The beautifully unclear future of educational technology

BRIGHT: The Beautifully Unclear Future of Educational Technology (feat. Sarah Wood from Kent ISD)
Meet Sarah Wood, an educational technology consultant for Kent Intermediate School District, who shares her reflections on the recent history, current state, and beautifully unclear future of technology in the classroom.
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There’s a strange — and somewhat uncomfortable — beauty to the fact that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how technology will shape the way we teach, learn, live, love, work, and play in the future. 

This week on the BRIGHT podcast, I chat with Sarah Wood, an educational technology consultant for Kent Intermediate School District. Over the past two years, Sarah has witnessed an exponential growth of the troubleshooting and technological skills of teachers in her school community. 

She’s seen teachers bring new techniques into their face-to-face classrooms that they might have never tried before. They’re asking more advanced questions and are eager to take the best of what they learned in the face of adversity to further student learning.

You can listen to our conversation using the audio player above or keep scrolling to read an edited version of the transcript!

Edited transcript

Nikki: Can you tell me more about what drew you to education in the first place and how that journey led you to where you are today?

Sarah: Hmm, I’m not gonna lie. When you think back to when you’re a kid and you’re playing in the basement with your friends or your siblings, I was always the one that was like, “Let’s play school.”

I’ve always been passionate about working with kids. Even from a young age, whether it was babysitting or later coaching volleyball and basketball for middle school teams. I just had that gut feeling like education was my calling and that’s where I needed to go. 

So, I went down that path, and I ended up going to Aquinas College, where I was able to take my love — not many people can say this but — my love of math and my love of computer science and combine that with an education degree and to put together into my passion for working with the schools. 

I worked in a local public school district for 14 years as a technology and media specialist. Then, after 14 years there, I just recently transitioned to Kent ISD, where I’ve been for almost a year. I love that I can carry on that passion and still work with people and preach the good word of math and computer science.

Nikki:  Yeah, and that’s a pretty nice transition. You mentioned that you have a passion for educational technology, which makes sense with your role. I was wondering if you could talk more about what educational technology can do for students and how that benefits student engagement.

Sarah: It might be cliché to say, but I was the student growing up where I needed different things. I was not someone to sit there and study vocab words or study dates in a history book and be able to really internalize what I was learning. 

Sure, I could regurgitate all those facts, but I never really felt that passionate about those things. I think that’s where my passion for educational technology and engagement comes from. It’s my desire to be that person that other people might need. 

With educational technology, there’s so much potential that allows students to not just consume information but also produce and be active contributors to not just their school community or their district, but also the global world, which is what we’re preparing them to do in the future.

Nikki: Does a student project come to mind when you talk about the difference between consuming and creating information?

Sarah:  As I mentioned, I’m just recently out of the classroom teaching experience. In my last year in my previous district, I was split, so I was doing some fourth-grade STEM teaching and then also doing coaching. 

As I was going through standards and asking myself what these kids needed and what we should spend more time on, it really came down to my feeling that the students didn’t have a good grasp of why we have technology, why we’re using it, and what the processes were behind technology. It’s not just about opening up a computer and typing up a paper on GoogleDocs. There’s a bigger reason we’re doing some of these things. 

I decided computational thinking was the avenue I wanted to take. Usually, when you say computational thinking, people give you a nice nod and say, “Oh, okay, that sounds great.” But they don’t really understand what it means. That’s why I felt like it was a great opportunity to not only teach the students but also to model for other teachers different ways to do things. 

I believe firmly that relationships are at the heart of all that I do as a teacher, so I really spent a lot of time getting to know my students and their interests. Because we were talking about technology, the students were always like, “When can we play Minecraft? Are we gonna play Fortnite?” And I’d say, “I’m going to say no to Fortnite at school.” But then I started thinking more deeply about the whole Minecraft aspect and how that could be a great avenue to introduce computational thinking. 

I started with their interests, and then what I did was develop a whole unit framed around computational thinking with a Minecraft theme. I had students creating digital comics, using hands-on materials to build pixel images, and doing the love-hate of brain games to really stretch their brains. They’d be like, “I love this. Oh, I hate this. This is so hard.” And I’d say, “I love that. I love it when it’s hard.”

But they were coding with Minecraft. We did reading and explored how reading comes into the whole bigger picture. They were creating pixel art with Perler beads. They were using some augmented reality. 

Then, we brought it back full circle by exploring how they could become a bigger part of their community and give back. I had a station where they created sack supper lunch bags for Kids’ Food Basket that was all Minecraft-themed. I challenged them to insert their little characters and some of the phrases they took away about computational thinking.

I don’t think if I had framed it in another way that it would have been as engaging to them. Because let’s be honest, computational thinking doesn’t necessarily get people up out of their seats and saying, “Let’s go!” So, it was a really great idea as far as implementation. Even at the beginning of the school year, students were like, “Do remember when we did Minecraft?” because it got cut short with the pandemic. They were like, “Can we finish that up? Can we do more Minecraft?”

It was really awesome because that told me that my time spent investing in them and their personal interests made a huge impact on their learning and that they still wanted to continue it and they wanted to know more.

Nikki: This past year has obviously been somewhat of an anomaly in the world of educational technology. Can you speak at all to how you see your role shift? What are you seeing as a result of the past year in terms of the relationship between teachers and educational technology? What kinds of questions teachers are asking you? Any kind of reflections in that area?

Sarah: It’s interesting because this is a conversation that has come up often in our education technology circles. How can we take what worked really well from the pandemic but also incorporate the things that we did pre-pandemic that worked really well and kind of merge those worlds together?

The biggest thing that I have seen is that teachers need their own personal cheerleaders. They need someone to let them know that they have done amazing things in this past year. Whether you feel it or not, think of where you were a year ago. Would you be doing the same things technology-wise, that you’re doing now?

Even their troubleshooting abilities are off the charts. Think of — especially with elementary students — when you’re trying to connect audio and video and then have them interact with different websites. When you’re in the classroom, that can sometimes be overwhelming, but now they’re doing it virtually. It elevated everyone’s skills and made me think differently about what the future of educational technology will be like.

It’s funny because we always joke about — for example, with cars or computers — as soon as you buy it, it’s already outdated or needs an update. Technology is just rapidly changing. We’re really preparing our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Everything that we’ve learned from this pandemic is truly going to shape this unknown future of how technology will be used. 

I feel that it is my job to really help teachers not only realize how far that they’ve come, but the skills and abilities that they now have and what they can do moving forward. The questions I’m getting now are things like, “Okay, I’ve used Google Docs for this. I’ve used Google Slides for this. What is something different that I can do with this? Do you know any other tools I can use?” I would not have been getting those same questions a year ago, but teachers already have that confidence in themselves to do these things with their students. Now, they’re challenging themselves, which in turn is challenging the students. It’s just opened up such an awesome world.

Nikki: Do you have any favorite tech tools that either you’ve used in the classroom as a teacher or that you’ve seen teachers use? I’m sure it’s difficult to name just a few, but what comes to mind that you’re really excited about?

Sarah: It might be a little cliché, but Google will forever be my go-to suite of tools. Because they’re always changing. They’re always updating their products because end users are really at the heart of their products. If they see there’s a need — which, in education specifically, teachers are very vocal about what they wish they had to make a process easier — they really work with that feedback. 

There are so many ways that most people don’t even know about in which Google Docs, Google Slides, and Google Sheets can be manipulated to do more than just recording information or slideshow presentations.  For example, at the beginning of the school year, Bitmoji classrooms were huge, and Google Slides was the delivery tool of choice for those. Recently, I had a teacher who contacted me and said, “Hey, I’ve seen these virtual relaxation rooms, and it reminds me of the Bitmoji classroom. Can you tell me more about it? How can I build my own?”

So, I ended up building a whole PD around it, and the other teachers that signed up said, “I had no clue slides could be manipulated in this way to do this. It’s really cool to see that.” When they already understand the principles of universal design and good quality instructional design practices, suddenly it all comes together. They can see the use for these tools.

One thing that I’ve been exploring that I haven’t yet transitioned from my personal world to my educational world is really trying to think more about artificial intelligence applications. With my kids, I played with the Wombo and Voilà apps — which I highly recommend for quality family entertainment if you want some good laughs — so lately I’ve been thinking about how we can take those things that are intriguing to students and use them for educational purposes beyond just creating a fun avatar or a fun music video. 

I love when students can see those tools that we’re modeling, whether it’s something that they’re doing at home or they’re seeing their teacher do it, and then say, “Wow, that was really cool. I want to do that myself.” So many teachers have relied on a variety of EdTech tools in the past year. Tools like Kahoot with quizzes were easy for teachers to deliver, didn’t take a whole lot of time for them to create, and kids loved them. Now, kids are saying, “I want to create a quiz for my friend on my favorite things.” They’re starting to see these tools and what they can do with them. 

I even saw students who were creating Google Sheets for their own daily planner or just tracking their daily responsibilities. It wasn’t something that someone had told them to do or showed them step-by-step how to do, but they’ve had enough experience with the tool that they want to take it to the next level in their personal lives. It’s pretty awesome to see that.

Nikki: That’s great. Thank you for sharing. When you think about the future of educational technology, what is it that you hope that teachers and students will be able to use technology to do in the future? Now, that’s obviously a big question — one that you can’t possibly really know the answer to with any degree of certainty — but what are some of your hopes and dreams?

Sarah: Technology is changing so rapidly. And that’s a good thing. It’s a blessing and a curse. We haven’t always fully learned or adapted to one thing before, you know, the next update or the latest version or the next product comes out. But I think that also provides us with unlimited opportunities to do amazing things with what’s at our fingertips.

In general, technology, not even just EdTech, is just so beautifully unclear. It’s kind of limitless, and it’s hard to predict its future. But by equipping students with the ability to adapt to that rapidly changing technology and then empowering them to be able to look a bit deeper at different ways these tools can be applied, we’re really setting them up for success in the future. 

I’m an outside-of-the-box thinker, so I always encourage students to ask, “Why?” I hope that they will always channel their inner toddler and keep on asking why, why, why because that’s what’s going to be driving technology development in the future.

Nikki: That’s a great answer to that question. I love that you said “beautifully unclear.” It’s like you’re saying that you hope we can’t predict the future, right? You’re hoping that you don’t already know because you want it to be something outside the box or something we couldn’t even imagine right now. Something that will change the way that we think about something or change the solution to a problem or give us the ability to do that we weren’t able to do before. 

Sarah: Exactly. We’re preparing students today for jobs that don’t exist yet. When I was going to school, being a technology consultant wasn’t even something I had heard of There was never a point where I was like, “You know what? I want to teach people how to use technology.” But that’s what I’m doing, and I’m over here living my best life doing that. 

Even in my 15 years of experience in this profession, I look back to where I started to where I am today, and I’m like, “Holy moly, it has changed so much.” I love to look back on how much I’ve personally grown and hopefully that the people around me have grown as a result.

Nikki: Could you tell me about your favorite teacher who had an impact on your life and why they were your favorite?

Sarah: I think when you ask any teacher this question, right away, they think back and smile because they have that one person in their head who was a game-changer for them. For me, it was my seventh-grade teacher. She’d been teaching for a while, but when she came to my school, that was it. 

It was her first year there, but holy moly, this woman just rocked my world. She was my math teacher, and math was something I told you I’ve come to love, but it was not something that came easily to me. I always had to work at it. 

She was the first teacher who said, “Hey, I believe in second chances, especially in math.” I remember we’d get our nightly homework, go home, do all of our math problems. Then, the next day, we’d trade with a partner and correct our homework. When we got it back, we’d have the opportunity to correct those mistakes and figure out where we went wrong. 

For me, that was the first time someone ever said, “Here, try it again.” The goal was for me to be my best self and have a good understanding of what was being shared. No one had ever said before that it was okay to do it this way. That has always stuck with me, and it’s where my “try it” mentality came from. Because if you don’t try, you’ll never know. You might be great at it, or you might need to go back and fail forward again.

Nikki: Wow, the fact that you remember that is wild to me. It’s making me tear up because. . . I mean, the fact that you remember that seventh-grade teacher saying, “Try this math problem again.” Your teacher probably didn’t realize that was a memory you would hold onto for so many years. It goes to show you don’t always know the impact that you may have as a teacher.

Sarah: Absolutely. That may have been her personal teaching philosophy, or maybe someone along the way had said something like that to her. But, for me, that was a game-changer. It was where my world kind of flipped and where I realized math wasn’t so bad. If you can start if you can try again, I guess math isn’t so bad, right? 

Nikki: Yes, great. Thank you. Alright, this is another big question. I’m wondering if you can tell me about your vision for student learning, meaning if it were up to you, Sarah, what would you want to see for every student?

Sarah: For every student, I would want them to know that school and learning is so much more than just standards and content. There’s so much that goes into the whole educational nurturing process that we provide for students each day. I would love for every student to be a collaborative communicator, but also a creative, critical thinker. 

This can be done with or without technology, but obviously, with technology, it kind of steps up the game. I am a firm proponent of using technology, but if you’re using technology just for the sake of using technology, that’s not going to increase engagement. It could just even confuse students. It’s counterproductive to what you would want to be doing. 

I think it’s about preparing students for being lifelong learners, and, as I mentioned earlier, encouraging them to always ask, “Why? Why am I doing this?” I’m sure it drives every teacher nuts because it drives me nuts when you get asked, “Why? Why? Why?” That’s why parents often just respond, “Because I said so.”

But giving them the opportunity to understand that why will allow them to be those collaborators, those communicators, those creators and critical thinkers that we want them to be. Because once they have those processes down, they can easily apply that to the content and to the world around them. I really would love students to see a bigger picture of education beyond just “We’re doing math. We’re doing science.”

Nikki: I think you kind of already touched on this, but in case you want to elaborate: What role would you say that technology plays in facilitating this vision? 

Sarah: I think it goes back to what I mentioned before about fostering good digital citizens. Sometimes we assume because students live in this digital world that they already know how to do this. But we’ve seen time and time again that they need gentle reminders such as, “No, that’s not an appropriate video.” 

We need to help them realize that even by consuming, they’re impacting the world around them. Then, when they can consume in positive ways, they start to think differently, and it transitions them into the producing aspect of life. But really getting students to understand the bigger picture and have those good digital citizenship skills, where in their heart they know, you know, their inner voice or their conscience. 

That way, when they’re creating and collaborating, whether it’s online or offline, they’re going to be making smarter choices. And that’s what we want: Good, ethical leadership for our future where our students can see that technology can be a positive thing to change the world around them.

Nikki: What words of advice or encouragement would you offer to educators right now, in the face of this wild year? 

Sarah: I think about this a lot. We keep coming back to this idea that once we get back to “normal” things will be fine. But our normal will not be the same as it was before, and I’m kind of happy about that. 

I hope that teachers and students can reflect upon these experiences and take what has worked really well. But then also look back and say, “You know what? I’m the person I am today, in this moment, because of the experiences that I had. Some of those experiences are positive. Some of those are growing experiences, but they all impact us in different ways.”

I would love for not just teachers and students, but educators, in general, to keep an open mind for how they do things. Because technology is just changing so rapidly. And not just technology, but education. Keep an open mind, be willing to share what you’re doing, listen to what others are doing, learn from each other, and just constantly keep that communication going. 

There’s so much that we can learn from each other when we’re not always recreating everything. I think that’s important. It’s really just about being true to ourselves, knowing what’s important, what our passions are, what drives us, and our goals. It’s also about keeping ourselves grounded. 

Being true to yourself is a good thing. It helps stay firm on things that are important to you. Sometimes, it’s about just needing a reminder that moments are just that: a moment. It might be difficult, but we can always move on from that moment.

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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