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What Is TPACK Theory and How Can It Be Used in the Classroom?

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We discuss a lot of ways to use technology in the classroom. Just recently, we’ve had articles about 10 Science Apps to Use in the Classroom10 Geography Apps, and Adaptive Learning Compared to Traditional Homework Products. As teachers, we feel a push to incorporate technology into our classrooms because of the new outcomes that demand it.

The TPACK model gives us a new framework for the integration of technology in education and how we can structure our classrooms to provide the best educational experience for students while incorporating technology.


What is the TPACK Framework?

TPACK stands for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. It is a theory that was developed to explain the set of knowledge that teachers need to teach their students a subject, teach effectively, and use technology. We’ll get into more details in just a minute, but let’s look at where this started.


How the Concept Came About

The seminal piece on the TPACK model was written in 2006 by Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler in “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge.” They explain that their theory comes after five years of studying teachers at all different grade levels with design experiments to see how their classrooms operated.

They based their initial idea on Lee S. Shulman’s 1986 work “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching.” First, Shulman discusses the usual idea of knowledge in teaching which is that teachers have a set of content knowledge – specific knowledge about the subject they are teaching – and a set of pedagogical knowledge – knowledge about how to teach including specific teaching methods. Shulman counters this and says that effective teachers overlap these two knowledge sets, making a set of knowledge about how to effectively teach their subject matter. He calls this pedagogical content knowledge or PCK.

Twenty years later, Mishra and Koehler saw that the biggest change happening in education is the use of technology in the classroom. They noticed that technological knowledge was treated as a set of knowledge outside of and unconnected to PCK.

After five years of research, Mishra and Koehler created a new framework, TPACK, which adds technology to pedagogical content knowledge and emphasizes the connections, interactions, and constraints that teachers work with in all three of these knowledge areas.


The Evolution of the TPACK Model

TPACK gives us three knowledge areas to consider: Technology, Pedagogy, and Content Knowledge. Arranging these three categories into a Venn diagram helps us to see the four areas that are created in Mishra and Koehler’s framework.

First we have Shulman’s overlap: Pedagogical Content Knowledge. This overlap reminds us that, as teachers, we design lessons based on how students can best learn our specific course material. Another researcher, Rick Marks, said in 1990 that PCK “represents a class of knowledge that is central to teachers’ work and that would not typically be held by non-teaching subject matter experts or by teachers who know little of that subject.” As teachers, we know PCK is required to simplify a subject and teach it effectively.

The second overlap area created is Technological Content Knowledge. TCK is how the technology influences the content. For an example, teachers used to teach penmanship and cursive to their students. But many school districts have eliminated cursive handwriting from the curriculum. Without entering into the debate on the merits of cursive, it is clear that technology has impacted the content knowledge that we teach students.

The third overlap area created by our Venn diagram is Technological Pedagogical Knowledge. TPK highlights the area where technology and pedagogy influence each other. Incorporating technology into the classroom often causes a change in how the material is taught. A simple example might be when a teacher uses an instructional video clip for a topic that they used to model on the board.

Finally, in the center of our Venn diagram, we get Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. This area acknowledges that all three of these sets of knowledge are influencing each other, that each is important, and that to have an effective learning environment, we need to consider all three. Mishra and Koehler paraphrase Marks’ comment about PCK to apply the idea to TPACK, “TPACK represents a class of knowledge that is central to teachers’ work with technology. This knowledge would not typically be held by technologically proficient subject matter experts, or by technologists who know little of the subject or of pedagogy, or by teachers who know little of that subject or about technology.”

In addition to these new knowledge overlap areas, Mishra and Koehler are quick to point out that all of this knowledge lies in specific contexts. You as the teacher form part of the context, while your students and the environment also contribute to the context. With each situation, the context changes slightly and your set of knowledge shifts with it to create the learning environment.


How Does It Impact Teaching and Learning with Technology?

Currently, technology is treated as if it is separate from teaching and learning. We have Professional Development workshops where we are instructed in the use of some particular software or app, and how to fit it into our classroom is not discussed. Mishra and Koehler point to this as a current negative impact. They claim that the lack of awareness of TPACK keeps technology separated and leads to four problems with using technology in the classroom.

First, there are such rapid changes in technology that it is extremely difficult to keep up with all the latest advancements and apps. The second problem is that software is designed for business, not for education. This often means that students are learning how to use the program and not learning the content of the class. The third problem with keeping technology separate is the situational nature of the classroom. A teacher can adjust a lesson to make sure it meets the needs of the specific group of students, but the instructional video cannot. It’s the same video every time it is played. Finally Mishra and Koehler say that keeping technology separate places an emphasis on “what” not “how.” From the teacher’s perspective the lesson becomes about what technology are we going to use today, what does it say, what skills does it require, instead of how can I teach my students.


How Can TPACK Be Used in the Classroom?

Keeping technology as a separate knowledge set causes problems, but when we understand the framework of TPACK, we can integrate technology into the content and pedagogy of our classrooms. The integration will help our students learn more effectively. Mishra and Koehler suggest that TPACK should guide curriculum development and teacher education.

To apply TPACK to our classrooms now, Judith B. Harris and Mark J. Hofer worked with colleagues from universities around the United States to create Activity Types. Their article, “‘Grounded’ Technology Integration: Instructional Planning Using Curriculum-Based Activity Type Taxonomies,” explains how TPACK should change the way we plan our daily lessons. They describe a planning process where we first choose the learning outcomes that we will be working on that day or during that class session. The learning outcomes are the content. The second step they propose is choosing an activity type. The activity type is the pedagogy or how are the students going to learn the content. Finally, we can choose technologies that will support the activity type and aid the students in learning.

Harris, Hofer, and their colleagues show us with example after example of how our instructional planning should include each part of the TPACK framework and allow us to create and develop the overlapping knowledge to make the best learning environment for our students.

The simplest idea at play in TPACK is that a person who is a world-renowned expert in a subject might not be a great teacher because they lack the pedagogical knowledge to make the subject accessible and understandable. To be a great teacher, we have to combine our knowledge of the subject with our knowledge of how to teach. With the increasing focus on technology, we need to also learn how to combine technology with our content and pedagogy to create an effective learning environment.

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  Course Design, Ed-Tech, Higher Education, Pre-K to 12
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