Help teachers want to use tech
Sarah Cruz and Dennis Pierce
October 12, 2017

When administrators want to implement new classroom tech, we often focus on the technology itself and can overlook the human teachers we want to use, own and run that technology.

Apprehensions and fears among teachers are normal. What if it does not work correctly? Will it be a frustrating annoyance in front of my students? What if I can’t figure it out? Will it take away from my already limited teaching time? What if it takes more time and effort to learn it and use it than it saves?

About two years ago, California’s Covina-Valley Unified School District launched a new technology service for its English teachers, Turnitin’s Revision Assistant. Revision Assistant is a web-based service that gives feedback on student writing as the student is working -- spotting and highlighting common errors or areas in which to consider improvements. Importantly, it doesn’t function like a spelling or grammar monitor but uses machine learning to evaluate the structure and depth of writing, focusing on things such as supporting evidence and strong conclusions. We were convinced that its real time, personal, one-on-one writing attention would help students become better writers.

Teachers were hesitant at first. But now, they are embracing the technology, eager to squeeze more and more out of it. And some of our skeptical, late adopters have come around to be enthusiastic users.

Since we all know it’s better to have someone want to do something than pressure them into it, the transition from introducing the technology to where we are now is, and was, essential.

Based on our experience, here are three tips for managing that critical early window with teachers and new classroom technology and how we were able to get our teachers from “willing to” to “wanting to.”

Don’t mandate. The first thing is, don’t issue an order -- make an offer.

In Covina-Valley, we told our teachers about Revision Assistant and how we thought it could be a great help to their in-class efforts, plus save them time outside the classroom during our calibration day to score student essays. But we didn’t make them use it. At least not right away. Instead, we made it optional for use in eighth-, 10th- and 11th-grade classes.

If the technology is good and helps teachers meet their goals, word will get around. And sure enough, the teachers who used Revision Assistant during our benchmark calibration days really liked it; they found it saved a lot of time and gave another objective evaluation of student writing for both teachers and students. And after five or six hours of grading essays the traditional way, by hand, even the teachers who did not initially opt-in, were eager to try it. And now the use of Revision Assistant is spreading up and down the grade levels.

Work with the provider. Most edtech companies are more than happy to work with schools and districts to mold their services and products to your needs. So, ask them. Tell them what you need.

As we rolled out Revision Assistant, our teachers immediately saw new ways it could be helpful in meeting our district’s benchmark writing assessments which are tied to the state’s assessments. Our teachers wanted more writing prompts that fit even more closely with what the district and state would ask of our students. Turnitin let us contribute our own teacher-developed writing prompts to the prompt library. This increased buy in even more.

Letting your teachers see that their requests and interests are not just heard but acted on is a big part of earning classroom level ownership.

Focus on helping the teacher. We took care to highlight how the new technology would help teachers be more efficient in their work. We don’t want to replace teachers, we wanted to give them superpowers.

When teachers who used it saw that it saved them hours of work every week, they were believers. Our teachers learned to use the Revision Assistant scoring as a baseline for personal grading and feedback, allowing them to focus on the students who could benefit the most from more teacher attention.

And they began to see the impact on students. For example, in one of our literacy enhancement programs -- designed for students who are two years or more behind -- the students treated real-time scoring like a game and it motivated them to keep writing, to learn to avoid repeating mistakes.

Teachers want to help students. When they see that a technology can help them do that, they usually embrace it quickly.

Some technology roll-outs are going to be easier than others. But based on my experience with Revision Assistant in Covina-Valley, teachers will want and rave about solutions if you don’t present it as a mandate, let them craft it to suit their needs and focus on how it helps them evaluate student writing efficiently. That’s what we did. And it’s working.

Sarah Cruz has been a long-time ELA teacher and an instructional coach at Covina-Valley Unified School District in Southern California.  As a military spouse, she has recently moved to Georgia where her husband is stationed. She is now the ELA Curriculum Coordinator in the Richmond County School System. Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been covering ed tech for more than 20 years.