Balancing Technology & Learning Across Tennessee

State education policies are rooted in the day-to-day operations of schools and the students that learn and grow in them daily. This is why Commissioner McQueen tasked each member of the department’s 20-person leadership team to go back to high school for a day and shadow a student. Individual members of the leadership team visited high schools in every setting: rural, urban, suburban, and everywhere in between. 

Technology Across the State

Technology and education continue to intertwine in impactful ways to further student learning, but even the iPhone generation understands that sometimes the best thinking happens when a blank piece of paper and pencil is in front of you.

The commissioner’s Chief of Staff Jayme Place reflects on the use of technology that she observed during her visit to a Tennessee high school.

24297629443_243ca578e6_zWhile it is nearly impossible to identify a career that doesn’t incorporate email, online software, or computer processing, the extent to which technology is intentionally integrated into daily instruction varies dramatically across the state. Many members of the leadership team observed an impressive presence of technology at schools while others observed resources used with a less obvious purpose.

Purposeful Technology

Meghan Curran, executive director for the division of district support, said she didn’t see students using laptops during her school visit, despite the fact that all students receive a laptop from the school. “While it appeared that teachers do have access to technology (SMART boards and computer labs), students said that the laptops themselves and the internet connections are often unreliable,” she explained.

Eve Carney, the department’s federal programs director, noted something similar: “I was surprised by the absence of technology in some of the classrooms. Most classrooms had a smart board and that was the only technology used.“

21016657446_35dbf3ddf4_kThe commissioner’s Chief of Staff, Jayme Place, observed students had easy access to Chromebooks during her visit, but she noted that students were vocal about differentiating when they preferred to rely on technology and when they wanted to stick to paper: “I listened as some of the girls in health class shared how they process and think best when they can scratch words on a paper. This reinforces that the best environment we can create for students is one that finds that right balance and considers that students learn and process in really different ways.”

Nate Schwartz, chief research and strategy officer, saw impressive technology during his school visit, but was perplexed by the purpose: “I was surprised by the combination of the omnipresence of technology in the school – and the fact that there seemed to be little purposeful use of technology in any way that supported academics or moved beyond what I saw when I was in high school.”

Smart Phones: Tool or Distraction?

14112132739_b9bf380410_kIt’s no secret that some of the latest and greatest technology lives in the pockets or purses of high school students. The smart phone culture has permeated every aspect of modern life, including the classroom. A vast number of high school students own a smart phone, and many high schools within the state have adapted their policies to shape the way students use them while at school. Eve Carney, the department’s federal programs director, noticed the effects of the limitation of smart phone use in the school she visited: “The halls were orderly and relatively quiet, as was the cafeteria. I noted this with the school’s principal, and she replied that there was really no ‘drama’ at the school,” The principal went on to say she believed the no cell phone policy attributed to the culture. Other schools utilized smart phones regularly, and encouraged students to use them as research tools.

“The use of personal cell phones was surprising and very different from my experience. In English they were told they could use their phones or they could use dictionaries in the back of the classroom. Most just pulled out phones,” explained Christy Ballard, the department’s General Counsel.

While the type of technology varied from school to school, the leadership team observed that technology use in the schools was not solely dictated by access and availability of resources. The school’s attitude towards the integration of technology in instruction was often the main factor in how successfully technology was integrated into instruction.