Teachers vs. Tech: Putting an Old Adversary to Good Use

Dr. Jerri Ward-Jackson

Since the first clunky cell phone rang in a silent classroom, technology's place in education has been hotly debated. Does its potential for good outweigh its potential for disruption? Do kids need more screen time than they already get at home? Is educational technology actually beneficial or is it just a dazzling, counterproductive novelty?

To Dr. Jerri Ward-Jackson of the University of West Alabama's College of Education, these questions can be answered by looking outside the classroom's walls:

"Technology is pretty much driving our society. Every day, new technologies are emerging and changing the way in which we operate and live. Therefore, it's must students are prepared to succeed utilizing technology."

But Dr. Ward-Jackson isn't just talking about students with tech industry dreams. She's talking about all learners everywhere.

According to a survey administered by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 50% of employers prioritize technical, analytical, and quantitative skills - all skills that, in the age of Big Data, require some familiarity with STEM fundamentals like programming, statistics, and computer science. 61% of employers say they prioritize the ability to work as part of a team. But with over half of the American workforce able to work from home at least once per week, cooperating in virtual spaces is just as important as face-to-face collaboration.

That leaves America's teachers with quite the task. Dr. Ward-Jackson and her UWA colleagues are committed to helping them carry it out. Recently, she sat down with Teacher.org to talk about a couple of common uses of technology in the classroom, how they can improve student outcomes, and how UWA's teacher preparation programs equip educators to use them.

jerri ward-jacksonDr. Jerri Ward-Jackson has spent 15 years working in the intersection of technology and education. After earning her Master's in Instructional Technology and her Ph.D in Instructional Systems and Technology, she has taught online classes to students all over Alabama. Throughout her career, she's helped teachers and students alike by conducting technology training, research on distance learning, and speaking at national conferences. Today, she's the chair of the Department of Instructional Leadership Support in the University of West Alabama's College of Education and coordinator for the school's graduate-level Learning, Design, and Technology program. She also teaches courses like Technology Tools for Education and Instructional Design.

Online Learning: The Surprising Benefits of an Emergency Measure

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the world operates. But just as importantly, Dr. Ward-Jackson says it exposed cracks in America's attitudes about what constitutes a good education:

" Prior to COVID online courses were more of an option and face -to-face was the "traditional" way of educating students. Then COVID happened and what once was the norm or "traditional" way was no longer an option. Everyone had to develop new ways and methods of educating students, and online learning/virtual learning was the only option. This actually caused a shock to our society, more of a wake up call that online learning was here! Even post-covid there are still individuals reluctant to using technology when pertains teaching and learning."

Opponents to distance learning say it isn't conducive to and that teachers can't properly engage students in online classrooms. Furthermore, kids are, in many cases, at home surrounded by distractions or have no access to the internet.

These criticisms aren't unfounded. But in Dr. Ward-Jackson's experience, they aren't unfixable, either.

Before joining UWA's faculty, Dr. Ward-Jackson was a program coordinator for the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Student Statewide (ACCESS) Distance Learning initiative. Through this program, high school students across the state can take online Advanced Placement (AP) courses and other courses not offered at their schools, many of which lack the resources for their own AP programs. Classes are delivered live through interactive software by certified teachers who are experts in their content area. On top of that, they're specially trained in online instruction.

doing school online

This clever hybrid approach overcomes many misgivings about online learning. Kids are still physically going to school, interacting with peers, and can use their school's resources instead of their own. Just as importantly, it seems to be doing wonders for Alabama's school system.

Because of ACCESS's work, almost 200,000 more Alabama students scored 3 or higher on their AP exams in 2021 compared to 2011. Additionally, minority enrollment in the AP Computer Science Principles course has more than doubled in the state. Rigorous education, college, and STEM careers are now a possibility for scores of students, a fact Dr. Ward-Jackson is especially proud of:

"It's so amazing how technology, both inside and outside of the classroom, is allowing students the opportunities to do things they may have once not been able to do. I will always be a big advocate for distance learning and technology integration in classrooms."

But increased accessibility isn't the only advantage to online learning:

"It also prepares them for the workforce. A lot of times, students will have to go through training modules to obtain a job, and they're all online. Overall, I don't see distance learning diminishing or going away. I see it getting better year after year after year."

So while many students' first forays into online learning were unexpected and certainly not ideal, Dr. Ward-Jackson's experience shows that when meticulously planned, virtual classrooms can make the learning process more valuable and accessible.

How Interactive Software Maintains Motivation and Elevates Lesson Plans

Games and hands-on projects are go-to teaching methods for just about every subject imaginable. Miniature volcanoes teach students about acids and bases. In pretend stores, students get to put their basic math skills to the test as they move to buy whatever rests in their cart. But as much as teachers would love to make these experiences an everyday event, that's just not feasible.

However, with the aid of in-class technology, it might be.

According to the Educational Testing Service, 98% of schools now have computers and computer-to-student ratios are better than they've ever been. 45% of public schools even have a computer for each student. Dr. Ward-Jackson believes these resources can be used to great effect:

"Technology offers so many interactive learning experiences through multimedia resources, simulations, virtual labs, and educational games. These can captivate the students' attention and make learning more fun, more engaging, and motivating."

Fortunately, research indicates that these types of activities have benefits beyond increased engagement.

For example, to maintain the hands-on nature of classes like physics and chemistry during the pandemic, many schools and districts invested in virtual lab software. Since then, studies have found that virtual labs are extremely effective in helping students master content and develop teamwork and management skills. Now, even though students have since returned to in-school instruction, virtual labs are still being used in schools without the proper physical resources, to make labs more frequent, and to help students practice safety precautions before conducting experiments.

Games and interactive simulations seem to have similar benefits. In an in-depth literature review, experts gathered years of research that suggests in-class video games:

  • Are more inclusive to disabled learners than many physical activities.
  • Provide intricate motivation systems based on rewards and achievements that keep students learning.
  • Foster independence and encourage students to learn on their own through trial-and-error.

In a world where educators are often overworked and under-supported, these high-value yet easy-to-set-up virtual activities could be powerful tools throughout any teacher's career.

Preparing Future Teachers To Create Engaging, High-tech Classrooms

Though Dr. Ward-Jackson is a passionate advocate for technology in the classroom, she remains realistic about its pitfalls:

"Some teachers utilize technology as a pass time versus as a tool to engage their students or drive home a concept. When it comes to online learning, it's important that the teacher actually serves as an instructor, not a facilitator, and provide collaboration and engagement opportunities with their students. Teachers make sure they are engaging their students, so the students are aware there is an actual live human being on the other end who is there to assist, teach, and promote their learning."

At UWA, Dr. Ward-Jackson and her fellow educator instructors deliver a varied curriculum that empowers teachers to avoid these issues. In classes like Instructional Design and Technology and Education, students learn about the latest classroom hardware and software while also practicing how to build it into their lesson plans. More tech-savvy students can take Educational Games, Simulations, and Mobile Applications, a class that culminates in students developing their own educational software.

Despite this impressive list of courses, Dr. Ward-Jackson realizes that knowing how to use technology wisely isn't enough in some schools:

"It is still essential that teachers meet the needs of all students (learning styles) in their classrooms. Not only meet their needs, but provide students with a fun, engaging, and nurturing learning environment. Therefore, teachers must have support and other resources readily available to assist them with teaching and learning. Yes, having technology in classrooms is a great attribute, but having GREAT teachers who know how to integrate technology in their classrooms effectively and provide students with a nurturing environment beyond the technology is an even better!"

This feat requires advocacy, cooperation, and action - three things Dr. Ward-Jackson and UWA are very familiar with.

In addition to being a classroom instructor, Dr. Ward-Jackson is involved with UWA's Project ENGAGE 2.0, an initiative designed to make STEM a more inclusive place for Alabama's minority students and one of the newest initiatives at UWA, UWA-TEACH. UWA is also home to multiple programs that support Alabama teachers. The Black Belt STEM Institute sends technology, guest speakers, and stipends to teachers in the state's poorest counties while also offering cost-free training. Through Project REACh, professionals with a bachelor's degree can earn a Master's in Education while taking part in a rigorous residency program. Participants are also eligible to apply for a $45,000 stipend.

Supporting today's young learners means supporting tomorrow's teachers. So whether future educators at UWA attend classes online or on-campus, they're supported by the full force of experienced faculty like Dr. Ward-Jackson and all of the resources the school has at its disposal.

Dr. Jerri Ward-Jackson
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