Today’s guest blogger Yefei Jin discusses how education technology can help teachers collaborate and problem solve. He is the founder of LessonPick.com, a free English language teaching resource-sharing platform.
English language teachers (ELTs) in the United States often feel siloed, alone in looking for quality resources and buy-in from colleagues and school leaders. Exacerbated by immense caseloads, often exceeding 100 students, ELTs also feel the need to double up as curriculum developers and organizers of their own professional development. Although the rise of the Common Core did create common benchmarks for publishers, correlating instructional content aligned to English language standards and best practices remain a challenge in the United States. English language standards and protocols often get revised, and frankly, there are not enough trained educators on hand to differentiate materials, let alone find time to coach others.
Consider the state of Minnesota, where half of English learners (ELs) are refugees with limited or interrupted formal education—compared with 14% nationally. The unique needs of these ELs reinforce the need for greater awareness in the field, teacher professional learning, and systems-level buy-in. For innovators and entrepreneurs, sustainability depends on these political dynamics, the very challenges for which edtech has few solutions. While local teacher education programs and the state’s TESOL chapter seek to build a strong pipeline of teacher leaders, technology should play a greater role not simply in resource sharing but more fundamentally, in streamlining teacher access to one another’s expertise. Whether around facilitating conversations, feedback loops, or discussing action research, collective problem solving is critical to the ELT profession.
Putting school finance and good leadership aside for a moment, can we envision technology that inherently builds leadership capacity for ELTs and promotes collaboration? Some online technology is gaining momentum: Lesson-sharing websites like Teachers Pay Teachers have built communities around lead teachers, and Twitter has become the de facto platform for teacher chats. Why are tools like Teachers Pay Teachers, Twitter, Pinterest, or even SMART Boards so popular among teachers? Answer: They provide teachers with solutions where traditional learning materials do not suffice.
Still, educational technologies need to overcome the industry’s own biases. A product that is aesthetically appealing or hands-off should not be confused with being “teacher friendly.” Teachers Pay Teachers is not designed for organizing ELT materials at the specificity teachers need. Google Drive, as a storage platform, does not work well for curation. Individualized learning platforms that replace human interaction risk overlooking the necessity of face-to-face teaching for ELs. Given the national ELT shortage, schools are challenged to find time for teacher-learner interaction, let alone support and monitor the effective use of these learning tools. Instead of hacking products geared toward general education, can we imagine a new generation of EL specific tools that carry the social aspects of Twitter or Pinterest to help teachers learn and solve problems? Request Feed, LessonPick’s upcoming group messaging and idea-sharing platform for ELTs, is one such tool that can make a difference in organizing the process of access to resources and professional learning.
As English language instruction in the United States increasingly demands the collaboration of all educators and their continuous professional learning, the ELT profession will undoubtedly look to redefine norms and establish a stronger sense of legitimacy in a historically underserved field. To support these efforts, we need more field-specific, research-informed, and teacher-centered tools. Technology certainly has great potential if we really listen and understand the daily struggles and triumphs of teachers in the classroom.
Yefei Jin’s Bio
Yefei Jin is the English learner (EL) product manager at Nearpod, the award-winning platform for teachers to engage students in virtual reality, digital learning, and interactive activities. Previously, he founded LessonPick, the nation’s first free EL resource-sharing platform. He has significant experience serving refugee ELs in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2013, he created the T2C Project, an after-school arts-based program for teenage girls from Myanmar. Yefei also serves as the assistant director of Camp Hokulea, a mission-driven cultural summer camp that seeks to promote the well-being of Asian children. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with his TESOL certification and his master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University.