Sweet Music: Making Technology Work in the Classroom

Tracy Gray

Imagine that a fleet of 18-wheelers filled with pianos pulls up to your local elementary school. One by one pianos (and sheet music) are hauled inside.

Fast forward one year. All the students will be playing Chopin. Right?


But this is what we do when we flood schools with computer hardware and software – without the right planning, leadership, and infrastructure in place—and then expect students to flourish. We’re just dropping off pianos and sheet music.

Now a new primer, Ed Tech Developer’s Guide, from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology offers educators, developers, and researchers ways to develop, build, and match the right technologies with the right classrooms.

Harvard Professor Chris Dede notes in Teaching and Technology: New Tools for New Times that there's an important distinction between "using technology to do conventional things better and using technology to do better things." The best use of technology for learning goes well beyond simply digitizing flash cards or offering online math drills.

The Developer’s Guide offers basic information about how to work with districts, schools, teachers, and students to better develop technology tools, services, and resources. The Guide also highlights innovative technology that enhances teaching and learning to

  • help teachers quickly review and grade student work, analyze the results to see what was not understood, and then design the next day’s classes to fill in the blanks;
  • connect teachers with each other and educational experts to learn best practices and improve professional development;
  • give students—especially those with special needs— ways to take more control of their learning and develop confidence and persistence by practicing new strategies to solve challenging problems; and
  • provide ways for parents to work at home with their children on activities that support that day’s classroom lessons.

That’s just the beginning of what effective use of quality technology can bring to teachers and students. Once the problem is defined and the solution is researched and designed, how can schools avoid the pianos-on-the-truck approach and use new technology wisely?

It takes leadership, infrastructure, and training.

Leadership. It’s about vision, not devices. Change requires a champion. A teacher, a principal, or a superintendent must provide active and sustained support to address the financial, logistical, and engagement issues associated with effective school-wide change. The champion leads development of the vision and goals for the initiative, which are discussed, revised, and finalized based on feedback from the primary stakeholders. This vision must embrace change and innovation—allowing for the possibility of occasional failures along the way—and be backed up by short- and long-term financial accountability to address technology’s evolving nature and fully leverage the investment.

Infrastructure. This key element includes people, processes, learning resources, policies, broadband connectivity, upgraded electrical systems, servers, software, management systems, and administrative tools – and the funding stream to support it all. According to the Department of Education’s Transforming American Education, “An infrastructure for learning unleashes new ways of capturing and sharing knowledge based on multimedia that integrate text, images, audio, and applications that run on a variety of devices.”

Professional Development. No matter the type of digital learning, its success is largely predicated on the commitment of teachers who have the confidence and support to use innovative practices that leverage technology, particularly for students with special needs. Yet, despite years of training, many teachers aren’t sure they know the best ways to integrate technology into their classrooms and to expand instruction. Often, inadequate technical support and guidance are cited to explain why teachers are reluctant to integrate technology tools into their classroom instruction.

If we properly design, integrate, and support education technology, we can transform student learning. If we don’t, we’ll still be dropping off pianos and hoping for Chopin.

Tracy Gray is a managing director at AIR. She leads the development of the 2015 National Education Technology Plan and two national technology centers that focus on students with disabilities for the U.S. Department of Education.