The Branded Teacher

I want to start this post by conveying my deepest respect for teachers. Over my 25 years of teaching in K-12 and higher education environments, I’ve worked with literally thousands of innovative and dedicated professionals. They spend countless hours creating lessons and grading papers and often spend hundreds of dollars out of their own money for classroom materials. They deserve our admiration and support.

I have concerns, though. But not with teachers’ quality or their dedication. Rather, I’m concerned about a growing trend in schools and in professional conferences: the branded teacher. If you know some teachers in schools, you likely know a Google Certified Innovator or an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Or maybe you know a Seesaw Teacher Ambassador or a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert.  These are just a few of the big corporations who have developed branding relationships with educators. While these programs offer amazing professional development opportunities for teachers, I worry about the potential influence that these branding relationships could have on the profession, on our schools and on our students.

I first took notice of the potential influence of these branding relationships a few years ago when I served on the review committee for a statewide educational technology conference. As I reviewed conference proposals, I could see that some presentations appeared almost as if they were commercials for a specific technology. On some, a company representative was even listed as a co-presenter. After I raised concerns to the conference organizers, we tried to develop a more transparent review process to require proposers to disclose any existing branding relationships. The practice became pervasive enough that I chose to discontinue reviewing proposals for that conference.

One may ask, “So, what’s the big deal?” As I mentioned earlier, I have tremendous respect for teachers and I celebrate their efforts for professional growth and recognition. My concern lies with the potential influence these branding relationship can have on our schools. But I’m not the only one. Last week, the New York Times published an article detailing how widespread these branding relationships are and how some lawmakers and education experts have concerns. In the article, a Columbia University professor worries that some teachers can be “seduced to make greater use of the technology, given these efforts by tech companies.” A Maine attorney general explained, “any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in the public classroom without transparency, then that’s problematic.”

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am unaffiliated with any corporation. I serve on the advisory board of two conferences, but I regularly disclose that information when I’m working with colleagues or when I’m blogging about my experiences with those groups. I have chosen to remain unaffiliated because I didn’t want my students or my colleagues to question my opinions or my advice.  Whether good or bad, my recommendations are not built on any relationships I have with any company, corporation or group.  They are my own.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing any teacher for developing a branding relationship with a company. For some schools, a teacher’s participation in a branding program can help the district acquire much needed technology or supplies. Also, with the low salaries that some teachers are paid, I totally understand their desire to seek additional compensation. But I worry about the ethical implications these relationships create. For instance, when I go for a medical check-up, I would hope that any prescription or treatment that my doctor recommends would be based on my needs as a patient and not on the doctor’s prior relationship with a pharmaceutical company. But that might not the case.  In a 2016 study of 280,000 doctors, researchers found that physicians’ “receipt of industry-sponsored meals was associated with an increased rate of prescribing the promoted brand-name medication to patients.” I think that many people would find that level of influence concerning.

And that’s my concern about branding relationships in education. Studies have found that teachers make over 1500 educational decisions each day. I worry that too many of those decisions are guided by the tacit influence of branding relationships with corporations rather than on the influence of best practices or from educational research.


Reimagining Tech in Higher Ed

Earlier this year, the Office of Educational Technology released a sweeping report examining how technology can be used to foster student-centered learning in institutions of higher education in the United States. The report is a supplement to the National Educational Technology Plan released by the office in 2016 that offered a similar vision of educational technology in K12 schools. Titled Reimagining the Role of Technology in Higher Education, this report clearly focuses on the challenges and opportunities that colleges and universities face.   For instance, the document starts with an overview of the “new normal” students currently enrolled in higher education.  Drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the report identifies that 74% of undergraduate students have at least on “nontraditional characteristic.”  Maybe they have transfer from another institution (66%).  Or maybe they work a part-time or full time job (62%). They may also have a dependent (26%) or be a first-generation college student (63%). Factor in those students who are attending part time (43%) and those who are enrolled in two-year colleges (35%) and you can see that the “nontraditional” umbrella is really inclusive. Recognizing this student population, the report asserts that:

technology must serve the needs of a diverse group of students seeking access to high-quality postsecondary learning experiences, especially those students from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, first-generation students, and working learners at varying life stages— all with differing educational goals, but who all share the desire to obtain a postsecondary credential.” (p. 4)

To meet this end, the report offers several ways that technology can be used to “improve and enhance learning.”  These include:

  1. Technology enables students to access learning opportunities apart from the traditional barriers of time and place.
  2. Technology lets students access learning opportunities outside of formal higher
    education institutions, such as at their workplace or in community settings.
  3. Technology allows students to access high-quality learning resources, regardless of
    their institution’s geographical location or funding.
  4. Technology enables enhanced learning experiences through blended learning models.
  5. Technology supports students in their learning based on individual academic and
    non-academic needs through personalization.
  6. Technology can ensure that students with disabilities participate in and benefit from educational programs and activities.

In addition to this outline of technological benefits, the report provides case studies to show how these aspects are playing out at different institutions across the country. Despite these examples, I was left with the feeling that these were largely aspirations of a possible future for technology at colleges and universities rather than an actual representation of the larger landscape. Not to sound overly gloomy or negative, but I don’t see widespread, consistent use of technology to support students with disabilities.  I also don’t see many institutions offering “personalized” learning experiences for students. While there are some schools that are adopting high quality OERs to meet the needs of students, I don’t see this broadly across schools.

But that’s the point of the report.  Rather than capture the world as it is, the document is designed to show the possibilities and offer a vision of an educational future where technology is used to engender these aspects.  It doesn’t represent the world as it is, but as what it could be.  It’s a “reimagined” future, where the “new normal” students have greater access to educational opportunities through the use of technology.  While I appreciate this focus, I also wish that the report would have given readers a clear guide for how to get to this “reimagined” future.


U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Reimagining the Role of
Technology in Higher Education: A Supplement to the National Education Technology Plan, Washington, D.C., 2017.


Our phones may be smarter…

Look across any college campus and you’ll see large number of students walking around with their faces glued to their smartphones.  Some times, you’ll see three or four students walking together and staring at their smartphone rather than talking to one another.  You’ll also see students using their smartphones to capture the minutiae of their days.  They post images of their lunches or their outfits or the squirrels playing in the park. The smartphone has become a ubiquitous device in students’ lives.

If you’ve wondering whether there’s been a growth in smartphone ownership over the years, there has been. Last year, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) reported that smartphone ownership outpaced laptop for the first time in its decade of research on technology ownership among undergraduate students.  In the 2016 study, ECAR reported that 96% of undergrads report owning smartphones while only 93% report owning a laptop.  Considering that the iPhone just had its 10th birthday, it’s amazing to see how rapid this mass adoption has occurred.

Many of us who work with instructional technology think of the educational opportunities that these tools present.  Compared to the computers that many students used decades ago, the computing power of a smartphone is orders of magnitude more powerful.  And our students have these devices on them all the time.  The devices offer limitless educational opportunities for students.  But there is another side to recognize.

In a New York Times article titled Hooked on our Smartphones, Jane Brody writes about the negative impact that widespread smartphone use causes.  The article begins with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the award winning musical “Hamilton.”  Smartphones, Miranda argues, has stolen our downtime and made us less creative and innovative.  “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower.” Miranda says. “It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.” When smartphones are used to fill every down second of our days, we’re losing these moments of inspiration.

Is Miranda exaggerating? Consider research that Nancy Colier shares in her book, The Power of Off.  On average, people check their smartphones 150 times a day, or roughly every six minutes.  Young adults, Colier writes, send “an average of 110 texts per day” and are increasingly overexposed to online media.  Returning to the Times article, Brody shares a study conducted by the University of Maryland that showed that “a clear majority” of students experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for a day.  And this isn’t just a phenomenon experienced in the U.S.  Students from across the globe report similar emotional reactions.  As a student from Mexico reported “It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”

So, what’s the big take-away? Often, with technological advances and innovations, we focus on the gains and improvements that occur.  With smartphones, we can communicate and interact with a larger population.  We have unlimited information at our fingertips. We can document our lives through text, images and video. But what have we lost with our smartphone usage?  While we think we’re filling a void by entertaining ourselves during “downtime, if Miranda and Colier are correct, we’re actually robbing ourselves of a powerful creative catalyst and becoming dependent on the flood of media that these devices supply.  While the phones have become smarter, can we say the same for ourselves?

Best of 2016 – Part 2

As the new year begins, I thought I’d take this opportunity to review some of the most popular posts from 2016.  If you missed last week’s post, I shared the first half of the “Top Ten” list.  Happy New Year!

1. What’s Your Teaching Perspective?  This post, shared in May 2016, was the most visited and shared post of 2016.  The post examines the Teaching Perspective Inventory (TPI) and discusses how the TPI can be used (and potentially misused) in professional development and hiring situations.

2.  The Open Syllabus Project: Friend or Foe?  Written in January 2016, this post discusses how Columbia University has been collecting and analyzing syllabi as part of a collaborative open educational materials project.  While I’m a big supporter of open initiatives, I identify some of my reservations with the Open Syllabus Project in the post.

3. What’s Your Teaching Metaphor? Shared at the start of Fall 2016 semester, this post emerged from a discussion in a doctoral class where one of my students saw educators as “brokers” of learning.  That remark prompted me to do some research on “teaching metaphors” and how different instructors describe their roles.

4. The SAMR Model: A Critical Perspective.  Everyone loves the SAMR model of technology integration!  Okay, maybe not everyone.  In this post from May 2016, I share some of my reservations of the model.

5.  The Magic Pill of Online Teaching?  Written in January 2016, this post examines an instructional strategy for online learning environments that has been shown to have significant impacts on student success.

Let’s Talk about Learning

This semester, I’m teaching a class on Emergent Technologies and Innovative Practices for students in our new Educational Leadership doctoral program.  All of the students are leaders in area schools.  Some are principals.  A few are assistant superintendents.  One is a business manager for a local district.  They’re a really smart group who are going to engage in some really heady discourse over how we integrate technology in schools.

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester and I think some of the students are seeing a disconnect.  While the class is titled “emergent technology,” we’ve actually spent very little time so far talking about technology at all.  While we’ll be digging deeper into technologies later in the semester, we’ve spent most of the class discussing learning theory and broader theoretical constructs like TPACK. So, what gives?  Why would I organize the class in such a way?  I think my instructional decisions for this class are best captured in a Tweet I came across this weekend.

“We can’t have conversations around technology until we are ready to have conversations around learning.” @justintarte

I don’t know Dr. Tarte but I think we’re kindred spirits. The education community spends a lot of time talking about devices and apps and learning management systems but very little time discussing learning.  The larger challenge, however, is that educators, school leaders, parents and other stakeholders hold very different beliefs about learning and we don’t spend a lot of time hashing these beliefs out in public forums.  One of the books my doctoral students are reading is Teaching Crowds by Dron and Anderson (2014).  In the book, the authors discuss different pedagogical generations and how beliefs of learning changed during these time periods.  In the behavioral/cognitive era, pedagogy was focused on teaching the individual. The behavioral/cognitive tradition assumes that “there is a body of material or specified measurable skill to be learned that may be transmitted to the learner.” The focal point of this pedagogical generation is the instructor and the one-to-one or one-to-many delivery system.

The social constructivist era, however, changes this focus.  In this generation, social interactions and constructing understanding through experience are the central vehicles for learning.  Few people learn in isolation, social constructivists would argue.  We learn by interacting with one another and by experience the world around us.  These social constructivist beliefs helped to usher in the next pedagogical generation: the connectivist era.  In this generation, the focus isn’t solely on the individual but also on the larger community in which one participates.  In the connectivist era, learning occurs in groups and is demonstrated in and distributed across people’s ability to participate.  Connectivist pedagogy recognizes that “knowledge exists in a social and physical context as well as a personal one.”

These are very short synopses of the larger pedagogical generation described in Dron and Anderson’s text.  The larger takeaway, however, is that different people that are involved in decision-making in schools can hold wildly different beliefs on how people learn.  Not just because of the influence of these pedagogical eras but also from their own experiences as learners and as educators.  These beliefs, however, inform technological decisions, whether through explicit or tacit means.  Someone who believes in instructive forms of learning would select and use very different technologies than someone who believes in more social and collaborative processes of learning.

And that’s why I’m spending a large portion of my doctoral class examining learning theories and the research-base behind each.  As educators, we need to recognize that technology decisions should not just be based on availability, cost or efficiency but should also reflect our beliefs about learning.

Fertile ground for innovation

There are a few industries that seem to be getting a lot of attention from the big technology companies.  Take self-driving cars. Despite a recent casualty involving a self-driving Tesla, Google, Intel and several other companies are investing tons of time and money into researching and building “autonomous vehicles.” With the potential productivity opportunities and convenience that self-driving cars could offer, companies see the field as a growth industry. With all of the attention and experimentation, some strategists estimate that there could be over 10 million self-driving cars by the end of the decade.

But that’s one of the advantages of working in a field that offers a lot of potential growth (and profits) for companies.  The technology giants descend on the field and, for better or worse, invest resources in exploring ways to capitalize on the market.  Think drones, virtual reality, near field communication and so much more. The big players are all working in the same sandboxes.

For those of us working in education, we should feel a little lucky. With the number of K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions, education is drawing a lot of attention from technology companies. With the number of books, devices and applications that the educational industry purchases each year, Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are eying additional ways to leverage their market share. With the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference just recently occurring, many of the firms used the conference as an opportunity to announce some new projects and initiatives.  Here are some highlights.

Amazon:  Where do teachers go when they’re looking for educational materials? Maybe there’s a high school teacher who is looking for a worksheet with some practice problems or a first grade teacher searching for a lesson plan on how to teach fractions. Most teachers find these materials strewn across a bunch of different free or pay sites like  With Amazon Inspire, the company is offering to house these materials in one easy-to-use location.  Just like it disrupted the book industry, Amazon hopes to create a one-stop online marketplace for educational materials.  The service is in Beta right now but educators can request access by visiting the site.

Google:  With the growth of Chromebooks in schools, Google has become one of the major players in the education market.  The company used ISTE to announce several new products.  Google Quizzes is a new function within Google Forms that allows teachers to easily create self-graded online assessments.  They also announced Google Cast for Education, a Chrome app that allows easy screen sharing for teachers and students across wireless devices. Additionally, the company cemented itself as one of the main virtual reality innovators by releasing the full version of its Expeditions app to schools.  Offering over 200 different virtual reality trips to educators, it has the potential to change the landscape of field trips in schools.

Apple: Apple came out of the gates a few weeks ahead of the ISTE conference to announce its new coding platform called Swift Playgrounds. Targeting middle school and high school student, the app is designed to help students with no coding knowledge to learn how to program in a fun, game-based way.  The app is free on the App Store.

Microsoft: While other companies (Google and Apple, for instance) have dominated the educational industry as of late, Microsoft is attempting to change that trend. Microsoft has partnered with ISTE to identify Microsoft Showcase Schools and is working with edX to offer educational technology and leadership online courses starting this fall.

The SAMR Model: A critical perspective

This post may not win me many fans.  In some ways, offering a critical perspective of the SAMR Model is like attacking rainbows, puppy dogs and sunshine.  The SAMR Model is that beloved.  If you’re not familiar with the model, SAMR is designed to support technology integration in educational settings.  The model’s name is an acronym for different levels of technology integration, Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition.  Since Ruben Puentedura introduced it over a decade ago, the model has spread like wildfire across all areas of the educational landscape.

As I write this post, I want to make something abundantly clear.  I don’t hate the SAMR Model.  Some of my doctoral students have accused me of this recently but I really don’t dislike the model at all.  I first introduced the model on the 8 Blog in 2011 after encountering it in a technology training.   At the time, I thought the model could be used as a catalyst to inspire teachers to think about new ways to integrate technology into their classrooms.  I still feel this way.  Over the last five years, however, it has become the dominant model of technology integration in schools.  Because of this, I feel the need to offer some of my reservations.

  1.  The model needs a stronger evidence base.  Take a moment and go to one of the research databases (ERIC, Ebscohost, etc.).  Do a quick search on the SAMR Model and let me know what you find.  Or, take a look at some of the larger research-based conferences that study educational technology and research their programs or conference proceedings.  Across these settings, you’ll find few research-based studies that examine the SAMR model or provide an evidence base for its implementation.  I find this problematic, especially with how widely the model is used in schools to drive expensive technology implementation programs.  Advocates for the SAMR Model argue that the model is based on other research bases and that it “just makes sense.” My concern with this perspective is that as we teach our student to make evidence-based arguments and try to foster larger critical thinking skills, would we accept this argument from them?  I doubt it.
  2. The model oversimplifies the complex nature of classrooms and learning. Teaching is difficult work.  Expert teachers must navigate their knowledge bases of content, pedagogy and technology thousands of times during every lesson to effectively support student learning. Can this complex decision-making really be simplified into a four level model?  Research tells us “no.” Take the exhaustive work on technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK).  Throughout countless studies on TPACK, one thing is clear. Integrating technology effectively in classrooms is challenging and requires focused attention and support.
  3. The model is too techno-centric.  My main role at my institution is teaching beginning teachers to utilize instructional technology in their classrooms. While I’m often accused as being a “technology guy,” in reality, I see myself as a pedagogy person. I think my perspective is best captured in a quote I share with my students (and in most of the professional development sessions I offer).  In Technology, Pedagogy and Education, Diana Laurillard (2007) writes: “We have to be careful not to focus simply on what the technology offers, but rather on what the pedagogy requires.” The SAMR Model focuses too heavily on technology and the tasks it affords and not enough on the learning it supports.
  4. The model is vague. I’m sure some readers are going to wonder how a model can be too simple and too vague at the same time.  But hear me out.  Most people who use the SAMR Model can offer clear examples for the Substitution and Redefinition levels.  When focusing on the middle two levels, however, things can get a little murky.  Depending on who is assessing a technology-rich lesson, some could identify it as Augmentation while others may see it as Modification.  With some widespread training, this discrepancy could be corrected and the assessment could be normalized.  Then again, what value would this serve? If the primary focus isn’t on the learning supported by technology, is it really important how we label it?
  5. The model is stifling other conversations. Since its introduction a decade ago, many large educational technology companies have adopted the model as their primary foundation for teacher trainings. Because of this adoption, many educators refuse to consider other models or perspectives.  Are you familiar with the Technology Integration Matrix? Developed at the University of South Florida, the Technology Integration Matrix (TIM) offers a different view on the use of educational technology.  When I share the TIM with teachers and administrators, they balk at it.  “The SAMR is much simpler to use,” they argue.  While I also have reservations about the TIM, should we be solely guided by simplicity? In a lot of ways, the dominance of the SAMR Model has kept other models of integration from being fully examined and vetted.  SAMR is a good model that is keeping great conversations from happening.

I have an undergraduate degree in physics.  In one of my favorite classes, the History of Science, we studied primary documents that demonstrated the larger discussions, debates and discoveries that happened throughout history to inform scientific thought.  I offer this post as a way to hopefully begin a larger discussion about models of technology integration.  Feel free to contribute by commenting below or emailing me at: