, educators have become more resourceful and ingenious in their teaching, professors say.
"Large-scale studies show that the technology itself doesn't necessarily make a difference. What does make a difference is well-designed technology coupled with well-prepared teachers," says Prof. Steve Kerr, chair of curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington's College of Education in Seattle.
Integration of technology in the classroom is an issue with which higher education schools have been grappling for decades, he says.
There are two main approaches on university campuses. Some curricula for undergraduate and graduate programs in education mandate that pre-service teachers--students who have not yet entered the field--enroll in one course that focuses only on technology. The second tactic emphasizes subject-specific courses that include guidance on how technology may enhance understanding of concepts related to those academic subjects.
The latter, specific strategy seems to be favored, explains Joan Hughes, associate professor of curriculum and instruction and learning technologies at the University of Texas-Austin, adding that when tech skills are taught this way, in isolation from other teaching methods, they are less effective.
Marina Pita, a teacher of fourth-grade Spanish at Concord International School in Seattle, distinctly remembers instruction in the latest digital products as part of her classes. During a course on special education, she learned about assistive technology, and as part of her elementary teacher certification, she received training in the computer-based Smart Boards, which allow teachers to project lessons onto a wall for all to follow. Since then she has seen the value of such training firsthand.
Her district does not have the resources to supply a Smart Board, so instead she relies on the desktop computers in the school library—anything to keep her lessons current. "Computer skills are so important, especially for kids growing up in a digital age. Some of my students hardly know how to use a mouse or save a document, and this is so critical for success in the workplace today," she said.
While some university courses offer this specific training, others put the onus on the students. Professors assign projects that focus on academic subject specialties, but require a digital presentation as a means of including exposure to technology.
Eric Miller, a teacher of sixth-grade social studies at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle, remembers a graduate school project for which he created a website to teach a history lesson. The website asked users about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and provided links to other websites. Users would click on the links to read both related and unrelated information and then sort out the correct response.
"My first experience using technology in education ended up being a common trend for quite some time," Miller says. He later learned that WebQuest, a company popular in education circles during the late 1990s and early 2000s, promoted these inquiry websites.
After they have completed their certification, teachers can turn to universities for supplementary instruction on the most recent trends.
For example, Tufts University Center for Science and Mathematics Teaching organizes workshops and resources for pre-service and practicing teachers on how best to incorporate technology in their lessons. It designs curricula, providing examples of lessons and correlating homework assignments.
"When we have powerful tools and an active curriculum, it helps with the comprehension," says Ronald Thornton, a professor in both physics and education at Tufts University and director of the Tufts Center for Science and Mathematics Teaching.
Jackie Crowe, who teaches 12th-grade physics at Lexington High School in Massachusetts, enrolled in a summer course at the Center for Science and Mathematics Teaching a few years ago and followed up with a course at Harvard University on peer instruction and personal response systems.
Crowe relies on these systems when preparing her students for the AP Physics B Exam. Students think about a question she poses and then select a multiple-choice response through a device resembling a remote control. The students discuss their answers with their classmates and have the option to resubmit choices based upon their conversations. Through the system, Crowe has access to the students' answers before and after the discussion, gaining insight on the most poorly and well understood concepts.
"The students articulate their beliefs about the response and then they often see misconceptions based on their conversations," explained Crowe.
While some technical tools require formal training, the Internet and social media lend themselves to greater creativity.
When trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the Internet resources, Hughes has observed that more pre-service teachers tend to rely on each other, rather than on professors. Since technology changes so quickly, professors often find it challenging to keep up with the trends.
"Typically, a pre-service teacher is between 18 and 22, so many people think they should know all about technology, but this is an overestimation of digital media skills," Hughes says. "For example, they use social networking sites such as Facebook, but there are lots of other social networking applications."
These aspects of multimedia encourage greater collaboration among teachers and provide support networks either previously unavailable or without such a grand reach.
"A common interest in teacher education programs is the effort to get teachers to approach the practice in a more dispassionate, collegial, analytical, collective way." Kerr says. In the past, teachers would study at a college of education, and then teach in a classroom for six hours a day, catching up with colleagues at a lunch hour or during a prep period in the teachers' lounge. In contrast, today's teachers are encouraged to guide, support, and mentor one another, developing and sharing different responsibilities, Kerr continues.
This trickles down to the organization of the classroom. Traditionally, teachers arranged desks in rows, and expected quiet behavior, while lecturing and administering tests. Technology encourages discussion and critical thinking by way of community based data collection.
"There's a clash between what many of these technologies allow with the Industrial Age approach to education that is in place in most schools," Hughes says. In addition, teachers who do engage in this type of instruction tend to change their styles when they need to prepare students for standardized exams. "Testing assessment doesn't match what much of these technologies afford. There's no reason why including technology doesn't prepare knowledge that students could be tested on," she says.
Miller observed that in his middle school, math and science teachers have access to computer games that demonstrate the effects of gravity, for instance, or that replicate a dissection, but feel pressure to adhere to prescribed curricula geared toward standardized tests.
When preparing her students for the AP Physics B Exam, however, Crowe sees technology as a means for strong comprehension of the subject. For example, she explains that the photoelectric effect, the concept of how different metals are affected by specific frequencies of light, becomes clearer in a lab-replicated environment. "The students better understand the process, and that would have been difficult to do without technology."
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Corrected 11 a.m. 5/3/12: An earlier version of this article misidentified Marina Pita