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.

References:

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.