Training Teachers on Educational Technology, Now and for the Future

Bill Mount

K-12 teachers are nearing the end of an extraordinarily challenging school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of them are very stressed out. From learning new technology on the fly to navigating between remote and in-person instruction, educators have faced many additional obstacles in the perennial struggle to […]

K-12 teachers are nearing the end of an extraordinarily challenging school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of them are very stressed out. From learning new technology on the fly to navigating between remote and in-person instruction, educators have faced many additional obstacles in the perennial struggle to engage students.

It hasn’t been an easy time to be a teacher, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel with COVID-19 vaccines and students returning to classrooms. Also, an Education Week Research Center survey found that almost half of teachers reported their ability to effectively use education technology during the pandemic had improved “a lot,” and 41 percent responded that it improved “a little.”

“That is extremely inspiring to me, and we can build off this well-deserved confidence and competence that teachers have going forward,” said Amanda Sullivan, AG12, AG16, who received a doctorate in child development from Tufts and helped launch the Tufts Early Childhood Technology (ECT) certificate program five years ago with Marina Umaschi Bers, chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study & Human Development and director of the interdisciplinary DevTech Research Group.

“Over this past year, we were forced to innovate and do things in education we hadn’t done before. It can be easy to go back to normal, but innovation is important. This is a leapfrog moment where we can make a huge leap forward in terms of what we’re doing with education and with educational technology,” Sullivan said.

Innovation was the goal behind the establishment of ECT. Bers’ vision drove the creation of a graduate program of study in which those interested in the education of young children could not only learn how to use our current technologies, but the technologies of the future. “Technologies are constantly changing. That is their nature. Therefore, we need to provide intellectual tools, alongside technological skills, so educators can learn how to learn and develop their own confidence as learners,” said Marina Bers.

Building teachers’ confidence to navigate challenges more easily during the pandemic and in the future is a primary goal of the ECT program, which aims to help educators of young children develop knowledge and skills in technology, coding and engineering through playful, developmentally appropriate learning.

“My passion is working with kids. I love seeing the light bulb moment when they start to understand how tools work, whatever the tool is — computers, crayons, grass, anything can be a tool for learning,” said Amanda Strawhacker, A11, AG13, AG20, a triple Jumbo who received her doctorate through Eliot-Pearson and is now associate director of the ECT program.

“In my courses in the ECT program, we look at technology differently, including unplugged technologies,” said Sullivan. “I want to shift what people think of as technology, because it doesn’t have to be passively sitting in front of a computer or screen.”

Sullivan and Strawhacker both teach courses in the ECT program, which develops students’ teaching practices and assessment methods, and their understanding of student learning through integrated curricula that includes the arts and literacy as well as STEM. All the ECT frameworks are rooted in evidence-based pedagogy from the DevTech Research Group and the Eliot-Pearson Department, and implemented at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School.

One such area of research is the Positive Technological Development (PTD) framework developed by Bers, which proposes six positive behaviors that should be supported by educational technologies. Known as the six C’s, they are: content creation, creativity, communication, collaboration, community building and choices of conduct.

“The PTD framework is one of our foundational pedagogies because we’re talking not about the tools themselves, but what they afford and what the opportunities are in terms of holistic, psychosocial behaviors, which all kids need to develop,” said Strawhacker. “And we know how to design and teach with technology so that it can become a great tool for all kinds of learning.”

The KIBO Robot, a robotics construction set for young children developed by the DevTech Research Group that uses wooden programming blocks but does not involve screen time, is one example of educational technology that encourages the six C’s. Another is the free ScratchJr app, which allows children to program interactive stories and games on a device, co-developed by the DevTech Research Group and the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab. ECT provides the opportunity for educators to take courses with instructors who are involved in cutting-edge research and implementation all over the world.

“The ECT program helps students feel comfortable learning about the technologies created by DevTech and others but also learning how to select new tools, critique them, and establish whether the tool helps them meet their learning goals,” said Strawhacker.

“We want to create lifelong learners who know how to educate themselves, how to approach new technologies, and what critical questions to ask,” said Sullivan. “They’ll know how to effectively choose the best developmentally appropriate technologies for their students or children, regardless of changes in the consumer market.”

While the ECT program and the DevTech Research Group have a strong focus on educational technology, Strawhacker stressed that “everything we put into action comes from a child development place. We’re not a computer science department, and we’re not a toy company.”

“Technologies are constantly changing. We need to provide intellectual tools, alongside technological skills, so educators can learn how to learn and develop their own confidence as learners,” said Marina Umaschi Bers (pictured on right), director of the DevTech Research Group, shown in this photo from 2014 with Amanda Sullivan, AG12, AG16. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Putting Learning into Practice

Ebyn Brinkley, an ECT student and teacher from Norfolk, Virginia, enrolled in the program after her school district introduced the KIBO Robot to second-grade students a few years ago. She said the ability to evaluate tools and create a purposeful learning space is one of the main concepts she’ll take away from the program.

“I want to make sure that the kids have a way to create what they’re doing and not just be told what they’re doing,” said Brinkley, who has taught grades one through three for 16 years. “They can express what they learned in their own creative way. Children, and people in general, see things differently. I don’t want a child to think they’re wrong just because they see things differently.”

Sullivan echoed Brinkley’s emphasis on self-expression —one of the questions Sullivan often thinks about is: How can we use technology in more meaningful and deeper ways as a mode of self-expression and communication, not just learning about technology, but demonstrating learning through it?

“The biggest focus I had with our ECT teachers and other teachers I supported over the past year was, how can we get kids to do hands-on and physical work through a format like Zoom,” said Sullivan. The final project in her course was developing a curriculum unit, and she said the students found creative ways to involve physical actions, collaborations, and hands-on play for children learning virtually. For teachers like Brinkley, it wasn’t just a hypothetical unit.

“You’re bringing concepts that students in the program are immediately turning around into their classroom and giving you feedback on how it worked with their own young students,” said Strawhacker, who added that she is continuously learning from students in the program.

“Every week, they share new ways that they’re packaging these ideas for their administration or new tips for forging connections with families and students who feel isolated. And they’re doing this through the lens of exciting STEM education content, which infuses more novelty and real-world relevance into their class day,” Strawhacker said.

Brinkley shared that she has taken to calling her students “little engineers” in class — something that they’ve responded very positively to. “They say, ‘wow, that sounds like a smart person,’” Brinkley said. “I’m like, yes, because you are.”

Angela Nelson can be reached at [email protected].

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