The Technology and Learning Conversation Has Shifted

From transactional use to transformational learning experiences, 6 critical factors for teacher success.

GUEST COLUMN | by Randy Ziegenfuss

CREDIT Salisbury Township School District image.jpgIn a previous article, I shared a framework we’ve engaged to guide our digital transformation over the past seven years.

During that period of time, I’ve often noted that the balance of conversations between technology and learning has shifted.

Conversations about learning are more prevalent now than they were at the beginning of our work, and as a result we are seeing more examples of deeper learning with technology.

Once teachers and leaders have started reframing their understanding of powerful learning, only then should they push their thinking to determine how technologies can make that learning even more powerful.

Before we started having more intentional conversations about learning, the majority of technology use was transactional – reinforcing the efficiencies of learning, often moving information from digital sources into the minds of students so they could continue achieving on traditional assessments.

We saw a dominance of activities where learners researched a topic (often selected by the teacher) around questions (selected by the teacher) and demonstrating their learning through presentations (sometimes with a few choices to select from).

It seemed like a good start, but it wasn’t long before our transformation had plateaued.

We Started Asking Questions

We wanted to figure out how to support our teachers in creating more transformational learning opportunities. So as all good leaders do, we started asking questions.

After collecting data, largely through classroom walkthroughs, surveys and focus groups, one primary question emerged:

What are the critical factors of success for those teachers creating transformational learning experiences?

Driven by this question, our Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, Lynn Fuini-Hetten, and I set out on an action research project to find an answer to our inquiry.

As a result of this work, we identified the following six critical factors of success:

  • social networking
  • peer networking
  • professional learning opportunities
  • safe, risk-taking environment
  • motivation – internal and external
  • Personal teaching/learning philosophy

Through pursuit of this inquiry in our own context we also learned that we needed to create professional learning opportunities, for teachers and leaders, that reflected the kinds of technology-rich, deeper learning opportunities we wanted for our learners in the classroom.

FETC link.jpgLearn more from Randy Ziegenfuss and other leading analysts, thought leaders, and educators at the 2018 Future of Education Technology Conference, January 23-26 in Orlando, Florida. 

Since then we have shifted our professional development from a technology-centered focus on tools to one that is creating a culture of conversations and work rooted in learning. Technology still plays a significant role in what we do in the classroom, but our focus has shifted to our collaboratively created Profile of a Graduate and learning beliefs.

We began our transformation work with the idea that technology would improve the efficiencies of a transactional learning model. We should have asked ourselves what we wanted to see change around learning in the classroom:

As a result of our learners using technology, what do we expect to be different about learning?

This is a transformational question.

Our misstep is not uncommon.

We can see this flaw in thinking in many of the recent (somewhat lukewarm) studies on the impact of technology in education.

At the Center of Learning

Read the studies from the OECD and SRI, then ask yourself what the actual learning environments looked like.

While it isn’t always clear, they were likely more traditional transactional learning environments, not the deeper learning environments we yearn for.

If that were the case, why would we expect to see a great impact of technology on learning?

How can you start shifting your thinking from technology-centered to learner-centered? Ask yourself how learning will be different as a result of using technology.

We did and then expanded our understanding of what learning could look like through Education Reimagined and their 5-point “north star” for powerful learning environments.

Learning is…

  • Competency-based – When the learner works toward competency and strives for mastery in defined domains of knowledge/literacies, skills, and dispositions.
  • Personalized, contextualized and relevant – An approach that uses such factors as the learner’s own passions, strengths, needs, family, culture, and community as fuel for the development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
  • Characterized by learner agency – Learners are active participants in their own learning and engage themselves in the design of their experiences.
  • Socially-embedded – Rooted in meaningful relationships with family, peers, qualified adults, and community members and is grounded in community and social interaction.
  • Open-walled – Acknowledges that learning happens at many times and in many places and intentionally leverages its expansive nature in the learner’s development of competencies.

We have also found it effective to engage teachers and leaders in thinking about their own powerful learning experiences, whether as K-12 learners or adult learners.

After identifying personal experiences, ask teachers and leaders to reflect on what made their identified experiences so powerful.

Chances are great that what they identify can be connected to the five learning beliefs outlined above.

Focus and Framing

Once teachers and leaders have started reframing their understanding of powerful learning, only then should they push their thinking to determine how technologies can make that learning even more powerful.

To support this thinking, I like to use the six questions posed by Alan November:

  • Does the assignment/unit build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  • Does the assignment/unit develop new lines of inquiry?
  • Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  • Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  • Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  • Are there opportunities for students to self-assess?

We have a whole host of technologies, apps and emerging technologies at our fingertips in education—from productivity to assessment; virtual reality, augmented reality—and powerful technologies yet to come.

We should not be distracted by devices and tools. Instead, it is our responsibility as leaders to frame technology’s use in the context of powerful learning.

Thoughtful questioning always begins with grounding the thinking and conversation in learning.

Not teaching.

Not technology.

Teaching and technology play important roles in the conversation, but if we want the most powerful experiences for our learners, we have to think about changes in learning first and foremost.

Randy Ziegenfuss is Salisbury Township School District superintendent. Previously a classroom teacher, department chair, tech integration specialist, director of technology, and assistant principal, he is currently adjunct professor of education at Moravian College, his alma mater. He teaches courses in assessment and technology. He earned his M.A. from Teachers College in Technology Leadership and a doctorate in educational and organizational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow @ziegeran, and visit or listen in to and

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