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Exploring our new digital landscape

Paul Toner

Paul Toner
MTA President

In our constantly changing world, digital technology and the Internet are rapidly modifying the way we think, communicate, share information and socialize in our personal lives. It is no surprise, therefore, that they are also changing the educational landscape and the way we teach in our public schools and colleges.

Today, nearly one-third of all college students have enrolled in at least one online course. Hundreds of thousands of people of all ages have taken part in MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — and the number continues to increase exponentially.

Digital technology and online classes are also deeply embedded in our K-12 system. More than half of the state’s high schools now offer courses through Virtual High School, a global collaborative based in Maynard. One advantage of VHS is that it gives students access to courses that only a small number want to take in any given school — such as Advanced Placement Physics or Mandarin Chinese — but that are desirable to a critical mass across the collaborative.

Distance and Online Learning

Click here to find out more.

Within schools, technology is changing how students learn. My own daughter, Grace, an eighth-grader in the Cambridge Public Schools, collaborates with classmates online using Google Docs and producing films and presentations. Even in her choral group, she receives electronic links to music and performances to study.

My son, Jack, who is in second grade, used YouTube to research birds of prey for a school report. And his teachers use digital tools to engage him in reading and writing and reinforce math lessons.

All schools take advantage of technology in one way or another, whether having students edit videos on iPads, posting assignments online, organizing study groups using dedicated Facebook pages or installing Smartboards in their classrooms. Many of us are holding more computing power in our pockets than existed in entire institutions just a generation ago.

In order to take full advantage of these new technologies, educators need to address a number of issues, both instructional and professional. The following are just a few among many.

There are many questions and issues that we have to address, but I believe that as educators we need to embrace the changes that are taking place all around us.

Demanding equity

The digital divide is real. Funding and Internet access must be available to make sure that all students have access to the technology they need to fully participate in the digital revolution. Schools in lower-income neighborhoods or geographically remote areas must have access to the same updated technology and broadband resources as those in wealthier communities.

Ensuring quality

We need to ensure that online educators are qualified and capable of providing our students with rigorous instruction and individual attention.

There are many instructional resources online — so many that it would take an individual teacher a very long time to scope out and vet those that are appropriate for his or her grade and subject. Educators and their associations must be involved in setting standards and must work with districts, the state and trusted external partners to identify quality products and providers.

Even more challenging is figuring out how to assess the quality of schools and colleges that are offering 100 percent online courses for credit. The Massachusetts Legislature has passed a law designed to ensure better oversight over virtual schools for elementary and secondary school students. We will all need to be vigilant to make sure that high standards are being met.

Access and training

All educators — in preK-12 schools and our colleges and universities — must have access to relevant, high-quality professional development in the integration of digital learning into their practice. At the very basic level, teachers often need training in how to use the technology that is available. Beyond that, however, they need to know how to use it effectively, and they must be provided with the time to integrate it into their teaching. How many teachers know how to effectively “flip” their classes so that factual information is absorbed by students online at home while they are also applying the learning that takes place in the classroom?

How do you verify whether your students are completing their own work if they are taking tests online at home? Are teaching assistants well trained in how to help their students receive additional assistance through computer-based programs? In short, systems need to be set up to support educators and provide the professional development that is needed.

Rights and benefits

Some educators have legitimate concerns about the impact of these changes on their professional lives. We need to address those concerns to make sure that the end result is both good for students and fair to educators.

Questions that need to be addressed include:

  • Who holds the copyright to creative new online instructional units that educators develop on their own time?
  • How much should teachers or higher ed faculty members be paid for taking on additional duties related to technology? The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on a survey that found college professors who taught MOOCs were generally impressed with the results, but often spent more than 100 hours preparing and producing such courses for no additional compensation.
  • Should online teachers of Massachusetts students be licensed in the state? Should they belong to the union? What kind of job guarantees should they have? How will they be evaluated?
  • How do we ensure that technology does not supplant quality instruction as a cost-cutting measure?

There are many questions and issues that we have to address, but I believe that as educators we need to embrace the changes that are taking place all around us.

The new technologies that occupy an ever more significant place in our public and personal lives can be used to enrich students’ educational experiences, and they can create opportunities to improve the quality of instruction and learning. They have increased the effectiveness of education employees, and they can provide opportunities to reduce educational inequities.

Combined with traditional instruction provided by qualified educators, they offer a chance for accelerated and individualized learning and competency-based education to be made available at any time, anywhere and at each student’s personal pace.

As educators, we need to understand and help shape these changes. The NEA and the MTA will be developing recommendations in some of these areas and will be working to provide guidance and support to local associations and educators as we explore this new landscape together.


Click here to view a video that highlights research conducted by the MTA Distance and Online Learning Task Force and results of a survey of MTA members.

For more information visit our distance and online learning page
which contains links to articles and resources.