Barriers to Education’s Digital Transition

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a three-part series
LeiLani Cauthen

What is normal? Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been talk of the new normal. But in this new reality we are facing, conditions are anything but normal. Even prior to the pandemic, school districts in America were struggling with the challenges of a rapidly changing education landscape. Like every other sector of American life, education was transforming into a digital-first universe. It was modernizing and moving steadily from a 150-year-old system of an industrialized construct to a system of experience, and technology held the keys to unlock this inevitable transition.

And then the world changed. In the blink of an eye, and in many cases over the course of a weekend, school changed from mostly in-seat, whole group instruction to a virtual, distance learning world for which few were prepared.

In part one of this article series, we explored five of the barriers that are obstructing education’s potentially smooth digital transition. These barriers included lack of leadership, unwillingness to comply, lack of devices or infrastructure, budget and resistance from parents. In this installment, we’ll look at six more barriers, and give you action steps to overcome these obstacles on your way to success.


Barriers to Change: By the Numbers

Number One: Testing

Always at the top of the list of issues for teachers is too much testing. It’s a fact that over the last five years, the amount of testing has spiked. Many teachers find they only “teach to the test” and have little time for anything else. They miss being able to do quality direct instruction. This is a result of increasing failure resulting in calls for more accountability, proven to administrators by increased testing. It is a vicious circle cutting into the quality time for which teachers yearn.  

The way out is more effective learning. The testing pressure is the strongest wind behind schools demanding professional-grade courseware for its effectiveness and giving teachers back the time they need for direct instruction. 

Tips to overcoming the testing juggernaut:

Start moving courseware into core subject use and add other supplemental professional-grade digital curriculum to carry the load needed to meet test requirements.  Give teachers back the time they need to do the direct instruction that drives up scores.


Number Two: Standards

In the free-form curriculum days, states and local districts set general guidance through the textbook adoption process and policies. Now academic standards in nearly every state complicate the picture by having to be matched up in lessons and timing. 

Most educators have embraced academic standards as a generally positive move but decry the barrier they present in the execution of planning pacing guides across the year and individual lessons. The work of “cross-walking” standards with materials and guides is an enormous undertaking. Then to make matters worse, there is constant change in the standards themselves, including some states overturning them and adopting totally new ones. This then reverberates through the education system with a new workload.

Tips to overcoming academic standards complexity:

Instead of top-down only standards mapping, come together with teachers for their inventory of lessons to streamline the match-up. Work with digital curriculum vendors on which content matches with what standards. 


Number Three: Schedules

A barrier to changing education today is the archaic and inflexible schedule. For many families, the expectation of daily attendance when they can have groceries and goods of all kind delivered is grating.  To many, it’s a quality of life issue to gain flexibility for family togetherness.  Not so for others, because the school is the place the children go while both parents work. Yet when schools do not figure out ways to offer a modernized schedule, they lose, and increasingly they are losing higher rates of students.

Tips to overcoming schedule inflexibility:

Start with what subjects and activities actually can be flexible and make that a marketed offering the public finds out about. Work to make any student a member digitally even when they aren’t always there physically – become a membership organization, not just a place to attend. 


Number Four: Red Tape

When attempting digital transition, executives and teachers run into all sorts of red-tape, a.k.a. bureaucracy and slow-down. In the tech age, acts aimed at innovation with tech need to move at hyper-speed.  To do nothing to enable this demoralizes staff. 

Tips to overcoming red tape in tech transition:

Create innovation set-asides with language related to acquisition that allows purchases to move more quickly through procurement without totally skirting necessary rules and laws. Allocate the use of shares of the set-aside so that everyone is encouraged to use their share or conglomerate their shares with others of like-mindedness to get something they feel is necessary to innovate. This token acquisition power also gives staff a sense of urgency to use what they have advocated their share gets used for. 


Number Five: Curating curriculum

The Internet is exhaustingly large and filled with questionable things. Its scale presents a new type of barrier. There are tens of thousands of options today for digital curriculum. Professional-grade courseware companies and pre-curated discrete learning objects in libraries save some time, but there is still a ton of time teachers spend hunting down the pieces they need. In many cases, this is because administrators are “letting,” not leading digital curriculum. The fact is, in the days of textbooks, whole subjects were led by adoptions, and all teachers for the same subject got the same book across an entire district. Today, digital content has been allowed to fracture into thousands of documents, links and supplemental materials that give the operation no commonality. Administrators need to lead in digital, including learning terminology and understanding quality. In addition, paying attention to how fractured lessons have become and what that means for operational continuity is necessary. A helpful attention to lowering the amount of time teachers must spend curating in the digisphere for content and then crafting lessons is one of the most meaningful things leaders can do today.

Tips to overcoming inefficiencies in curating curriculum: 

Put in place core subject courseware solutions as appropriate, supplemental solutions and pre-curated discrete digital content libraries.


Number Six: Professional Development

Schools invest a lot of money in professional development, but in many places the methods of delivery have changed little. The subjects, too, have changed little. The addition of device training, software training and new policy training rarely includes the training that teachers actually want. What they want are basics delivered in short formats, and the ability to scale up within software functions on an as-needed basis on-the-fly. They also want information about what’s going to help specific tasks, what App, what method and what specific implementation pointers. 

The usual training “to the middle” for teachers in large groups is similar to the glaring inefficiencies of doing the same in the classroom. It feels like an enormous time waster to the recipients. Personalized learning, bite-sized chunks (think You Tube videos), just-in-time rapid learning modules or FAQs (frequently asked questions documents), and speedy workshops that are finely timed to cover surface points and offer other reading for more depth, are what teachers want. Conversely, peer-to-peer creative sharing that is task-oriented can take a lot of time but is almost universally acknowledged as more useful. These modalities and flexibility are already popularized in the commercial sector. 

Finally, professional development that comes off as something being done to teachers is very unpalatable in the present age. When it is presented with elective options, customizations, or even open discussion time, it’s more acceptable. 

Tips to overcoming old-fashioned PD:

Instead of always planning for lecture-style delivery, figure out what can be a podcast or video with an under 20-minute uptake, and what can be written, etc. In-person workshops should be highly crafted with a large amount of open sharing and discussion. Use learning management systems and Apps to carry much of the load for distributed training. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the already rapid pace of digital transition in America and abroad. As educators search for the next normal and leaders incorporate new products and methodologies in an attempt to normalize the dizzying array of changes, overcoming barriers to change will become a daily experience. How well we overcome those barriers will become of paramount importance.

In the next installment of our series, we’ll explore more of the common barriers that are standing in our way, and we’ll pull back the curtain on hidden barriers that are difficult to see but less difficult to overcome once identified.


About the author

LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning.  She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.

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