On Empathy, Culture, and Barriers to Making Technology Integral to Teaching

When Alan November taught his ISTE audience about empathy, making a strong case for its placement at the top of the list of critical 21st Century skills, he helped me understand why it's still still difficult to persuade so many in education that the global, technologically-driven approach to learning really can be the better way. At this moment in time, I'm no longer convinced that it’s the technology alone that so many fear. Sure, technology can be intimidating in and of itself; but quite often, I think that it's what people might find on the other side of that technology that likely seems so scary. When technology means communication and collaboration with others outside of our comfortable sphere, then barriers of security quite naturally arise.

Nevertheless, these aren't new fears, far from it. In fact, these are the same feelings of fright and apprehension we've been fighting as a planet for millennia.

With the push in recent decades toward an increased use of technology in education, scholars have been busy researching and documenting its successes and failures, as well as the factors inhibiting technology’s use as a pedagogical tool. Peggy A. Ertmer, for example, has done substantial work in this area. Following Brickner’s (1995) lead, Ertmer has described barriers to technology integration in schools as being either first- or second-order. This is important.

Thus, first-order barriers to technology integration are described as being extrinsic to teachers and include lack of access to computers and software, insufficient time to plan instruction, and inadequate technical and administrative support. In contrast, second-order barriers are intrinsic to teachers and include beliefs about teaching, beliefs about computers, established classroom practices, and unwillingness to change. While many first-order barriers may be eliminated by securing additional resources and providing computer-skills training, confronting second-order barriers requires challenging one's belief systems and the institutionalized routines of one's practice. Thus, in terms of technology integration, this may require reformulating basic school culture notions regarding what constitutes content and content coverage, what comprises learning and engaged time, and even, what behaviors define “teaching”. (Ertmer, 1999, p. 48; see also Ertmer, 2005)

At this point in the evolution of our field, I think there are many teachers for which technology has become integral to nearly every aspect of their job. However, for those still striving to integrate – or worse, for those still hesitant resistant to integrate – I think that an additional second-order barrier lies in the cultural differences that exist between teachers on opposite ends of any collaboration that might take place.

"What will I find on the other side? What if they're different? Can they be trusted? I think I'm scared. Why should I care?"

Furthermore, until collaboration is a behavior naturally included in every educator’s definition of teaching, then many of the contemporary promotions of technology in education will continue to be little more than spit in the wind.

To illustrate, take Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay as perfect examples. I remember reading about their first Flat Classroom Project together back in 2006. In that and subsequent Flat Classroom Projects, students from different countries and backgrounds work together to research, discuss, and envision the education and society of the future, basing hypotheses on trends outlined in each year’s Horizon Report (click here to see K12 edition of the report for this year). Because the students and teachers that participate in these projects come from different countries – Bangladesh, Australia, Austria, China, and the United States in 2006 – strong cultural differences become evident as they learn to collaborate and work together to create successful products. As a result, these projects can be exhilarating, to be sure; nevertheless, they can also be challenging as the meshing of cultures is rarely easily accomplished.

In surveying the sessions that were offered at this year’s ISTE conference, it becomes clear that collaboration and global participation has been a common theme. Every ISTE keynote focused on the importance of global collaboration and working together as equal partners to solve the problems that plague our world. As teachers from the East collaborate with students from the West, each brings to the table the sum of their life experiences – culminating in an exciting cornucopia of religious, ethnic, and lifestyle differences.

My experiences at ISTE this year taught me that technology now serves as a critical thread that ties many of us together in learning. That, to me, is exciting, fascinating, and scary: all at the same time. I’m happy to see so many embrace the diversity that can and will exist in our field – and hopeful that others more apprehensive will learn to overcome their fears in realization that the global, technologically-driven approach to learning really can be the better way.


Original image source: Flickr user bench_30.

  • Brickner, D. (1995). The effects of first and second order barriers to change on the degree and nature of computer usage of secondary mathematics teachers: A case study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
  • Ertmer, P. (1999). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.
  • Ertmer, P. (2005). Teacher pedagogical beliefs: the final frontier in our quest for technology integration. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(4), 25-39.

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