A New Tech Integration: A More Intentional Move Toward Instructional Design

“I don’t want to do the same old essay or test I always give, what can we do for a final project using tech?”
“Can you teach coding next year? And maybe develop a makerspace curriculum for the middle school or an after-school robotics program?”
“What is a good app I can use for …?”
These questions are all too familiar to anyone who has held the title tech integrator, tech specialist, ed tech coordinator, or a variety of other jargony titles schools have come up with over the past 15 years. For me and many of my colleagues, this is what "tech integration" has looked like: “appy hours,” “lunch and learns,” apps that promise a flashy product but deliver tenuous learning value. And while there is nothing wrong with using these platforms or integrating a new app (if done right), we shouldn’t be confusing this with purposeful and well-designed technology integration. To endeavor toward a new tech integration, it’s time that schools think differently about the role, elevating and better defining the role, even renaming it in the process.
School leaders have had a challenging time integrating and supporting technology into overall school systems, classrooms, pedagogy and curriculum, and school culture over the years, and they haven’t always clearly understood or articulated their approach or the role. A variety of issues present themselves: Schools have varying capacities to hire for the role, support of technology varies from school to school, faculty members often don’t know about the role and therefore don’t collaborate. The ultimate goal of a technology integrator––a role I propose renaming and reframing as “instructional designer”—is to improve the quality of instruction and the learning outcomes for students. Instructional designer may not be a familiar job title to many in primary or secondary education, but it more accurately describes the role on which schools need to shine a spotlight. With instructional designers, new course design, course redesign, new and returning faculty—and ultimately students and independent schools at large—all benefit. 

Rethinking and Reframing

“Technology integrator” implies too much and yet nothing at all. It is a meaningless title that describes very little of the real work that is actually done. In a 2015 Hybrid Pedagogy article, authors Maha Bali and Lee Skallerup Bessette write:
“...many centers encourage integration of technology into teaching. This pressures faculty who are not tech savvy to try this out, often unsuccessfully, without clear pedagogical purpose.”
We have to change the perception of the job, which starts with the title but ultimately involves a shift in thinking about the approach to the work. Having the word “technology” in the job title sends an incomplete message from the start. As a result, teachers either want to use tech when inappropriate or shy away from using any technology and eschew the technology integrator.
In conversation, Aaron Grill, director of tech and innovation at The Browning School (NY), told me he suggests moving tech integrators out of the tech department entirely. Schools must move the technology integrator position toward an information and curriculum design department integrated with librarians. Moving technology integration away from a new app or neat project and toward a more purposeful instructional design-based curriculum development will naturally integrate technology.
Instructional design––the creation, sequencing, and design of digital and physical instructional material––carefully considers how people learn and what materials and methods will most effectively lead to positive learning outcomes as well as professional growth. Instructional designers consider the look and design of the materials themselves, since well-designed and easy-to-access materials enhance comprehension. They might meet during summer to discuss the redesign of a course and develop measurable learning outcomes, long-term projects, authentic assessments, etc. They might meet again during the year and at the end of the course to reflect, revise, and develop new lessons. And, while instructional designers are not myopically focused on tech, they are typically well-versed in many digital platforms, apps, websites, and more that are the hallmarks of well-designed instruction. Technology is organically integrated.

Making the Case

Once schools are on board with shifting the title, the approach, and department within which it lives, they must be thoughtful about hiring. If schools want a strong arts department, they tend to seek out great artists and great art teachers; resources are spent finding these people, hiring them, and retaining them. If schools want to make sure their faculty are using proven instructional methods to develop lessons, units, and courses, then resources must be spent on these support roles as well. Moreover, if schools want the hire to be successful, they will allow them to do the position for which they were hired—and not absorb a few additional jobs, such as teaching computer science.
A small school may hire a computer science teacher, digital media specialist, and a tech integrator because it understands those jobs to be very different. At the same time, a school that doesn’t have the resources to hire multiple people may hire one person to do all of those jobs. Similarly, a large school that has the resources but lacks an appreciation of technology’s role in today’s pedagogy may only have one tech person who handles everything under the sun. A school that views technology roles in this manner will not be as successful as a school that can dedicate a person to individual tasks.
Realistic or not, the solution must be to hire different people to teach computer science (CS) and run a makerspace, an IT support team to handle network and other infrastructure, and another to be an instructional designer. Splitting these roles will allow the instructional designer to focus on curriculum development and planning with faculty members, and the CS teacher can plan CS lessons and projects, CS Ed Week, etc. and any other CS-related work that does not explicitly need an instructional designer.
Let’s help faculty design courses that use instructional design principles to design learning experiences for students that resemble real-world experiences. Let’s encourage teachers to help students develop tools they use to analyze literature, create interactive maps to tell a story about a changing neighborhood, build 3-D environments where students can interact in VR and help younger students deal with bullying. A movement toward instructional design will improve faculty and student success, as well as help newly minted instructional designers gain appreciation and respect.
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Alex Steinberg

Alex Steinberg is education technology and innovation coordinator at The Pingry School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. The author can be reached at [email protected].