Crossing the EdTech Chasm

Why we don’t see the summit from the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Elliott Levine

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Chromebooks or iPads?

Microsoft Office or Gsuite?

Laptops or tablets?

Detachable or hinged keyboards?

Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams?

These are constantly debated issues across many school systems this past year.

And while these appear to be important issues for many – impassioned arguments that can lead to fundamental disputes for some – they remain shortsighted questions that reveal the reasons why technology continues to be restricted in delivering upon its full potential.

Only by opening our minds to explore “what’s possible with technology” can we break away from the cookie-cutter models that so many technology and content companies continue to drive educators toward.

“Technology as it is used today in many classrooms doesn’t motivate or foster creativity, imagination, and new ways of thinking.”

It’s what we call a “Return on Education” or “RoE.”

For investors who always focus on the ROI, remaining focused on the RoE means that stakeholders can be assured your institution has become a leader in digital learning, and not merely a following for instructional technology.

Tech Plan in a Time Capsule

As a child of the 1980s, I always saw my classes in computer labs as an opportunity to imagine. I was doing programming in FORTRAN, and creating games in BASIC.

CREDIT Elliott Levine clipping.pngThe possibilities seemed endless.

Yet over time, imagination and creativity gave way to more rouge tasks such as writing papers as I moved into college.

In early 1998, I was asked by my superintendent to write a new technology plan from scratch, as the board of education wasn’t happy with the status quo. Officials were aggressively debating the “Mac vs. PC” selection, with some even resorting to shouting about their beliefs.

At the time, I wrote a very challenging comment in my report, saying, “With the continued growth of the internet and expansion of network computers, computer operating systems will begin to merge into one common format – the internet browser.”

Now before I start to pat myself on the back for creating a hardware acquisition plan that would take us from the dark ages to a more modern infrastructure, I missed the very issues I so often try to raise with school officials 20 years later.

I forgot to answer the question, “How do I want technology to transform teaching and learning?”

Computer Labs Today

I have had the privilege and visiting many school systems across the country and taking tours of their schools. One common trait I found with nearly everyone is a shared passion to deliver better experiences for their students – far more than what we had as children. But what I’ve also found are dialogues between technology, curriculum and faculty held back by trivial issues.

A recent school was having a heavy debate and decision-making process around whether to use Microsoft Office or Gsuite for their students. Issues around price, ease of training teachers, privacy and home access have been the subject of nearly all of those conversations.

But something was clearly missing as I came in as an objective listener, and one without anything to gain if either Office or Gsuite is used.

The missing question? How will switching to either platform fundamentally change teaching and learning?

When I visit computer labs, or classrooms doing 1:1 with personal units or COWs (carts), I typically see students most often:

  • Typing in a word processing application (keyboarding is still in most curriculum),
  • Typing text and pasting images they found online into presentation slides, or
  • Reading, watching and possibly responding to multiple choice in some web-based content created by a publisher

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When you look at the 1960s research of Dr. Edgar Dale and his actual “cone of experience,” we see that 50+ years ago experts knew that learning by listening, learning by reading and learning by watching were the worst methods of retention possible, all of which view the student as consumers of content. Further, existing activities like word processing and presentation slides barely scratch the surface when it comes to delivering RoE for content creation.

Technology as its used today in many classrooms doesn’t motivate or foster creativity, imagination and new ways of thinking beyond some unique anecdotal examples. While there are good examples of select students pushing boundaries and creating 3D designs or videos, that level of creativity rarely expands to the masses.

With so many educators and industry experts speaking about the importance of STEM education, so few students explore STEM careers. How can emerging technology help inspire imagination and creativity, much of the foundation for future leaders in this space?

Visualizing the Chasm

While attending an industry event recently, the keynote speaker spoke of wonders and the limitless possibilities edtech can afford young people. However, every speaker that followed was deep in the weeds, speaking about individual software products as the goal, when merely they are tools that, when used effectively, can empower students and educators to go much further.



The SAMR model for edtech, in its current form, highlights the key facets of change, from mere enhancement of existing learning to meaningful transformation of the teaching and learning process.

I believe one reason that many institutions fail to go on the journey to reach true transformation is that the SAMR model fails to visually represent the journey to be undertaken, and the primary reasons that I and other experts have experienced that prevent organizations from moving beyond mere substitutions (i.e., reading a digital textbook vs. a print textbook) to redefining the learning process (i.e. project-based learning with student driven initiatives).

They are unable to see the summit from the classroom, and mistakenly believe that the level they have reached is the top—when indeed much greater possibilities remain ahead.

CREDIT Elliott Levine HP climb chart.png

Having never truly excelled in the fine and visual arts, I set out to create an image that reflected the theoretical principles most educators share, along with the realities facing classroom teachers and school/district officials. Please forgive the artistic shortcomings.

The first portion of the SAMR model reflects enhancement to the existing learning process. With the dramatic increase in the number of devices being purchased by U.S. K-12 schools – an increase of 250% in just three years – the readily accessible free resources allow many schools to easily adopt the Substitution and Augmentation processes with relative ease.

For many educators, this may seem to be the end goal of meeting a checklist (Integrated the devices into my classroom/school … check!).

However, for institutions looking for a measurable Return on Education, there’s so much greater potential.

But to cross the chasm from mere enhancement to true transformation, fear holds us back.

For a classroom teacher, that fear is reduced to its simplest forms: the fear of time and the fear of failure.

Fear of Time

“We’ve been given too much professional development” has been said by no teacher ever! When school systems have wanted to bring about true change, they invest heavily in training for their faculty. Districts such as Oxford, Michigan maintain twelve (12) days of PD in their annual calendar, 300-600% more than most U.S. school systems.

When launching its major digital learning initiative, Huntsville (AL) City Schools invested $50/year per student towards professional development. Unfortunately, professional development remains an after-thought for many school systems, as district officials inquire about “free PD,” whether posted in RFPs or asked when asking a large hardware or curriculum purchase, even if those resources are not directly aligned with the locally-needed teaching strategies to bring about change.

Professional development aside, often overlooked is the necessary release or comp time to encourage faculty to reinforce their newly-learned skills and apply them to their classrooms, whether through amended lesson plans or new activities being attempted.

Fear of Failure

As I attempted to convey with my image, edtech adoption is never just a straightforward progress. Even the best of programs stumble along the way, but they continue to grow based upon a committed group of stakeholders representing all facets of the community. To get faculty buy-in, proactively addressing the fear of failure must be addressed. If a teacher attempts a new project-based learning activity, but fails in the execution, will that fear of failure hold them back from even making the attempt? How your leadership addresses this concern can make a world of difference when it comes to witnessing adoption.

A simple tactic I have suggested is the “Get out of Jail Free” card. Reminiscent of the game Monopoly, teachers could be handed such cards as a means of taking calculated risks with redefining learning experiences. If that new project was observed, and determined to be unsuccessful, the teacher hands in their card and the observation is rescheduled.

When faced with a new 1:1 program, district officials in North Kansas City (MO) Schools in 2009-2010 used a high touch, not a high-tech solution.

That spring, they welcomed questions and concerns from all faculty and staff, answering every question and comment received and creating an FAQ document shared with faculty after summer vacation.

The faculty were treated as important stakeholders from Day 1, and their support of the program publicly at a board of education meeting the very same evening the Board of Education declared an impasse on contract negotiations with the faculty union spoke volumes about how much the faculty believed this new initiative would benefit their students.

Where Do We Go From Here?

My suggested graphic fails in that, by displaying a flag, there is a specific end target in sight.

There shouldn’t be one.

Possibilities are limitless in how we can reshape learning, but often it’s hard for people to begin a journey without some sense of a goal line to cross.

We must reinforce our efforts to instill “high touch” leadership to deliver meaningful “high tech” experiences that are both relevant and effective for today’s learners.

As we stretch the definition of the learning space and what can and should occur in classrooms, we open the door to limitless possibilities.

Today we have the connectivity, ingenuity, and technology to turn this vision into reality. Our potential to create change lies in our ability to learn and spread the skills we need to make it happen.

Pairing technology with human ingenuity to empower innovators, educators, and entrepreneurs creates positive change.

People equipped and inspired to create a better world represent both the founding values and the future of our business, and those we seek for every lifelong learner.

Elliott Levine (pictured, above) is Director of Education and an HP Distinguished Technologist. He’s a former K-12 district administrator, professor and startup executive, and a former columnist for Electronic School Magazine and American School Board Journal. He is co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine and is a regular speaker and writer on edtech initiatives, serving on boards of startups and nonprofits, including WNETPAPERbasket and 3D Africa. Find him on Twitter @edtech_elliott 


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