A Way Forward:  Connecting Teaching, Learning, and Effective Technology Use 

January 2021


The Center for Technology and School Change (CTSC) is a research and professional development Center at Teachers College, Columbia University that was founded over 20 years ago. We are focused on the implementation of innovative instructional approaches, using technology as a catalyst to help teachers shift from traditional didactic teaching approaches -- where teachers are focused on “covering” information -- to inquiry-based pedagogies focused on helping students “uncover” the big ideas and key understandings related to specific standards. We have developed, studied, and refined an effective approach for helping urban teachers use technology as they make this shift. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported this research since 2012. 

CTSC has ongoing projects with multiple districts, such as New York City, that include collaborations with schools through our own NSF grants, support for select faculties at the request of principals, and a partnership with Magnet teams to support newly branded STEM schools.

Over the past several months, we have been deeply involved in efforts to transition schools to remote and blended learning approaches in light of the pandemic.   

We write this overview at a critical juncture for educators:  teachers need immediate and ongoing support to shift their practice for a changing educational reality. Based on our extensive work in schools, we wanted to share our ideas for moving forward both during and beyond the pandemic. We share these ideas from a strategic perspective, based on developments in the learning sciences, recent research on technology in education, our own research and a nuanced understanding of school change.

The visual below explains our developmental perspective regarding effective technology use and our concern about the Digital Opportunity Divide, where some teachers are using the technology to support best instructional practices, while others are using it to simply replicate digitally what they have done in face-to-face teaching. Teachers need to continue to build their design skills to avoid “digitizing the status quo” in remote and blended environments (Meier, 2015) .  

  • Access and Connectedness:  Digital tools and internet connectivity are essential, obviously, but not all digital tools are equal. Some tools are more aligned with inquiry learning and problem-solving than others.   
  • Technology Use and Fluency:  To work effectively with technology, teachers need to feel comfortable selecting and using the right digital tools based on best pedagogical practices.  
  • Innovative Design Practices for Inclusion, Creativity, and Rigor:  We also realize that although many teachers are skilled at adapting commercial lessons, a smaller number are skilled at integrating technology as a tool for collaboration, critical thinking, reflection, student knowledge-building and assessment.


1. Teachers need to acquire technology fluency in the context of design practices for their classroom.

Technology needs to be used purposefully, and teachers need to learn how to use technology to support the kind of learning that the Learning Sciences promote: active, authentic, culturally relevant opportunities for students to build their knowledge around appropriate standards and skills. Technology should be selected and used to support the teaching behaviors that we know promote deep learning:  building on students’ prior knowledge; helping students organize their learning in the context of larger conceptual maps; incorporating the learning in meaningful cultural and social contexts for students; and helping students learn to reflect on their own learning (Darling-Hammond, et al, 2020; Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D., 2020; Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine, 2018). 

2. Teachers need the skills to design remote and hybrid learning environments. The learning environments should reflect culturally-relevant teaching, interactivity between learners, and attention to individual student needs.  

Preparing teachers to use technology to design rigorous, inquiry-based lessons and projects provides them with the knowledge to organize learning opportunities around big questions that foster social learning while also addressing the standards and the specific, individual needs of students. The design process allows teachers to identify authentic and sustaining ways of introducing key concepts. Helping teachers organize lessons and units around key understandings and inquiry activities supports broader student engagement and encourages students to take a more active role in the learning process. 

By way of example, consider an interdisciplinary project focused on the idea of change, that we co-developed and implemented with teachers at MS267K in New York City this past spring. The remote learning experience required students to investigate changes in their Bedford Stuyvesant community in the face of long-standing systemic challenges around justice, equity, and racism. Using knowledge and skills in mathematics, social studies, science, and ELA, students adopted the roles of data scientists and policy makers to interpret historical patterns of impact in areas of wealth, employment and policing and then forecast future outcomes. Students then shared their ideas with their peers and advocated for change through multimedia platforms.


3. Assessment, especially formative assessment, is critical for remote learning. Effective use of technology can provide opportunities for teachers to “see” student thinking in new ways, even when working at a distance.

Understanding what students are learning -- or not -- is essential to the teaching and learning process. Technology can be used to replicate traditional classroom assessment approaches such as multiple-choice tests, but it can also provide opportunities to make student learning in new ways. Formative assessment should go beyond the traditional (and often superficial) “exit ticket” exercise. It can capture information about student thinking in ways that can inform and shape teacher understanding of student learning and direct the next steps for teachers. 

Teachers need support in choosing digital tools that capture student thinking. When used in the context of a thoughtful design process, brainstorming tools, organization tools, research tools and creative production tools can all reveal student progress and in turn provide mechanisms for reflection, creative voice, problem-solving, and differentiated perspective sharing.   

4. A systemic approach is needed for professional development that goes beyond perfunctory online “techniques.” This is the moment to build learning environments that are inquiry-driven, culturally sustaining, and accessible to all students.  

Professional development can model the ways in which we expect teachers to work and learn alongside their students. It should be hands-on and situated for the individual needs of participating educators and the community they serve. It should focus on designing learning opportunities as well as helping teachers become more fluent in the use of technology. 

Continued discussion is needed around strategies for designing and scaling up these types of professional development experiences. Since March 2020, we have successfully engaged hundreds of teachers to build new learning environments, develop their fluency and instructional practices, demonstrate interactive applications that support more student engagement, cultural relevancy, and more interactivity.  

Design skills for technology use are not unique to remote learning. Teachers need substantive preparation and support, adapted for their own particular needs and interests, to make the critical shifts needed for 21st century learning. Providing professional development now will help teachers continue the transition to face-to-face or blended inquiry-based learning beyond pandemic times. 

5. Administrators need to be prepared to support shifts in teaching. 

Administrators have an important role to play in guiding this work. Leaders need opportunities to understand the Digital Opportunity Divide and time to explore strategies for shifting teaching for deeper learning. We often invite administrators to participate in workshops and planning sessions alongside their peers as a way of developing shared meaning around innovation in today’s classroom. 

Committed and knowledgeable administrators are critical to making sustainable change. When principals, assistant principals, and instructional leaders understand the challenges and opportunities related to learning, they are better able to support their faculty’s innovative use of technology over time. Leaders need opportunities to reflect on the Digital Opportunity Divide with other administrators to identify and build on strategies for supporting teacher change.


6. Educational Technology Specialists are needed to support innovative approaches to instruction.

The New York State Department of Education created a new K-12 certification approximately ten years ago to support the integration of technology at the school level. Educational Technology Specialists are certified to work with teachers to introduce appropriate use of technology in the classroom, with an emphasis on the pedagogical shifts needed for the appropriate use of technology. They are also able to teach students, design and implement professional development sessions, and coach teachers in their developing use of technology. These knowledgeable technology specialists can become powerful educational change agents for teachers and administrators especially during this critical transition period to technology-infused teaching and learning environments. 


It is critical to prepare teachers now to ensure students’ academic success. Students need to be engaged, motivated to learn, and they need a sense of belonging within a community of learners. All of this can be designed into blended and remote learning.  

Our experience in working with teachers and administrators during the pandemic reveals that educators continue to struggle to transfer their classroom practices online. Teachers need preparation to “design for learning” online, for both synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Our research-based process helps teachers identify the key student understandings that will be the focus of the learning (tied, of course, to the standards), and then identify appropriate ways of assessing student progress. Following a backward design approach, teachers develop lessons or project activities that will build the understandings. All of this is done in the context of online professional development that showcases tools appropriate for different learning goals. In our experience we have found this approach to be successful, and our longer-term National Science Foundation research confirms the positive impact of the related work. We welcome more conversations, and look to collaborate with Districts and education leaders in supporting teachers and principals as they learn to adapt and excel at engaging students during this unprecedented time for education.



Ellen B. Meier
Director, Center for Technology and School Change
Professor of Computing and Educational Practice
ebm15@tc.columbia.edu | ctsc@tc.columbia.edu
ctsc.tc.columbia.edu | 212.678.3829



Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National academy press.

Darling-Hammond, L., Schachner, A., Edgerton, A. K., Badrinarayan, A., Cardichon, J., Cookson Jr, P. W., & Martinez, M. (2020). Restarting and Reinventing School: Learning in the Time of COVID and Beyond. Learning Policy Institute: Palo Alto, CA, USA. Available online: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Restart_Reinvent_Schools_COVID_Priority2_Distance_Learning.pdf

Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., & Osher, D. (2020). Implications for educational practice of the science of learning and development. Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97-140.

Meier, E. (2015). Beyond a digital status quo: re-conceptualizing online learning opportunities. Bank Street Occasional Paper Series 34. Retrieved from https://educate.bankstreet.edu/occasional-paper-series/vol2015/iss34/2/

Meier, E., (2020) Pedagogical challenges during COVID:  Opportunities for transformative shifts.  Chapter submitted for Transforming Teachers' Online Pedagogical Reasoning to be published by IGI international.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. National Academies Press.