Jul 03 2023

ISTELive 23: How Can Professional Development Narrow the Digital Divide?

As the U.S. Department of Education builds a new National Education Technology Plan, educators discuss how teachers can mend the digital divide.

One of the most robust conversations that came out of ISTELive 23 in Philadelphia was how critical professional development (PD) is to reducing the digital use divide. 

Six years ago, the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology called up on “all involved in American education to ensure equity of access to transformational learning experiences enabled by technology.” That clarion call went hand in hand with the 2017 National Education Technology Plan (NETP), the flagship educational technology policy document for the United States.

In that document, policymakers expressed concern over the digital use divide. OET aims to release a new plan in January 2024. 

At the conference, a session titled “Supporting Digital Equity Through the National Educational Technology Plan” brought together a panel of experts to discuss how the new plan could help reduce the digital use divide. 

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Passive Technology Use Can Have a Negative Impact on Learning

OET Digital Equity Impact Fellow Zach Chase, who is leading the development of the 2024 NETP, kicked off the session by explaining why the digital use divide matters.  He said that while access to technology is an important part of today’s modern classroom, digital tools alone are not the solution. 

READ MORE: Read how some school districts are working to narrow the homework gap

“What we’re finding is that students from historically marginalized backgrounds tend to be asked to use technology in more passive ways than their historically better-resourced peers. For example, they are asked to complete a digital version of a worksheet,” he said.

“There is not a lot of deep and complex thought going into it. While their better-resourced peers are often being asked to create, to produce, to develop, to think critically.”

He added that research shows the passive use of technology has a neutral effect and sometimes a negative effect on learning, which ultimately doesn’t solve the digital divide. 

Sound Professional Development Is Key to Fixing the Digital Divide 

Chase said that improving the digital design divide, a component of the digital access and digital use divides, could be the solution.

“There is a divide between teachers who have what they need and the space they need to use those digital tools and to design lessons using these tools and those who do not.” 

He pointed to a recent report showing that teachers have access to around 1,400 tools, but that training may end up lacking. In other words, access to more tools was not necessarily better. Mastery of a few digital tools was key.

LEARN MORE: What is leadership’s role in professional development? 

Sound training is particularly important for teachers who design lessons for neuro variable learners. He pointed to the federal recommendations around Universal Design for Learning — which is a framework that educators can use to personalize curriculum for all learners — as another important part of effective PD.  

“Professional learning has to happen. You can’t just buy a digital tool and hope for that magic to happen,” said ​​Julia Fallon, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, one of the organizations contracted to update the NETP. “Even with developing the National Ed Tech Plan, it’s hard to come up with a formula like, ‘If you buy this, here’s how many dollars to set aside for professional learning.’

However, the magic is in the instructor’s human capacity to learn, and in how we design our learning experiences for our kids that will give them the skills that they will need to be successful.”

Sophia Mendoza
We are building a team of folks who are willing to take that risk and willing to adopt technology and say, ‘This is important.’”

Sophia Mendoza Director, Instructional Technology Initiative L.A. Unified

Identify a Champion for Digital Transformation

“We need a North Star,” said Chris Lehmann, a panelist and founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are the things we are doing helping kids to become more thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind?’ The ecosystem we create for their learning, both physical and digital — everything should be building toward this idea of how the technology tools move us closer to our pedagogical tools.”

Sophia Mendoza, panelist and director of the Instructional Technology Initiative at Los Angeles Unified School District, said this starts with “meeting everyone where they are, from those in senior leadership to those in the classroom.”

She then encouraged audience members to “Identify a champion.” “We are building a team of folks who are willing to take that risk and willing to adopt technology and say, ‘This is important.’”

She said that creating a strategic PD framework involves bundling PD to figure out how educators are “grounding, exploring and applying knowledge.” She also said that her office combines on-demand virtual PD with online meetings and larger in-person events throughout the year. 

RELATED: Learn how this ed tech leader uses technology to empower students and teachers.  

How Educators Can Get Necessary Time for Professional Development 

Audience members discussed how to make information shared in professional development sessions stick. One said that educators don’t have to use every tool right away and should take time to process the PD before adopting new tools. Another noted that modeling is an important tool that teachers can use with adult learners. Another suggested that PD could be undertaken during teachers’ planning time. 

This sparked a wider discussion on how schools can give teachers the time for ongoing PD.  Fallon suggested that administrators and educators leverage their networks. Instead of reinventing the wheel, educators can turn to their networks to learn more about how they implemented certain tools or funded professional learning. 

She said this could be done through “building a cooperative, interoperable system that can ultimately save time and money. It can allow secure sharing across districts, which can offset time and human capacity.” 

Lehman said creating collaborative, peer-based learning groups could help save time. However, he noted that this can only happen in a safe, trusting, caring environment, especially for those just starting to use digital tools. 

Fallon recommended that PD include time for people to reflect on what they have learned before adding it to a repository for all to access. Mendoza added that her team values and integrates educator feedback into future training.

DIG DEEPER: This educator shares how bold schools can use technology to serve pedagogy

Federal Tech Leaders Want to Hear from You

As the OET works on building a new ed tech plan, they are seeking feedback from educators, families, school leaders and technology leaders. To participate in the surveys, visit tech.ed.gov/netp/.

Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty Images

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