Q&A: Looking to the Future of Classroom Tech with Tom Murray

Some educators are called to the classroom, but others are called to take on leadership roles on the national stage.

Through his work as the state and district digital learning director for the policy and advocacy organization Alliance for Excellent Education, Tom Murray has testified before national legislators on educational technology issues. He also helps lead educational online awareness programs, such as Digital Learning Day and Future Ready.

Murray’s self-titled blog on the latest news in technology and education was recently named one of EdTech’s 2015 “50 Must-Read K–12 IT Blogs”.

We caught up with Murray for a brief exchange about his role in the industry and where he thinks it’s headed in the near future.

Thomas C. Murray
Photo: Tom Murray

“Getting our schools connected to broadband is no longer an option — it’s a necessity,” says Thomas C. Murray, state and district digital learning director for the Alliance for Excellent Education.

EDTECH: How did you get started in this industry, and what’s kept you in it?

MURRAY:  From a young age, I’ve always had a heart for children, particularly those that are less fortunate. Starting my college years as pre-med, I quickly decided that I wanted to work with children on a more regular basis — not just a few times a year or when they weren’t feeling well. As it relates to technology, 15 years ago, as a first-year teacher, my mentor modeled for me how when technology is used with a clear purpose, students are engaged, and with structurally sound pedagogy, great things happen!

Although the classroom technology of 15 years ago was in its infancy compared to today’s standards, I learned an incredible amount and was excited about the possibilities of access and connectivity — two things that, years later, remain on the front burner of my passion for student learning. After 14 years as a public-school teacher, principal and tech director, I moved to the Alliance for Excellent Education, in Washington, D.C., to serve our nation’s children as the state and district digital learning director.

Currently, what keeps me doing this line of work is the opportunity to work with school leaders nationwide and support them in the digital transition as they redesign teaching and learning in their schools to better serve the needs of our children.

EDTECH: You’ve traveled a lot this past year to different school districts and visited with district leaders. What’s one technology you think has outgrown its usefulness, and one that deserves more attention?

MURRAY:  It’s vital to understand that prior to talking about any technology tool, high-quality pedagogy is the most essentially instructional component in the classroom. Simple tools can be used to push higher-order thinking; and newer, more complex technologies can be used for low-level ineffective technology use. In essence, it’s not as much about the technology itself as how it is being used to empower students and thus transform instruction.

Outgrown: Interactive Whiteboards

A number of years ago, the latest trend was to have interactive whiteboards in all classrooms. In today’s highly mobile, interactive learning environment, simply having one (or now a small handful of individuals) interacting at a time, especially up front as others watch, has minimal, if any, instructional benefit. With today’s mobile technology and cross-platform programs like Nearpod and ClassFlow making the technology device agnostic and interactive for all, the large, bulky, expensive boards are generally obsolete.

Deserves More Attention: Adaptive Technologies

Programs that have the ability to level themselves up or down, in various content or standard-aligned areas, which produce real-time instructional data, provide teachers with a dynamic assortment of opportunities for true differentiation. Students at the higher end instructionally receive content and depths of knowledge appropriate for their levels, and those students that need additional support can progress when they are ready. Although the teacher should absolutely be the decision-maker, this type of technology, when blended with high-quality instruction from the teacher, can create a more well-rounded, personalized approach to teaching and learning for all kids.

EDTECH: Do you think ConnectED’s 2018 goal is realistic, given the current state of broadband access in public schools? What’s one tip you’d offer to districts that are struggling to meet their goals?

MURRAY:  Getting our schools connected to broadband is no longer an option — it’s a necessity. If hikers can access high-speed Internet on the top of Mount Everest, we can get it in every one of our nation’s classrooms. We as adults expect it at Starbucks with our coffee, so how can we not expect it when supporting the future of our nation?

For far too long, getting online in many schools was like trying to suck peanut butter out of a straw. With a major overhaul and additional funding to the nation’s E-Rate program over the past year, additional funding will support such connectivity. For districts struggling in this area, research the connectivity stories coming out of Kent School District, in Washington; Coachella Valley, in California; Spartanburg 7, in South Carolina; and Sunnyside, in Arizona, as these districts are models of overcoming the connectivity gap and the digital divide.

EDTECH: The past five years have seen classrooms evolve with some tremendous technological innovations. Do you foresee a similarly turbulent future in terms of technological progress?

MURRAY: Absolutely! Take a look at what’s going on with 3D printing, augmented reality, holograms, etc. With such advanced and far more venture capital money flowing into ed tech than ever before, I believe we are just at the beginning stages of transforming the system and experience for students as a whole. I believe in 10 years, the vast majority of schools will look significantly different than they do today.

EDTECH: For education bloggers starting out, what’s one writing tip you’d offer that you’ve seen readers respond to the most?

MURRAY: Share your story. People relate to the human side of a writer. My most-read posts are those where I share my failures, fears as a parent, my journey and learning to have a growth mindset. The blogs about a particular app or product are a dime a dozen, but only you can share the incredible story you have with kids — and your story is incredible. So, do it! Together, we are better for the kids we serve.