Exploring the Vast Possibilities of Educational Technologies

Breaking barriers with technology

Exploring the Vast Possibilities of Educational Technologies

Torrey Trust has quickly established herself as an important scholar of educational technologies and their potential for inspiring teachers and revolutionizing learning.

Assistant Professor Torrey Trust in her office

If you scan her CV, you might assume Assistant Professor Torrey Trust is a seasoned academic, given the long list of publications, presentation, projects, awards, and leadership positions she’s held. Yet Trust has only been in the field for a short time, having earned her masters in educational technology in 2010 and her doctorate in education in 2014. Trust’s quick success in the academy comes from her assiduous approach to her work, but even more so, it is her passion for finding strategies and tools for educators and then making sure they are shared to as wide an audience as possible. Trust is also proactive in seeking out and embracing opportunities for collaboration and mentorship—not surprising for a scholar who researches the value and effects of professional learning networks—and this has significantly enhanced her career. Finally, as one might expect of a student of innovative technologies, Trust rarely hesitates to take a leap into something new.

I think I just grew up with that ingrained understanding of the value of education.

Torrey Trust

Having been raised by parents who where teachers, it was likely that Trust would pursue a career in education. “I think I just grew up with that ingrained understanding of the value of education,” she observes. Initially, Trust worked in student affairs and was planning to get a masters in the area, when she switched gears and entered a master’s program in educational technology. It was the right move—she loved the program and because it was was entirely online, it gave her the opportunity to work with classmates around the world.

Torrey Trust - UMass Amherst College of Education

Trust’s plans took a sharp turn in 2010. She was deeply affected by race riots and protests at UC San Diego, especially the way they highlighted the extent to which people of color and people from low-income communities were at a significant disadvantage in getting into college. In response, she decided that if she wanted to play a role in making higher education more accessible, it was better for her to start in K-12, and she took a job in an elementary school in Washington, D.C. 

The experience was eye-opening. The school was one of the lowest performing elementary schools in the country, in an impoverished area, only a handful of miles from extremely wealthy schools in the Virginia suburbs. The school had been taken over by an outside company, and had an entirely new staff of teachers who often did not have the skills and training to support a population of students acting out and engaging in troubling behaviors.

Trust was an instructional aid for a student with autism. She began bringing her laptop and iPod Touch loaded with educational apps to school, in an effort to engage him. She discovered that not only did the apps engage her student, but a group of other kids nearby were drawn to them as well. “All of a sudden, everyone in the library just gathers around and starts watching, and then they start helping him—they were like ‘oh, did you think of this, or, oh, try this’—and they’re cheering him on.” It was, as Trust calls it, a “light bulb moment,” showing her the potential that technology has for capturing students’ attention in a productive way.

Even though her school had technology like interactive whiteboards and laptop carts, Trust saw that they were rarely used in ways other than to distract students. It occurred to her that the teachers simply didn’t have the time or resources to learn how to use the tools to really engage students. Drawing on what she learned in a graduate course in building professional learning networks, she turned to her online professional communities—on Twitter and blogs—and began curating technology tools and information for her colleagues. 

“I was in these online spaces and seeing teachers doing incredible things and sharing technology,” Trust recalls. “And then I go in to my classroom setting and see the frustration of teachers who are so stuck without professional development or support or knowledge of how to use the technology.” Trust built a collection over 2000 online tools based on grade level and standard on a website that was eventually shared to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

I was in these online spaces and seeing teachers doing incredible things and sharing technology. And then I go in to my classroom setting and see the frustration of teachers who are so stuck without professional development or support or knowledge of how to use the technology.

Torrey Trust

This experience propelled Trust back to graduate school for a doctorate in education to better understand how teachers can support each other and solve problems with technology. After finishing her doctorate, she took a faculty position at UMass Amherst, in part because the job was an ideal match for her background and interests and in part for the research collaborations among the faculty and the program’s flexibility. 

In her current research, Trust focuses on a few different strands. The first is a continuation of the work of her doctoral program—understanding how teachers’ engagement in online spaces and digitally enhanced professional learning networks impacts their teaching and learning. “It’s just a whole different world online, of teachers who are sharing incredible ideas, success stories, things that didn’t work, supports, and offering advice and feedback,” she explains. “What I’m finding from my research is that teachers who are connected digitally are finding these spaces with other educators, who are sharing ideas and challenging them in their thinking. They say they’re rejuvenated in their practice, and they’re excited about teaching and learning again.”

Assistant Professor Torrey Trust teaching a class

Trust’s research has also shown that it’s not—as one might assume—younger teachers that are drawing on these networks. In a survey of 1400 educators engaging in professional learning networks on social media, she found that they are veteran teachers, with an average of 14 years in the field.  

Early in her career, Trust teamed with two other researchers, Daniel Krutka, of the University of North Texas, and Jeffrey Carpenter at Elon University. She had seen them speak at a conference and then connected with them via Twitter. They’ve proved to be essential mentors. “After working with them for two years, I basically rewrote each of my dissertation articles and they all got published,” she notes. She also credits Krutka and Carpenter with helping her advance so swiftly in the field, as co-authoring papers with them got her work into top tier journals and shared with their enormous social media networks.

Another strand of her research has Trust exploring how emerging technologies, like 3D printers, and makerspace activities can foster and enhance learning. For this she’s been working closely with Bob Maloy and Sharon Edwards in the College of Education. They undertook a broad study of how educators across the country are using makerspaces and 3D printers to strengthen literacy, creative thinkings skills, teamwork, and persistence. From there, they set up a small scale project in Furcolo to engage teachers in 3D printing. They started with low-key building activities, providing materials like small robotics, Lincoln Logs, K’NEX, and play-doh, and letting the participants play and explore. This was followed by a lesson plan regarding Native American dwellings and how to understand issues around land use and the environment. Each researched a specific kind of dwelling—a grass hut, adobe building, igloo—reported on how to build it step by step, built it first out of low-tech items such as play-doh, paper, and tape, and then used the computer to create 3D models. The teachers then created lessons that incorporated makerspace projects, including an American Revolution board game, a project on water conservation in Africa, and a lesson on genetics in which students created 3D models of dragons based on genes determined by the flip of a coin.

Assistant Professor Torrey Trust's bookshelf

Trust’s work with Maloy and Edwards has recently taken a shift, as often happens with the rapid pace of technological advances. They now are focusing on open educational resources and how they can be best designed and utilized for teacher’s professional development.

In her courses, Trust and her students get hands-on opportunities to see the impact of technologies on teaching and learning. Her classrooms are essentially research labs, in which students try new ideas, explore the possibilities and push the limits of the technology, and propagate their ideas through social media, web courses, and their own teaching. “I’ve been able to do incredible things with my teaching because of the caliber of students in my classes and because they somehow follow me into these crazy ideas that I have.”

I’ve been able to do incredible things with my teaching because of the caliber of students in my classes and because they somehow follow me into these crazy ideas that I have.

Torrey Trust

In her second year of teaching, at a conference, Trust heard faculty talking about about tasking their students to design and run a massive open online course. Since she didn’t yet have a complete syllabus for her upcoming educational web design course, she decided to give the idea a go. In four weeks, her students designed a new open online course, and then ran it for 400 international educators, who participated over a five week period. In the end, the course’s online community had 800 posts and the weekly Twitter chat had 1200 tweets. “What I really love about my teaching is how I can break down the walls of my classroom,” Trust observes. “I feel like there’s so much to learn and share with technology that I don’t want to share it with just 10 students. I want my students to become teachers and develop things that are shared with educators around the world.” 

Since this first course, Trust students have launched two more open online course, and are working on another around augmented reality, virtual reality, and 3D printing. In another course, her students are designing videos and interactive resources to help faculty incorporate open educational resources in their classrooms. Other students have designed a database of tools for teaching and learning, with extensive details on price, access, and usability, along with tutorials about how to use each tool and how to incorporate it into various classroom subjects. Since 2016, it has been viewed by 130,000 people in more than 190 countries.

Assistant Professor Torrey Trust standing by her office door

While Trust hit the ground running in research, collaborations, and innovative courses when she began teaching at UMass, she also quickly found her place in the College of Education community. In addition to collaborating extensively with Maloy and Edwards, she has benefited from a strong spirit of support among faculty mentors like Michael Krezmien, Carey Dimmitt, and Florence Sullivan, who are quick to encourage and guide her in grant and research proposals and course development.

Trust also became quickly immersed in the community when she unexpectedly organized the college’s Outdoor Activities Club during her first year. New to the area, she had been discussing outdoor activities with colleagues at a faculty meeting, when the dean serendipitously announced the availability of community enhancement grants. With the help and encouragement of Ann Stephany, Trust submitted a proposal for an outdoors club and it was accepted. 

With Trust as chair, the club started with stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, and canoeing, and has continued ever since, with biking and hiking, a scavenger hunt, running a 5K, ice skating, and kickball. The group isn’t all fun and games—it plays an important role in strengthening the college community. “It’s been really incredible, because it’s students, staff, faculty, and families,” Trust says. “One of the challenges in higher education is the silos and isolation. Because we have incredible outdoors here it creates perfect opportunities to get people together around an interest, have conversations, and break down those barriers. It’s just fun to see everyone out there enjoying life.”