Putting Barriers in the Rear View

LeiLani Cauthen

Editor’s Note: This is part three in a three-part series.

As you read part one and part two in this series, you no doubt found a number of barriers you had already faced. Every school and district is facing the digital transition in its own unique way, and factors like lack of technology, staff training and parental wishes play a large part in the method and speed of your transition. But no matter where you start, you are likely to face many of the same challenges as your peers. So, relax. You now have the answers to many of the barriers you will face in one, convenient place. What we do is never easy. But often, with the right answers, it can be a lot more rewarding.


Barriers to Change: By the Numbers

Number One: Integrations

A major barrier for all schools today is the integration of various systems in order to do two things: 1) pull data and use it with other data on students and cohorts, and 2) determine what content is doing in one system versus another system for learning and see how they compare and contrast. Without systems being able to “watch” what is happening in real-time for learning within systems and interpret that data, a whole lot of data entry is still part of the teaching job. Instead of helpful tips and reminders messaged out to teachers from smart systems, teachers must study various data sets in many systems and apps, analyze and compile and then enter those into a central system. 

With hundreds if not thousands of systems and Apps in even small districts and schools today, this is no small task. The question is, will it ever get simpler? The tech answer is no. The nature of software and rate of tech innovation indicates that constant updating and internal changes to any one system would most probably intermittently derail integrations or at least continually complexify the application interfaces one to another. Integration standards and protocols are one fix, but other transactional standards are needed which do not yet exist. Instead, the Learning Counsel has offered a new solution, simpler and more flexible; it is a modernization of the entire learning paradigm. While the model for Personalized Learning Workflow manages the learning dynamics, it does not propose to pull data out of subservient learning systems which could be independent like a math App or social studies digital library of materials. 

Current single sign-on systems can see the log-in to those sub-systems but not what is going on inside them to access rate of learning, failed answers, and anything else going on. Again, the pace, pass, and contextualized scope have yet to become standardized to be transitionally shared about individual students and may never be. The nature of digital courseware for user experience is highly creative both for interface and sequencing, and subjects themselves mutate within the digisphere for how they are relayed to students. What is appropriate for one age or for one subject is entirely different than another age or subject – the same as in live teaching. The road to normalizing effective digital conveyance for even one subject is a heavy lift. However, the Learning Counsel has conjectured that research behind specific math learning and language learning for digital user experience has the potential to coalesce into a K-12 best-practice set within the next five years, thereby allowing for transactional data sharing for individual students.  

Meanwhile, even the use of advanced digital courseware has a long way to go to saturate the entire national scene, and teachers are still doing most of the lesson plans with just documents and links. They may not even be using a full learning management system, further crippling the whole data picture and integration of that data to trigger both reports and individualizations. 

Tips to overcoming integration issues:

Initially map any integrations to what has to be reported, but with an eye towards the long-term future when sub-systems will feed a large number of new data collection fields on everything from time-on-task per individual student to pass/fail rate for courseware internal formative assessments and much more. Future systems may well be able to record snapshots of context around students stumbling in pace through courseware for fast reference and customization by teachers for every student. 


Number Two: Old instructional design model

A barrier to digital transition is old models of instructional design. The most obvious one of these is that old models are entirely built around teacher and course deliver exclusively. The choice and interpretation of materials is by the teacher for the students. Discovery-based or exploratory-style learning isn’t even built into most curated digital content libraries today due to a mindset of catering to the teacher but not the student directly. The emerging exceptions are digital books offered within a student’s reading range for their individual choice within major Apps. These facts handicap the need for schools to justify physical presence by being places of great experiential learning, which could be said to be composed of far more project-based learning, small group and hands-on activities. 

Old models also miss some of the nuance of digital because they are mostly linear strategies that fail to acknowledge auto-student cohorting, auto-personalization, auto-routing, auto-remediation, many other features of audio and visual animations and the analytics that can pinpoint problem areas. Lacking the dimension of digital, they maintain course framework and keep actual personalization to a minimum. 

Tips to overcoming old instructional design models:

Pay attention to some of the new and emerging models and what the differences are between them and the old stand-by “Addies” model. Get to know the full breadth of tech capacities to transform the actual instructional design model, giving back teacher time for one-on-one direct instruction because tech is working for teachers to surface issues precisely. 


Number Three: Wide variance in student learning levels

This barrier has always existed because no two humans are exactly alike, but it was more easily managed up until about fifteen years ago within the existing design of education because there was a high degree of homogeneity culturally. The variance was managed within the A-F or pass/fail grading, remedial or grade hold-back mechanisms. Now, however, the average school district is having to support anywhere from five to over 125 foreign languages. Many of the new immigrant students are also completely unprepared for the culture of the average school. With “wide variance” taking on this additional dimension; it’s no wonder schools are bringing up this barrier. 

Luckily, just in time for these significant challenges with learning level variance, software solutions for translation as well as new protocols for teachers to follow are on the scene. 

The more important consideration about the widening variance in student learning levels is observably attributable to equity issues. There are many, including exposure to all sorts of technology. Some schools have pointed out to the Learning Counsel that they have kindergarteners arriving already knowing the entirety of the curriculum that would otherwise be taught their first year because their grandparents and parents have purchase Apps that teach them the ABC’s, numbers, colors, and basic literacy. Other children have none of those skills. 

Tips to overcoming the wide variance in student learning levels:

Seek out translation programs and let foreign language students use devices for constant lookups. Encourage parents’ pre-enrollment with school-supplied learning App access they can allow their kids to use on smartphones, which are nearly universal. Ensure that there is equity for all students with devices and at-home access for supplemental materials that help them quickly catch up. 


Number Four: Seat time laws/other legal or policy constraints

The problem with seat time laws requiring physical attendance is that it is out of sync with the flexibility demands of students and parents. Many States require a full school day or at least two hours depending on the age of the student. A handful are entirely flexible by district or have no requirements.  (https://c0arw235.caspio.com/dp/b7f9300085d1874ded564e27a66f)

These kinds of laws and policy constraints make education institutions less competitive at a time when Amazon is redefining the traffic patterns in all major cities. Retail, and even transportation change with Uber, overnight shipping with Fed-X and other conveniences have already redefined time and space while schools remain the same. While many parents do need a place for their children daily, others do not, and they increasingly see family life as an important value. This generation of parents are doing what all generations have done, and that is reject the norms of prior generations that did not impress them. One of the unimpressive norms of the past has been the lack of quality family life and the requirements of strict schedules, particularly for families with multiple kids in different schools who must manage awesome feats of pick-up and drop-off before the bells. A more leisurely, quality of time is yearned for by many families. 

While there are many other policy constraints, and not enough room to enumerate them all, it’s important to point out that these barriers are typically by-gone era norms. They had their purpose.  What’s imperative for educators to do today is see the expectations that are there now and create, within their constraints, things that closely approximate what is desired. 

Tips to overcoming seat time laws and other policy constraints:

Realize that time is the new must-have accessory to life, the value of this generation more than money or things. Give back time with flexibility.  Lean on technology to enable this. In addition, create home-like environments as comfortable and welcoming as being a member of a family. Membership to a student’s favored “House” on campus with a giant lounge-like environment homeroom, can help create similar experience to family time and comfortably belonging. 


Number Five: Social-Emotional

The “highest pressure point” out of fourteen different possible responses from the 460 responding schools and districts in the 2019 Learning Counsel Digital Transition Survey was “the new multi-faceted social and emotional needs of students” with a 7.27 weighted average.

Without a doubt, there are issues schools and teachers now are faced with unlike those in the recent past. Many schools are moving to solutions to help students in need, and all students, with supports that include technology solutions. 

Tips to overcoming increasing pressure from social-emotional needs:

Consider new solutions coming from multiple companies to help students, and don’t overlook the emerging needs of teachers and staff. 


Number Six: Teacher Observations

Tracy Brown, Instructional Technology Specialist at Anne Arundel County Public Schools explains, “I work mostly with middle school teachers. But one of the things that I hear from teachers is that one of the barriers for them using technology in their classrooms is observations.”

“They get observed by different people at different times during the year,” said Brown. “A lot of teachers tell me (that they) know people on their administrative team or in their content area who view technology use as being too chaotic. Their idea of a good lesson is everybody facing the front of the room. Everybody has their pencil in their hand, they're open to the right page on the book. And if they come in and observe you and it doesn't look like that, then you get dinged, with comments like ‘I don't even know what those kids were doing for that 20 minutes.’ The barrier is, at that higher level, people are far-removed from the classroom but are still somehow in charge of that classroom and are not always on board with this. The highest level of integration should be students creating and curating. They (the observers) want to see the kids with their nose in a textbook, writing notes, staring at something projected on the screen and then you get a giant check and an A-plus that you had a great lesson today.”

“The observations are supposed to be built for further coaching, but no one takes a coaching opportunity as being positive,” said Brown. “I mean, when I sit down and say, ‘I'm going to coach you,’ the expectation is that the feedback will be negative, even punitive  The teacher automatically is crushed because they've spent all their time doing the lesson plans, getting prepared, making the best lesson possible, and all of a sudden, they're crushed because that wasn't the way an administrator envisioned it. Maybe a child was talking off topic, but it's so much better than the standing there delivering something where they're all off topic. They're all thinking about something else or what they wanted to do at the park that afternoon. Having a conversation about it and having a conversation about something other than the exact lesson topic is also social emotional learning that can be learned in classroom.”

Changing the nature of observations is something that can fixed, and it will be another hurdle eliminated in the race towards a learning environment that uses technology to do the heavy lifting so teachers can do what they do best, being human. If you are an administrator who uses observations in the classroom, take stock in the process. Why are observations being done, how are they conducted and by whom? And most importantly, what is the desired outcome? Classroom observation, when done correctly, is a very valuable tool. However, if done incorrectly and perceived as being punitive, it can be a waste of time and resources and worse, it can have the opposite effect as intended.

Tips to overcoming teacher observation negatives:

Bring administrators up to speed on new modalities in the classroom and incorporate this awareness in observations. 


Hidden Barriers

While barriers most usually discussed by educators already listed are no small obstacles in transitioning to digital, underlying them are hidden barriers that can be the real root of why change just doesn’t happen. 

Hidden Barrier #1: Time

With decreasing achievement, schools are experiencing pressure like never before. Angst rains down from above while a perfect storm of new academic standards, a staggering amount of testing, massive reporting and influx of technology works to shrink time down to nothing. Time is especially short for teachers, who have a list of duties so long it’s hard to say any other profession even comes close.  Duties include an inhuman scale of managing every directive coming down from management, all search-and-build for every bit of discrete content for every lesson, lesson planning, rostering, taking attendance, discipline, time management within each course, the semester and school year, while also delivering the content, doing all the grading, direct instruction, getting training themselves, and more. That’s just the short list. 

Yet at the same time, homeschoolers routinely report that they can get all subjects done in a mere two-three hours a day. Since homeschooling is the fastest growing alternative in the U.S., and already at over 6 Million students, it’s obvious that the quality of time for students is a growing concern. Many parents are striving to give their children the better family experience that they themselves didn’t have.

Meanwhile teacher time is fraught with distractions of unparalleled proportions, and they have less time to actually give direct attention to students. 

Strong attention to getting technologies to work for teachers, taking work off them to free up time for other activities is essential right now. 

Tips to giving back time:

Step up the conversations about what digital courseware can do to relieve teachers, as well as conversations about many other areas of tech. In addition, start looking at other ways to shift burdens and give teachers back quality time with students. 


Hidden Barrier #2: Structure

Schools are not born of the present age but are built of and for the Industrial Age. If they were, they would be digital first, physical environment second.  They would intersect humans with precision, for exact purposes with great efficiency.

The structure of how learning is delivered is typically a schedule and general map of subjects, handed down to teachers. Teachers are the mechanism of distribution of actual learning. They are limited by a human scale of themselves versus an average of thirty students or more. An opposite mechanism is virtual learning, which often removes the teacher entirely. Often these are an either-or construct, or virtual courses are offered for extra-curricular activities. Both have major flaws. Today, both fail certain populations of students when used in their strictest construct. 

Emerging research indicates that a blend of both that repositions the act of teaching into a narrow definition while using far more professional-grade courseware is the true digital transition. Space use and time would alter significantly in the same way that tech has changed those in other industries. In other words, structure is a major hidden barrier because it hasn’t really changed as society has entered the tech age. Schools are not using teachers for a refined set of human skills while harnessing technology to take personalized learning all the way to fully individual paths for every student. A tech-blended institution is different than blending tech into the classroom alone – it’s a complete shift in structure. Personalized Learning Workflow, also thought of as the “Uberization of Learning” is discussed in a number of Learning Counsel publications. The simplicity of it is that automation allows teaching to be elevated to much more direct instruction, some whole group, and some small group instruction. 

This barrier is hidden because schools plan to stay the same with planning up to five years out to maintain the same schedules. Their structure discourages acceptance of the best-in-class innovations or the creation of a cohesive redefinition for delivering learning. If structure remains the same, out of sync with expectations and tech capacities, it is at risk. 

Tips to handling the barrier of structure:

Start having the conversation about Personalized Workflow Learning, what it would take to implement in just one subject, and how to rearrange both learning space and the curriculum map to provide for how teachers will service students moving along an initially normalized path before any other complexity. Take a look at some of the organizations already doing “extreme makeovers” for structure and schedule. 


Hidden Barrier #3: Social Science

Social sciences are college-level knowledge, sometimes arcane, cloaked in vaunted and exhaustive clinical language. Without a doubt, human motivations and mental processes form the most formidable area of hidden influences. Here are several social science tips distilled down to very simple statements, starting with one that is the hardest to detect. 

  • The Hidden Standard
  • Fear of Being Replaced
  • Illogical Conclusion
  • Overwhelm

What is a hidden standard?   An undisclosed problem that the person believes must be resolved in order to agree something is workable or good. This standard is used by one to judge the people and area in which the problem exists and actually prevents the resolution of the problem. 

Tips about the hidden standard:

You can detect a hidden standard because the person’s body language and expression, questions or concerns indicate they are having a problem they are not disclosing with a tech method being introduced. Take guidance from the #2 barrier about unwillingness and non-compliance. Someone with a hidden standard will only let go of it when they get a new standard, confidence in something else that allows them to let go. 


What is a fear of being replaced? It’s typically a lack of real understanding of technology holistically. The entire picture of what tech can do to elevate human skill is clouded by the piecemeal way in which it has been tacked on or else utilized totally virtual and teacher-less.  The vision of it utilizing teachers precisely for their most valuable skills is missing. Online learning appears to be winning hugely in the consumer markets and with homeschoolers. This and talk of robot teachers (and their actual use in Japan), strikes a bad tone with teachers. They are not being told the fact that more human skill is needed as more tech enters any field, and that is the real challenge of the next century.

Tips about fear of being replaced:

You can detect a fear of being replaced by comments made and behavior. You could also say that a hidden standard is a pretense, an assertion of confidence without any real foundation. What to do about it? Tell the truth, that tech in the field of education will not “replace teachers,” but will reposition many over time into new needs. Tell them that this trend is already apparent with the rise of larger administrations and analytics, and that the entire field is co-evolving with progress in tech. An adventure awaits, and remarkably in the field of education, it seems to be seeking a greater human skill to balance a greater tech. Everyone will be needed. Help by defining some of these roles of the future.  See:  https://thelearningcounsel.com/article/how-technology-will-alter-teaching-profession-roles-will-change-not-their-importance-0 and https://thelearningcounsel.com/article/what-are-teacher%E2%80%99s-future-roles


What is an illogical conclusion?   It’s making a conclusion without using logic, reasoning without interrelation or sequencing of facts or events in an inevitable or predictable pattern. In the case of education, seeing tech as “just a tool or only supplemental” is comforting because it means there is no real change and people can maintain a sense of complacency. This is an illogical conclusion on any number of fronts, not the least of which is just observing the majestic advances of other services fields from retail to shipping to transportation to communications and entertainment (Amazon, Fed-X, Uber, Facebook, Netflix). All of these are entirely shifted structures in less than a generation. The appearance of increasing school choice has motive behind it that is not just political. Achievement declining while social-emotional issues are surging in schools may indeed be side-effects of a tech age that schools are not equipped to answer. Another aspect is the increased competencies of today’s learning software - preferably in combination with the advances of many of the other fields to arrive at a more probable conclusion - in sync with the same trajectories of all the other fields.  

Tips about illogical conclusions:

You can detect an illogical conclusion when people are offering platitudes in order to placate, if they actually do know that tech is going to make a much larger contribution to teaching and learning than just tools. If they consider tech just a tool or only supplemental, then they are either not sufficiently aware of technology and organizational theory to consider what’s really happening or they are being comforting to others who are resisting even small incursions of tech in schools. The key to illogical conclusions concerning tech transition is to expose more educators to the real sophistication in digital courseware, in systems logic, in algorithmic inference engines and what those mean to the changes afoot. Use  show-and-tell with digital courseware, and do other training such as the EduJedi Leadership Society courses. In particular, lead them towards a refinement of human teaching excellence alongside tech’s full personalization so that every student achieves. 


What is overwhelm? An inability to meet all requirements because the amount of work exceeds the amount of time to execute well. 

Tips about overwhelm:

You can detect overwhelm when there are noisy campaigns of resistance to new programs. Most loss of staff morale also points to feelings of overwhelm.  The solution is to find out the full extent of the workload, then formulate strategy and tactics to manage that including automating some of the function, retiring reports not needed and shifting duties. Other solutions include adding support staff, creating teaching pairs, reducing the number of courses taught by individual teachers, reducing hours, giving relief through purchase of professional courseware, so that for at least that subject the teacher builds around it for whole group activities, projects, etc. instead of managing the entirety of the knowledge delivery, using on-demand teaching online to support homework and grading, and more. Overwhelm is also managed when schools go so far as to shift to Personalized Learning Workflow to aggregate multiple grades in one giant set of homeroom “houses” (think Harry Potter world), and use auto-cohorting and auto-scheduling of students with teachers when the cohort arrives to specific points on the workflow. A master curriculum map would already show when a whole group class or a small group activity would be needed, and the remainder of the time teachers are carefully watching dashboards and assisting various students with direct instruction. All discipline and classroom management would shift to “House Leaders” except when teachers go to scheduled classes to lead (this is also known as the “Uberization of Learning,” the basis of a new book planned by LeiLani Cauthen, Publisher at Learning Counsel.) 

There are many barriers we see when we are progressing through the digital transformation in education. It is no small feat, and naturally there will be obstacles. But as a friend of mine once told me, obstacles are those terrifying things you see when you take your eyes off your goals. The digital transformation in education in not only inevitable, it is a process that will allow educators to get in sync with the modern world and allow learners to get the most from their educators and their educational experience. This article series will allow you to identify your barriers and take them head-on – so you and your staff can exceed your expectations and give your students the very best preparation for our digital world.


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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