An Interview with Bryan Hassel: Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

Nov 22, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

  1. Bryan, you have just published, or posted a paper on Teachers in the age of Digital Instruction. In your mind, when did this age of digital instruction begin? I can recall using a TI 55 in statistics in my doctoral work- that was, so to speak my first introduction to digital- maybe I am wrong here….

Digital learning has indeed been around for years, but only in the last 10 have we seen the vast expansion of global inter-connectivity, combined with ever more affordable hardware, that makes this the “digital age.”  Organizations in other sectors have figured out how to harness these tools to achieve enormous improvements in service quality and productivity.  Education could be next.

  1. How do you differentiate a good “On-Line“ instructor from a good classroom LIVE instructor-should we have separate training programs for these two individuals?

A lot of what makes a great teacher crosses the boundaries of online and in-person.  Most importantly, excellent teachers bring that intense drive to help every student learn at the highest levels, and the commitment to identify and help students overcome whatever barriers stand in the way.  That won’t change with the mode of delivery.  That said, of course remote teaching requires different skills.  Separate training may be needed, but every teacher prep program should be thinking about how to infuse into their curricula much more focus on teaching in the digital age.

  1. Let’s talk about “leveraging“ technology- How does a real good teacher leverage technology in say a 7th grade social studies class?

One way great teachers can leverage technology is what we call a “time-technology swap.”  If 7th graders can spend part of their time learning social studies through a self-paced online course, their teacher can spend that time working with a whole other class of students.  Since the students are learning the facts and basics online, the teacher can spend time going deeper, trouble-shooting problems, and providing personalized help.  The technology can help the teacher reach more students – and reach them in a more customized way.

  1. I think one of your points on page 2 in your white paper is crucial “Helping students with time and task management and other habits crucial to success”. Who is responsible for this and WHEN?

In our paper, we say an excellent teacher needs to be ultimately accountable for each student’s learning in each subject.  But there many models through which an excellent teacher can help students manage time and other habits. Of course she could work with them directly.  Or, she could manage a team of people who take on different roles, one of which could be helping students master these life habits.  This kind of “instructional role differentiation” opens up all kinds of possibilities.

  1. “Addressing personal and family situations that may impede learning” sounds a lot like counseling to me- am I off on this?

One thing great teachers do is notice when something is going on with a child that’s impeding learning, getting to the bottom of it, and helping the student address it.  Addressing the situation may well involve getting a counselor involved. But it’s the teacher interacting with the student every day who can first see that something’s wrong and take action.

  1. How do instructors go about helping students to “dig deeper into material and develop higher order thinking skills ( analytic, conceptual and creative)”?

Teachers often complain they can’t help students dig deeper because they spend so much time developing lesson plans, teaching the basics and addressing the varied needs in their classrooms.  If deployed well, digital learning can shoulder some of this “basics burden,” freeing teachers to spend more of the time they have with students going beyond – by leading discussions, guiding students in complex projects, and challenging students to take learning to the next level.

  1. Let’s talk about teachers “taking responsibility for ensuring learning outcomes“  and here I am going to list the IDEA exceptionalities which seem to be ever increasing-Visually Impaired, Hearing Impaired, Intellectually Challenged, Health Impaired, Learning disabled, kids with head injury, learning disabilities etc. Can, and should a teacher be responsible for the special, complex needs of said children?

Meeting complex special needs usually requires a team approach.  But it still makes sense for one excellent teacher to take responsibility.  That doesn’t mean doing everything himself or herself.  Rather it means mustering the resources, whether that’s other staff, technology, or outside services, to get the results the student deserves.  It also means empowering the great teacher to choose, use and change these resources – the essence of professional practice.

  1. How can a teacher help build “children’s social and emotional skills and fortitude” on line ?

Having a connection with a child is the best starting point for building social and emotional strength.  Many would argue that’s best done in person.  But what about students who live in places where there simply aren’t enough excellent teachers to forge those connections?  Online interaction with an excellent teacher over video, audio, and email is likely better than in-person interaction with a mediocre or ineffective connector.  Plus, online interaction is likely to resemble in-person connection more and more over time as technology advances.  Think of now versus 10 years ago on that front.

  1. Can you briefly discuss mentoring and can you discuss it on line?

I don’t think I have anything to add beyond what I said in answer to 4, 5 and 8.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

One final thought.  As digital learning improves and proliferates, students everywhere will have access to solid basic instruction.  That will be a “flat” resource, a level playing field that doesn’t give any student, state, or nation an advantage.  What will differentiate outcomes is how well schools, states, and nations use technology to leverage what is inevitably limited teaching talent.  Those who stick with today’s norm, where only 20-25% of students have great teachers, will lag behind.  Those that advance will be the ones figuring out how technology can extend the reach of that 20-25% of teachers to all students, just like other professions do.

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