Education Leaders Need to Bridge the Digital Use Divide

National ed tech leader Joseph South emphasized the importance of shifting schools away from passive to active technology use.

by / April 6, 2016 0
Joseph South, acting director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, speaks at the annual Consortium for School Networking Conference in Washington D.C., on April 5, 2016. Tanya Roscorla

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The digital divide receives a lot of attention because it separates those who have technology from those who don't. But another divide exists that puts some students at a disadvantage: the digital use divide.

This divide makes includes active technology use on one side and passive technology use on the other side. Schools across the country need to start providing more learning opportunities for students to create and collaborate with technology instead of just using it to consume information, said Joseph South, acting director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education.

"It's not enough to have the connectivity; it's not enough to have the smartphones," South said.

South spoke at the Consortium for School Networking Conference on April 5, 2016 about what it will take for education leaders to provide these learning opportunities. In fact, the 2016 National Education Technology Plan prioritizes active technology use and will be updated each year to keep up with the pace of changing technology, South said.

Without buy-in and leadership from a superintendent, this type of shift won't happen, said South. A teacher can make a difference in a classroom, but it takes executive support to pivot an entire school district. In fact, more than 2,100 superintendents have taken the Future Ready District Pledge to prepare their schools for digital learning.

"If you want to transform an entire system, you need a superintendent to be invested," South said.

Those superintendents also need an IT team that can lay a solid infrastructure foundation, he said. If the Internet doesn't work consistently at a fast enough speed, teachers will throw up their hands and clamor to go back to the way things were before. 

These technology changes also mean that teachers need training on how to promote active technology use in their classrooms, South said. Personalized professional development can help current teachers hone the skills they need to facilitate active learning.

But to really make a difference, more teacher preparation programs should integrate technology-rich practices into their curriculum so that educators will come to districts ready for active technology use when they're hired, said South.

A few programs, including the University of Michigan's School of Education, match their curriculum with the International Society for Technology in Education standards and Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Some higher education programs also embed student teaching throughout their students' education so they can apply what they learn, but South would like to see these types of programs become the norm.

The connection between K-12 schools that hire new teachers and the higher education institutions that prepare these teachers has been loose at best. South suggested that K-12 and higher education institutions can work better together to prepare teachers for active technology use by increasing the contact between them and sharing information about how teachers are doing in the classroom. He also would like to see higher education instructors regularly rotate into K-12 classrooms to teach so they can "refresh themselves."

"Unless we go back to the schools of education and make a major change there, then we'll always be behind the curve," South said.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.