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Faculty Spotlight: David Dockterman

By Jill Anderson on October 2, 2017 2:15 PM
How a self-confessed skeptic of technology became a pioneer in the development and implementation of technology for classroom instruction.

David DocktermanOne could argue that, over his 30-year career, Lecturer David Dockterman, Ed.D.'88, has helped launch and shape the field of education technology — particularly how to use computers in the classroom in interactive and engaging ways for teachers and students. So, it may come as a surprise that Dockterman sees his foray into edtech as “happenstance.” Even more surprising: it was the introduction of computers at the high school where he taught history that led him away from classroom teaching.

“This guy came in with RadioShack computers showing us this ‘cutting edge’ software. This game States and Capitals where it shows the outline of a state and if you can’t name the capital before the timer runs out, New Jersey blows up,” Dockterman recalls, noting that he had already been feeling stifled in his $10,000-a-year position. “That the school wanted to make this investment in technology while I was getting paid so little seemed crazy to me. So I [developed] a lot of skepticism to technology.”

But, as Dockterman discovered when he enrolled in the Ed School’s doctoral program — admittedly unsure of how he was going to make greater impact in education — he was not against technology in education after all, and he began investigating the question, how can educators leverage technology in teaching?

Soon after he arrived in Cambridge in 1982, Dockterman was on his way to finding an answer when he crossed paths with fellow teacher Tom Snyder who seemed to him to be on the right track. “I went to watch him teach and it was so different,” Dockterman recalls. “The computer sat in the back of the room and was designed to help manage things, but also to engage students in working with each other. It wasn’t isolating.”

Dockterman was inspired. While continuing on in academia where he could explore theory and research to guide invention, he also began to create. He joined Snyder in launching an educational software company, dubbed Tom Snyder Productions, which grew into a leading developer of K–12 interactive educational software, and was later acquired first by educational publisher Scholastic Corp. and then by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“It was the beginning of the industry,” Dockterman says, noting that their focus was less on the technology itself and more on pedagogy, particularly how you could use computers to spark human interaction in the classroom. With most schools at the time limited to only one computer in each classroom, it was important that the pedagogy extend beyond the computers themselves and incorporate discussions and the use of additional materials. Dockterman shared the methods he developed in books geared toward educators, including Teaching in the One Computer Classroom and Easy Ways to Make Technology Work for You.

For the next 25 years, Dockterman tested and created dozens of educational programs, among them the award-winning Science Court, an animated television show that aired on ABC Kids that taught the fundamental concepts of elementary and middle school science; the Great Ocean Rescue, a computer application where students face four challenging rescue missions that take them deep into the world's oceans; and Decisions, Decisions, a game that teaches students the complexities of topics like immigration, the constitution, environment, or building a nation through role-playing and informed discussion.

While developing landmark educational software, Dockterman continued working in academia, debuting in 1991 the HGSE course Projects in Educational Technology. He still teaches an iteration of that course today, now called Innovation by Design, along with a newer course, Adaptive Learning: Investigations and Exercises. Dockterman — often called “Dock” by his colleagues — added the latter to his teaching load at HGSE when he left his fulltime position in educational publishing. Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) Program, is pleased that Dockterman’s course was added to the TIE curriculum as it asks, he says, important questions such as “What does the term [adaptive learning] mean to school leaders, teachers, artificial intelligence researchers, and students? How realistically can technology support teachers’ efforts and students’ desires for personalized learning?” Adds Blatt, “It’s terrific to have more of Dock’s time as an adviser for students and more of his creative thinking as a contributor to TIE’s middle name — innovation.”

Of course, a lot has changed over the years as innovation has become a buzzword and technology has grown vastly more advanced. Dockterman also sees the changes in the skill-level of his students who now come his class already marginally advanced, as well. Today, he finds himself, like many of us, often catching up on the inventions and latest software developments. But despite technological advances, Dockterman insists he’s remained a skeptic at heart.

“People become enamored with technology,” he says. “Cool doesn’t mean good or effective…. You have to keep looking beyond what it looks like the technology does and focus on what it makes happen. It’s what happens away from the technology — not the bells and whistles of the machine.”

Ultimately, that is part of the struggle for innovators, he says, creating something that is effective and having a willingness to fail. “The last thing I say to my students at the start of the year is to be ready to learn, to create, to fail, to recreate, and learn some more,” he says. “You can’t innovate without failing.”

Former student Chris Spence, Ed.M.’08, who has worked as a teaching fellow for Dockterman for 10 years, calls learning how to fail one of the most important skills he learned while at HGSE. “One of the key concepts that ties [Dockterman’s] course together is the value of failure: how we do it, how we learn from it, and how to apply those learnings to whatever we're working on,” Spence says.

Dockterman’s varied career has fueled his own love of learning — constantly allowing him to evolve. In fact, while advising on the development of intervention programs MATH 180 and READ 180, his interests shifted toward studying student motivation and growth mindset. The latter has been the focus of Dockterman’s more recent work where he consults with districts on how to help engage and sustain the perseverance of teachers, students, and administrators.

However, it is his deep background in education technology that was pivotal to his selection as one of 11 judges for the Global Learning XPRIZE — a prestigious, multiyear competition with $15 million awarded to the team that creates the best software that teaches children in developing countries to read, write, and do basic math. His vast experience shepherding ideas and innovations — both those of his students and himself — from design phase to reality is at the forefront once again. The XPRIZE recently announced its finalists, and in the coming 15 months, Dockterman is eager to see how each team will adapt as they test their product in rural and coastal villages in Africa where children have little to no access to formal school and staggering rates of illiteracy. Even with decades of testing and evaluating products behind him, Dockterman still brings the same enthusiasm and passion to the table.

“No one had come close to solving this issue for these kids,” he says. “This is a prize in an area where we don’t want to just have a winner but want to have impact. We are going to learn something from this and everything the finalists create is open source. So, what we learn from this is really for the world.”

Read more from David Dockterman: Turning High Expectations into Success.