Technology can be a powerful educational aid. However, endowing a classroom of students with new Apple iPads or Microsoft Surfaces won’t automatically make them better learners, or even more receptive to learning.
“It’s the effective implementation and use of technology, combined with teacher training, that can make a difference in students’ lives and how they learn,” said Dr. Brett Shelton, head of Boise State’s Department of Educational Technology. “But if one of those pieces is missing — if, for example, teachers are not provided enough training or institutional support — technology won’t fix problems in the classroom.”
In other words, when placed in untrained hands, technology is just an expensive paperweight. Fortunately, for more than a decade, Boise State’s EdTech department has offered graduate programs for teachers and other education professionals geared toward meeting this increasingly urgent need to support traditional teaching methods with emerging new technologies.
“We’re a jack of all trades: we help biology, mathematics, science and theater arts teachers implement and better use technology in their classrooms to help students learn,” Shelton said.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a national push to equip educators with emerging technology training, as students will need these advanced skills to succeed in our increasingly technologically based society. Boise State was an early adopter of this movement.
The university formally launched its EdTech program in 1997. Since then, hundreds of similar online educational technology degree programs have launched at public and private universities across the country. Yet Boise State’s programs remain among the largest in the country, with 400-500 students actively enrolled. In addition, its programs are nationally ranked in the top 20 percent of graduate programs in education, according to the 2017 U.S. News & World Report.
“Our motto is, come find out why we’re the biggest,” Shelton said. “It’s because of the level of instruction and support we provide, but we tell people, ‘come see for yourself.’”
Dr. Dave Mulder, an assistant professor of education at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, applied to Boise State’s EdTech Ed.D. program in 2012 after hearing glowing reviews from other colleagues in his field.
“I looked at half a dozen different programs at different institutions, and felt strongly drawn to Boise State,” he said. “Everyone I talked to who was familiar with Boise State spoke so highly of the faculty in the Department of Educational Technology, I felt confident that it was an up-and-coming program. This has absolutely proven to be the case!”
The department currently offers a doctoral degree and two master’s degrees – a doctor of education (Ed.D.) in educational technology, education specialist (Ed.S.) in educational technology and a master of educational technology (MET). The program also offers graduate certificates in technology integration, online teaching and school technology coordination, and educational games and simulations.
All of the EdTech program courses are completely online, with no in-person campus visits required. Courses are interactive and practitioner-based, meaning that Boise State instructors expect their graduate students to begin integrating new technologies into their respective schools and classrooms as they learn it. To support the program’s remote learners, academic advisors are available online daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mountain Time.
“It’s that kind of integration and support that makes us so popular with our students,” Shelton said. “We don’t rely on gimmicks. We have a relatively low tuition cost for our students and our own graduates are our best endorsements for our program.”
Shelton also credits the program’s success to Boise State faculty who continually research and test new ways of keeping students engaged in online learning formats, and students who come to their virtual classes eager to learn.
“The way you structure an online class is so different from a face-to-face class; it requires engagement in order to succeed,” he said. “You don’t see extensive lectures in our online classes. That’s what bores people.”
“The coursework has been rigorous and demanding – online does not mean ‘easy!’” added Mulder. “But that is exactly what I would expect from an excellent doctoral program. The faculty have been incredibly supportive, challenging and encouraging … the program has stretched me, for sure, but I have developed as a thinker, a learner, a researcher and a teacher as a result of my studies, and I am grateful for all of it.”
Classes are built around skill-building group activities and lab projects, which are reinforced with immediate feedback from instructors. For instance, some of these activities include “quests” that students can complete to learn new online tools – ranging from simple tasks, such as how to use Google Docs, to more complex quests, such as mastering and then using new presentation technologies.
“The quests can be skill- and software-based or they can be more pedagogy-based, such as how to teach new concepts online in a K-12 setting,” Shelton said. “We also push our students to consider questions like, ‘What does it mean to learn? Does it mean you do better on a test or does it mean you’re able to understand a certain situation and apply it effectively in a new way?’”
Shelton explained that this learning format mimics medical field training in many ways, as it has proven to be a successful learning pathway. In this format, instead of passively reading materials or attending lectures, students are presented with a problem, conduct research, compile possible solutions, implement a solution, check its success in addressing the problem and then redesign the solution if necessary.
“We’re implementing this method to teach coding and that’s something that hasn’t really been done before,” Shelton said. “But we’re not afraid to try those things to figure out what works and what could work better.”
Along with teaching, the EdTech program plays an equally vital role in research and development.
“One of our biggest challenges is staying abreast of emerging technologies, to test and evaluate their effectiveness,” Shelton said, “additionally we research in what ways and under what circumstances students learn.”
This involves testing the effectiveness of new technologies such as mobile devices, learning applications and internet-based programs before they hit the market and providing designers with feedback. The department supports this important work with grants from the National Science Foundation, among others.
“I have come to realize that while the allure of a new technology might temporarily increase motivation for students, novelty is not always a benefit for learning. Teaching with technology is nothing new; a pencil is an educational technology! But mindfully selecting the best technology to support teaching and learning is essentially important.”
The department’s willingness to boldly explore new teaching formats and test new technologies – in essence, it’s willingness to fail – has instead lead to great success. The department graduated its first class of doctoral students in fall 2016.
“We have the largest number of doctoral students enrolled of any program at Boise State,” Shelton said.
But Shelton is determined to ensure the growth doesn’t end there. While the department has achieved national success, administrators are working on further cultivating its growth here in Idaho.
Almost 20 years ago the department launched its first program with one full-time staff member. Now it employs 13 tenure-track and clinical professors as well as a variety of adjunct professors and lecturers.
Currently, only 20 percent of EdTech students are based in Idaho. In order to increase those numbers, the department created a $1,000 Idaho teacher scholarship for teachers at any level who have earned their undergraduate degree at an Idaho institution or are currently employed as a K-12 or higher education teacher in the state. The department also has partnered with the Boise State Alumni Association to offer a 15 percent discount to all Boise State alumni.
Shelton said that part of the responsibility of being an outstanding Idaho program is ensuring that all Idaho teachers have the chance to be outstanding as well. He believes that the EdTech programs offered at Boise State can help with that.
“Twenty years ago the idea of letting people earn degrees online without stepping foot inside a classroom was ridiculous,” Shelton said. “No one could have predicted it. But you can’t predict what success will look like and we’re fortunate that the faculty and staff at Boise State embraces change and are willing to try new things in education. We’re rare in that outlook, but it’s an outlook we’d like to make as famous as the Blue Turf.”