A (Kind of) Love Letter from Teachers to Education Technology

Dear educational technology,

These days, we run into you everywhere. People who say you’re just what we need have gone out of their way to introduce you, and are quick to criticize us for not showing more interest. So, why aren’t we more into you? Well, if you want to win teachers over, you have to understand where we’re coming from.

You’re not the only one we’re seeing. When teachers claim our calendars are full, we’re not just playing hard to get. We’ve probably had several other tech-dates this month, including multiple computer-based reading programs for which we have to herd kids into the school library to use the computers. Each of these probably involves a diagnostic assessment, plus corresponding practice and makeup assessments, each of which requires the library to stay closed for the day, which means kids can’t check out any actual books until well into the third month of school, once we’ve finished assessing why they’re not good readers.

We want to know you respect us. Teachers have plenty of experience with “time saving” tech products that require two hours of tedious busy work for every hour they save. During a first impression, we look for signs that innovations in technology are matched by a genuine desire not to waste our time. High-tech isn’t always best for this: A 90-minute webcast of an under-prepared presenter mumbling through a PowerPoint presentation in another school’s auditorium is arguably more insulting than making us sit through a bad presentation in person. If you want to start things off on the right foot, show the same consideration for us that you claim your technology does for students.

We’ve been hurt before. Teachers want products that are user-friendly–and that won’t leave us feeling used. It will be hard for us to trust you again if we have to find out about password problems in front of our students, or troubleshoot during computer based high-stakes testing. So please, work out your own issues before introducing yourselves.

We get suspicious when you promise us the world. These days, if students were motivated enough, they could get the equivalent of a college education through their smartphones. Or they could spend all day playing video games and watching porn. Even the best high-tech solutions don’t override the bugs in human nature. Kids who struggle with reading will struggle to guide themselves through computerized directions. Cheaters will find high-tech ways to cheat, and students whose printers seem to break the night before every due date will have similar excuses for why they couldn’t watch their online lessons when we “flip” our classrooms. Sure we’d like your help, but you’ll get farther with us if you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Sometimes the problem isn’t you. It’s us. Your software is only as good as our schools’ hardware, and many schools still have slow computers, or not enough computers, or don’t have the Internet capacity to stream videos and interactive lessons into multiple classrooms. Your three-minute video may take five minutes of buffering to load on our interactive whiteboard, which feels like twenty minutes in a class full of rowdy seventh-graders. If high-tech lessons take a toll on classroom management, or require us to track down the IT guy our school shares with three other schools, don’t be surprised if we decide we’re just not compatible.

Deep down, we still believe in love. Sure, we’ve got some trust issues from being burned in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re nostalgic for the days of clapping erasers and calculating grades by hand. Teachers have had good experiences with technology, too, and we’d love to have more. The good thing about teachers is if you treat us right, we’re loyal, and we’ll tell all our friends how great you are. For now, trying to take it slow doesn’t mean we’re not interested.

We just want to know we can rely on you before we introduce you to our kids.

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up on  November 7, 2011.

P.S. Adequate Yearly Progress: A Novel, has at least one education-technology plot twist. See if you can find it.

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