Why district leaders are key to teachers’ success with edtech

We have invested in edtech, but we have invested considerably less in supporting teachers to use those tools effectively as part of their instructional practice.

Spending on edtech is way up in K12 districts, spurred by an infusion of federal funding and the need for new technologies to support remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One estimate puts edtech spending by schools at more than $50 billion per year. Teachers are using more digital technologies than ever, with one report finding that districts each used around 1,500 different digital tools per month during the 2020-21 school year.

Yet for all this edtech spending, usage and access, student academic outcomes are declining. What accounts for this discrepancy? Research is ongoing and there is no single answer but early signs point to the varied quality of technologies and a mismatch between the myriad technological tools available and the ways that they are used—or not used.

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In other words, we have invested in edtech, but we have invested considerably less in supporting teachers to use those tools effectively as part of their instructional practice. We need to do more to nurture “technology-enabled instruction,” an emerging term that encompasses not just whether technology is used in the classroom (technology integration) but also when and how teachers use technology in their instructional practices in ways that research shows improve learning outcomes. (We investigate this concept and offer strategies for system leaders to promote it in a recent thought piece.)

Awash in edtech: 3 tips

District leaders play a critical role in facilitating technology-enabled instruction among teachers in their school communities. What can they do to empower and support teachers in embracing proven technology-enabled instructional practices?

Here are three tips:

Tracy Huebner
Tracy Huebner

1. Demonstrate how technology-enabled instruction can be used to advance a district’s vision, priorities, and plans. Even the most motivated teacher has few incentives for embracing technology-enabled instructional practices if they do not feel supported by their school or district or if they don’t see a clear alignment between those practices and the school or district’s overall goals. Research makes clear that aligned district vision and goals, and strong, supportive leadership play a significant role in teachers’ embrace of technology-enabled instructional practice.

District leaders can work to show how technology-enabled instructional practices can contribute to achieving shared goals. For example, if a district’s strategic plan or vision stresses the importance of serving English language learners equitably, plans for technology-enabled instruction should help further that particular vision. In doing so, district leaders show that they believe that teachers play an important role in achieving high-level goals.

Rachel Burstein
Rachel Burstein

2. Help teachers overcome negative beliefs and attitudes toward technology-enabled instruction. Research shows that teachers’ beliefs and attitudes about technology and pedagogy play a significant role in their willingness to embrace technology-enabled instructional practices. Yet those beliefs and attitudes are also malleable and responsive. District leaders play an important role in helping teachers overcome beliefs that are correlated with a failure to embrace technology-enabled instruction.

For example, a teacher may value certain pedagogies above others or may perceive their own technological knowledge as subpar. District leaders can provide teachers with structured opportunities to articulate those values and perceived skills. They can then offer opportunities for teachers to observe colleagues with similar values who use technology-enabled instructional practices effectively and in ways that do not require significant technical knowledge.

District leaders can also offer professional learning opportunities that demonstrate how technology-enabled teaching has meaningfully improved learning outcomes. Or they can work with school principals to have teachers shadow peers who can demonstrate how they are improving their instructional practice with technology.

3. Support social–cultural spaces that promote effective technology-enabled teaching. Teachers are often willing to consider using research-backed, technology-enabled instructional practices when they are exposed to a set of social–cultural influences that promote those practices. Many of these spaces do not require significant resources. For example, a district leader might support a set of teacher-run PLCs across schools to discuss technology-enabled instruction.

Other types of influences may require more resources. For example, an instructional coach may be deployed to different classrooms to work with teachers on effective instructional practices or to help teachers parse learning data generated through the use of technological platforms. In any case, such programs or personnel must be available in an ongoing manner and offered in the context of support rather than evaluation.

As in so much in education, context matters deeply when applying these approaches. But across school communities, one thing is certain: district leaders can play a significant role in encouraging and supporting teachers in embracing technology-enabled instructional practices that are correlated with better learning outcomes.

Tracy Huebner is a director, advancing teaching and learning at WestEd. Rachel Burstein is an independent education researcher and writer. They are the co-authors of “Strategies for Encouraging Effective Technology-Enabled Instructional Practices in K–12 Education: A Thought Piece Drawing on Research and Practice,” published by WestEd.

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