COE professor training next generation of tech-savvy teachers

Teachers and parents can sometimes be skeptical about using portable technology like iPads as an educational tool. Are children really learning, or just playing? Will it encourage kids to play video games non-stop? 

Lauren Eutsler is working to change that negative perception.

Eutsler, an assistant professor in the UNT College of Education and a former elementary teacher, wants to prepare pre-service teachers to use technology in a way that improves school performance and builds on what today’s tech-savvy kids already use at home.

“When I was teaching, my mantra was always, ‘If you want to be a better reader, be a reader.’ Students won’t improve unless they’re engaged and involved,” Eutsler said. “Technology is a fantastic way to motivate them to read, but teachers have to think about it and plan – it has to align with standards, and you have to be knowledgeable about which apps are most appropriate for each lesson.”

Research as a Student

In her research, Eutsler doesn’t just observe the use of technology in the classroom – she looks at the cognitive side of why we adapt technology, when does it make sense to use it, and why is it useful. This focus took shape during her doctoral education at the University of Florida, when she worked with two Florida elementary schools to understand parents’ intentions to adopt portable technology to help their children learn to read at home. While collecting this dissertation research, a first-grade teacher reached out to her department for help integrating 1:1 iPads into her classroom.

Over the course of two years, Eutsler and the teacher developed a collaborative relationship that allowed them to observe what didn’t work – and what did.

“At first the teacher wanted to control how the kids used the technology, and that just didn’t work well,” Eutsler said. “Once she let go, the students thrived, and the things they were able to create were amazing. We had first-graders learning how to code, developing their literacy skills through coding.

“I learned a lot about how teachers are challenged in using technology, but also how it can be a productive and beneficial tool to elevate kids’ learning.”

In the UNT Classroom

Since joining the UNT faculty last year, Eutsler has embarked on a project with her Reading and Writing Birth-Grade 6 (EDRE 4450) class to get her students prepared for careers as tech-savvy educators. Eutsler acquired 10 iPads through Willis Library and — using experience gleaned from parent surveys revealing technology adoption intentions and children’s use, practices of current teachers, and her own experience in the classroom — is training her students to explore how specific apps can be authentic tools to develop children’s literacy skills.

The UNT students attend hands-on iPad workshops throughout the semester, where they focus on specific reading skills and find apps that help them create lesson plans and develop assignments. Most are surprised to find that using technology in the classroom is easier than they expected, Eutsler said.

“Of my students, 67 percent have an iPad, 87 percent have an iPhone, but none of them had used them as an educational technology tool. And that’s why I’m doing this,” she said. “You get into the classroom, and you have teachers who have access to these things but they don’t know how to use them as educational tools.

“We need to be teaching our teachers how technology can bolster their teaching, specifically how to make the device work to their advantage. We’re selling them short if we don’t give them those hands-on tech experiences.”

What’s Next?

In the future, Eutsler wants to explore using Twitter to help pre-service and practicing teachers, parents and kids stay connected, but she also wants to work on getting more researchers like herself into classrooms to work one on one with teachers.

“That can be difficult,” Eutsler said, “because school districts don’t always have a clear pathway to collaborating with outside organizations. But partnerships between teachers and researchers could yield results benefiting the teachers and their students.

“A lot of teachers say they don’t have time. Time is the biggest constraint. That’s where higher education researchers can help,” she said. “We can work alongside teachers and see what their challenges are and how we can use technology to leverage deeper learning.”

Right now, Eutsler plans to continue training pre-service teachers who are knowledgeable, competent and ready to promote tech in the classroom.

“Sometimes parents get scared because they think kids are just playing games. They’re not — they’re learning,” she said. “Print books are not going away. This is just another method to delve more deeply into the text and motivate students to develop their literacy skills.”