Teachers’ views on digital learning
Updated September 25, 2018
This section is based in part on findings from a study that Evergreen produced for the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning. The teacher profiles have been updated and expanded from those in the report.
Digital learning requires effective teachers in order to be successful.
That statement is not an opinion. It is based on the simple fact that in 18 years of reviewing K-12 online and blended learning, we have found no examples of successful and scalable digital learning programs that did not use teachers.
Misconceptions that technology is replacing teachers are common; for examples see these two articles. Too many cases in which education technology advocates have exaggerated the capabilities of current technology exist as well. And undoubtedly the role of the teacher in online and blended schools usually changes relative to the roles of teachers in mainstream schools, sometimes in ways that teachers feel devalues their worth and importance.
The teaching with technology landscape
Teachers are operating under a variety of different circumstances in their use of technology. At the extremes, some teachers are largely on their own in their classrooms, using digital tools and resources despite having a limited number of existing computers, slow or intermittent Internet access, and no funds available for purchasing online content. Other teachers are in schools that have prioritized the use of technology. In these teachers’ classrooms, all students have a device which they take home, students access the Internet at consistently high speeds, and the district provides digital content and student data dashboards.
Some digital resources, such as online content, can be provided by the school or the teacher. Other tools, such as computers, are almost always supplied at the school or district level. Instructional strategies linked to the use of digital tools and resources, such as the creative use of time and space, individualized pacing, and competency-based progression, may be developed by teachers individually, or planned and implemented by the school or district.
A survey of 660 teachers conducted by Evergreen, which is described in more detail in the report, found the following:
Teachers’ use of technology ranges from simple to complex.
Nearly all respondents (97%) said they are using computers in their teaching. As explained earlier, the sample is not representative of all teachers, and this high level of computer usage is not a surprise in this sample. It provides a comparison to the usage levels of the other elements of technology.
Between 64% and 66% of respondents report that they are using each of four types of resources and strategies: student creation of documents, student collaboration, free online resources, and online resources purchased by the school or district. This finding demonstrates that use of open educational resources and purchased resources is not either/or, but that in some cases teachers are using both free and purchased materials.
About 60% of respondents said they regularly use formative assessments (61%) and/or differentiated instruction (58%).
Half (49%) use a learning management system such as Blackboard or Canvas.
41% use a student data dashboard, which may be part of a learning management system, student information system, skills software, or other technology platform.
These numbers represent a continuum of use of technology, with greater numbers of teachers using technology in relatively simple ways, and slightly smaller numbers using technology in more complex ways. For example, 66% of teachers are using technology to replace and enhance formerly paper-based activities (creation/collaboration), but only 41% are using a student data dashboard. As usage types become more complex, towards formative assessments, differentiated instruction, and using a data dashboard, usage levels decrease.
The Evergreen survey found that the teachers most likely to report successful changes in their teaching practices are those who report 1) being more experienced with technology, and 2) having higher levels of support from their school. Teachers who indicate success with using technology in response to the question described in Figure 8 were likely to have more experience and greater support from their school, compared to teachers who felt that technology had not had much impact. These differences are statistically significant and suggest that teachers need both significant time (measured in years) and professional development, or other forms of support, to successfully use technology.
Benefits, challenges, and recommendations
The survey and the experience of DLC members suggest that teachers' views regarding digital tools, resources, and instruction tend to fall into several categories, as detailed below:
Teaching with technology provides benefits to teachers and students.
Teachers value the ways that digital tools and resources allow for student content creation and collaboration.
Teachers encourage students to use computers collaboratively to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, which they believe leads to greater student engagement.
Learning management systems and digital tools such as online quizzes provide teachers with increased student achievement data.
Formal assessments or quick informal quizzes at the start of a class allow the teacher to take the pulse of the room and understand where students may need help. This instructional strategy can be implemented without using computers, but online quizzes allow for much quicker assessment and data collection. Consistent creation and analysis of student data allows teachers to focus on student growth.
Technology allows teachers to better differentiate learning between students and personalize instruction for each student.
Some teachers divide students into different groups, such that the teacher can work with a smaller group of students, while other students are working on computers. Because of the increased use of assessments and individual student data, teachers associate blended learning and technology with a focus on student growth.
Technology helps teachers to give students more control over their learning.
Teachers often find that when they trust students with a higher level of control, students respond positively.
Online content allows students to choose from different information sources, giving students increased voice and choice.
The teacher guides this process to varying levels depending on the student, as appropriate.
Using digital tools improves efficiency of grading, distribution of instructional materials, and other aspects of classroom management.
Digital tools also help teachers work with students who miss time due to sickness, sports, or other reasons.
Teachers in schools and districts that have formal technology programs extend learning beyond the classroom walls and the hours of the school day.
Although not a new concept, the flipped classroom model allows teachers to focus class time on more difficult ideas and hands-on work while assigning basic concept acquisition for homework.
The practice of learning at home (e.g. reading the textbook) and reserving activities for class time has been used for generations, and the recent concept of “flipping the classroom” is often overhyped. Still, to the extent that online homework provides data to the teacher to better understand the level of each student’s understanding, the flipped classroom approach can be valuable.
Differences exist in the ways technology is used between subject areas and students.
By far, math teachers use more online resources, followed by ELA. However, digital tools and resources are used in a wide variety of subject areas.
Using online courses and communication tools opens teachers to new opportunities and directions in face-to-face settings.
Teaching with technology presents challenges.
For teachers to be successful in their use of technology, the devices, Internet access, online content, and software must work well and consistently.
Some teachers report that they have two versions of their lesson plans—one for using computers and one for paper when Internet access fails—but clearly it is not reasonable to expect most teachers to take on that level of planning. Although many schools are using computer labs or carts, teachers who are further along in implementing technology express frustration at not having better and easier access to computers.
Teachers are especially concerned about students accessing inappropriate online material.
Some teachers have developed strategies in their classrooms to address digital citizenship, or use strategies developed by their districts, but others are still greatly concerned by this issue. However, finding the right balance of allowing vs. restricting access is difficult for district administrators, and some teachers report frustration with students not being able to access materials that the teachers want them to see.
Contrary to popular belief, today’s students are not necessarily comfortable using technology, and therefore they may not be as ready to use computers to learn in school and at home as assumed.
Watching a video on a smartphone for fun is a far cry from studying an instructional video, and then posting and answering related discussion questions. Many teachers report that even if students appear comfortable with computers, they may not be ready to use computers to learn. They may be distracted by non-academic websites, games, or videos. In addition, although teachers sometimes report that students are more engaged simply by using computers to access information, other teachers report that they still have problems with students not studying assigned materials.
Although students generally respond well to having increased voice and choice, some students don’t handle their increased responsibility very well at first.
Older students have spent years in schools in which they have been told exactly what to do, and the change to having greater control takes some getting used to. Although successful blended teachers and schools report that their students have learned to take control, the teachers in the survey say that many of their students have not yet made this transition.
Although many teachers relish their new role in working with smaller numbers of students, and allowing students greater voice and choice, some feel that this change has reduced their role.
Most teachers value their role in communicating new information to students. Advocates for the increased use of technology in schools must understand that some teachers believe—in many cases correctly—that lecturing is their most effective instructional strategy, at least for certain topics and grade levels.
The transition from a traditional teaching approach to using blended learning can require a significant time investment, especially at the start, for professional development and planning.
In too many cases, the teachers—and often school leaders—do not fully anticipate the initial time and effort that is required, leading to frustration and in some cases poor outcomes.
Schools need to bring parents and families along in the blended learning journey, but communications to the home may not be sufficient.
If the teacher or school is relying on a flipped classroom or other instructional models that require significant work at home, then students must have a supportive learning environment at home.
A small number of teachers have moved quickly along their blended learning journey and are now running into the constraints of school or district policies.
These constraints are most commonly related to bell schedules, semester calendars, and grading policies. In addition, teachers often express concern about the impact of testing new ideas on evaluations of their own performance. They hear from technology companies the concept of “try, fail, improve”, but they feel that they are being watched and evaluated constantly and have little or no room to experiment and “fail forward.” Along these lines, teachers may resent being told how to improve their practice by technology consultants who have little or no experience in a classroom.
Some of the teachers feel that they are innovating, but that other teachers and other parts of the educational system are not.
In the interviews, no teachers criticized other teachers directly, but a few survey and off the record comments reflected these concerns.
For teachers to be successful with technology they must be supported by their schools and districts.
There are simply too many interconnected parts that play into success or failure, and teachers are responsible for only some of them.
Teachers’ digital learning recommendations:
Recognize that blended teaching represents a significant change in instruction, not just the layering of technology onto existing practices.
This misunderstanding leads advocates for the increased use of technology in education to underestimate the amount of time required to adopt technology successfully. Most existing professional development mechanisms are insufficient, because 1) they do not allow for enough time, and 2) they are removed from the classroom and school year, often taking place during summer breaks. Teachers need more time and support than they usually receive.
Understand that initial efforts are an investment that pays off over time.
Making this investment opportunity clear to new teachers would be useful because they are being asked to do more in the short term for a payoff in the longer term.
A major shift in professional development is required, away from an “expert” telling teachers what to do, and instead supporting groups of teachers who learn from one another, often throughout the school year.
A few districts are taking this approach, embedding instructional coaches in schools and working with teachers throughout the day during breaks and planning periods. This approach also lets teachers learn about new techniques and provides them the time to try these ideas in their classrooms before moving on to a new topic.
Supportive, successful professional development is based on teachers working together.
However, these supportive forums require more planning and preparation time than teachers often have.
Professional development also must be geared towards specific subject areas and grade levels, which is a final step in an educational technology learning pyramid.
Experienced teachers emphasize that successful professional development operates over three levels. First, teachers need to understand the ways in which devices, software, digital content, data platforms, etc. operate both alone and in conjunction with one another. The second level is applying general instructional strategies based on the use of these tools and resources. The third level explores the use of these instructional strategies in the context of a specific group of students, for example middle school science students, or students taking algebra I.
Apply the growth mindset strategy to teachers.
Digital learning advocates often call for increasing students’ growth mindset and believe that digital tools and resources help students focus on growth, persistence, and grit. Blended teachers explain that this type of mindset is also necessary for new teachers as well as for students.
Understand that technology should not be isolating, but instead it should allow teachers to focus on relationships with students.
The role of the teacher changes, but the importance of the teacher is unchanged. The new role often leads to students having more control over their learning, and teachers must become comfortable with this change.
Technology advances more quickly than human behaviors and systems, so choose a strategy to support, and stick with it.
The rate at which digital tools and resources are adopted must not exceed the rate at which teachers and students can learn the new tools and successfully use them. Otherwise teachers will constantly feel that they are being required to implement new ideas.
Teachers have different personalities and instructional strategies, and they should feel comfortable adjusting blended learning concepts to their own strengths and situations.
Blended learning advocates disparage the “factory model” of learning because it applies one mode to all teachers and students. But poorly implemented technology can fall into the same trap of expecting teachers to use digital tools in one way, regardless of circumstances. Instead, digital tools can be used in flexible ways by teachers who choose how best to use these online resources.