Saturday, June 14, 2008

Access, Adequacy, and Equity in Education Technology

In order for teachers to integrate technology into the curriculum, schools must provide them with the tools they need to accomplish this task. Providing a teacher with a computer, be it a laptop or a desktop, does not result in the teachers immediate use for teaching within the school day. Professional Development is a necessary component to the overall effectiveness of technology integration. But, that is not all that is needed. Teachers need to realize themselves that the time put in to developing an integration plan for a lesson is time well spent since students overall engagement in what is being taught will increase which, ultimately, results in higher achievement.

Sound simple? But it isn't. Schools have not been able to keep up with the technology influx of the 21st century learner. Each day, students are exposed to some new technology, and because this is how they are learning, they adapt more quickly than the teacher. Furthermore, schools are having a difficult time finding the money to provide the students with these new technologies.

Four the past four years, I have been the Technology Coordinator/Teacher in a private, parochial school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Being a private school, money for technology must come from the tuition received. Grant opportunities are not as readily available as they are to the public schools.

The school has a faculty of thirty teachers with an average of 15 years teaching experience at the school and a current enrollment of about 450 students. Last year the school adopted an online grade book which created attendance lists and computer generated report cards. Prior to this, these tasks were done by hand (paper and pencil).

Upon accepting the job, I approached the teachers and suggested that any time they wanted my assistance in creating lessons incorporating technology, I would be more than happy to help them. Unfortunately, two things soon became clear. My teaching time would only be about 25% pf my job, with the other 75% spent on maintenance and network management.

The school had about 120 computers, 34 located in one lab for the students in grades 4 through 8, 20 located in another lab for students in grades K through 3, and the rest spread out throughout the school building. The lab computers were all the Windows xp Professional operating system while the classroom computers were variations of Windows 95 through Windows 2000. To add to the mess, the computer were all different types and configured differently. It appeared that some were just put in the room and left there. And, I was instructed that my ability to work with the consultant would be limited because there was no money in the budget. This was a nightmare that, fortunately, only lasted one year.

The administration changed during the next three years and, together, we developed a budget that allowed for purchases of updated equipment, laptops for the teachers, and time for professional development during faculty meetings. The school now has one platform (Windows xp Professional). all desktop computers are the same manufacturer and model type (although different model number), and configured in the same way. Software has been added to the server to monitor and deploy updates to the networked computers.

Each classroom has a minimum of two desktop computers which are in constant use throughout the school day. Due to the limited time I need the lab for instruction, it is open for the teachers to bring in the students at all other times. Unfortunately, it seems that the times the teachers need the lab are often the same. The school could use a cart of laptops and, probably, two. It appears that this configuration is more often the norm than not. Providing up to date equipment, while not nearly enough, was not the issue.

The professional development delivered at the faculty meetings, while well intentioned, was met with resistance. Due to the limited computer instruction the teachers themselves had received, it was difficult to assist them in creating lessons that would involve sophisticated technologies with the students. Fear of not knowing kept most away from even trying. This is tragic because the school was making the investment in the equipment but the teachers weren't buying into the program.

How can educational technology be improved for next year? I, unfortunately, will not be involved as I have taken on a new position in another school. In the new school, I am being hired specifically as the Technology Coordinator/Technology Integration Specialist. One of my main responsibilities is staff development. This school has not had a technology teacher for the past two years so the classroom teachers have been bringing the students into the lab. While actual instruction has been limited, the use of technology has not. In the few times I have been at the school, the lab has been filled with students working on collaborative projects and the teacher facilitating their learning. The teachers I have spoken with are excited to have me on board to provide assistance in integrating technology into their lessons. A new Media Resource Center is currently being created and this will become my home. Providing the staff with the resources they need and the ability to share the ever increasing knowledge of resources I have gathered with a faculty that is so eager to learn will make me the envy of my peers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Interactive Whiteboards - Is this the Answer?

Imagine entering a classroom where not only is the teacher out of their seat, but all of the students as well. Students are actively engaged in a discussion and writing their thoughts on a white board using a stylus. One student decides that each student should have a definite amount of time so he adds a countdown clock with a buzzer to the board. Each time the buzzer sounds, the student hands the stylus to another student and their time for writing their own brainstorming thoughts begin. You may wonder what is really happening here. Can this be learning? Will this help improve test scores? How can students learn in this chaos?
Not only are students learning, they are engaged. Interactive whiteboard technologies have opened up the transfer of knowledge, once thought to only come from the teacher, to students working collaboratively and sharing what they know with each other. Whiteboards allow students to write down ideas, manipulate data in ways once thought unfathomable, and save as text or images to a computer for use later. Teachers no longer need to recreate lessons from day to day but can simply open the saved file in order to continue where you have left off.
Using a computer, projector, and one of the many different whiteboards available on the market today, students can now become actively engaged in the lesson being taught. Virtual dissections can be performed with students each taking a turn using the virtual scalpel and tweezers to look at the inner parts of a frog. Collaborative stories can be written and revised on the whiteboard in clear view for all of the students to see. During a brainstorming session, each student can have their turn in listing their ideas for the specific topic being discussed. By simply selecting the Internet web browser available, the students can explore the Internet using their finger. How exciting would it be to be able to research things instantly and literally at your fingertips.
Studies have shown that students thrive when given opportunities to create their learning environment. Of course, they still need the teacher to direct them, but the students will find the way they learn best, be it auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, or, quite often, a combination of all three.
Are whiteboards the answer? Not always. However, when given the opportunity using the whiteboard, knowing the result will be reaching all students in their own way, this is a technology that must be considered. After all, it wasn't too long ago that computers weren't in the classroom either.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Technology Integration - New Ideas, Technologies, and Instructional Strategies

Developing instructional strategies for greater collaboration and technology integration is one of the most difficult aspects of any technology coordinators job. Schools will spend millions of dollars to bring in the hardware and software but getting teachers on board is more important than the equipment itself. If the teachers aren't willing to modify lessons to incorporate technology, than even the newest and best equipment is not worth anything.

Providing professional development is one key component to technology integration but it is not the only one. While technology coordinators can show teachers how to integrate technology, until the teachers have time to use it, any professional development is wasted. Most teachers I have spoken with simply say they do not have the time to create lessons using technology. Most also feel that the students must have something on paper or it isn't a good lesson. Once the teachers feel comfortable using other technologies like blogging, podcasting, or wikis, then, and only then, will they feel comfortable using this technology with their students.

Once the professional development has been presented, it is important to give the teachers time to try out the new tools. If teachers are never given time to try things out, they will never utilize the tools in their teaching. Also, the training needs to be in small pieces because if too much information is presented, the teachers will think that it is to difficult and stick with old, tried and true ways.

Initially, having each teacher create a blog and having the staff comment on each others blog is one way to get the teachers using that technology. Once they realize how easy it is to have online communication, teachers will utilize this type of technology to enhance classroom discussion. This is an excellent way to extend the learning outside the classrooms. Furthermore, should a class end before all questions have been answered, a simple posting of the question will allow all students that wish to be heard a way to be heard.

Online collaboration using wikis is another way teachers can share ideas with each other. Beginning with a theme, each teacher will be able to share ideas related to the theme. Looking at the different ways to achieve curriculum goals, the teachers can then work together to create an integrated lesson and not duplicate efforts.

Podcasting is another useful tool in the classroom. Teachers can create a podcast of a classroom discussion and make it available for students to use as a review or for students that were absent the day of the initial discussion.

Using the various technologies listed, teachers will become familiar with technologies the students use daily which should, hopefully, alleviate the fear of the unknown. Students can be involved in helping the teacher develop the blog, wiki, or podcast which gives them a sense of ownership as well as helping them take responsibility for their own learning.

Finally, providing the teachers with some sample lessons that have simple instructions will help the teacher develop the confidence they need to feel more comfortable. Once they experience their own sense of accomplishment and see how the students are taking to the lessons, they will begin to look for ways to incorporate additional technologies on their own. The first step will always be the hardest but once they take it, they soon will be running. As the technology coordinator, it is important to always be supportive of their efforts, even if it takes reteaching a technology several times.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thoughts about Teaching Technology

As the current Technology Coordinator at a Private, K-8 Elementary school located in the southwest suburbs, I feel that I have both the best job and the worst job in the building. Since I must wear many hats, my job effects every person in the building, and can sometimes seem overwhelming. The best part is that it is never the same and sharing my knowledge with the students is always rewarding. My teaching assignment is limited to working with grades 5 through 8. Until the current school year, it also included teaching 4th graders. Since the primary grade students were not taught many computer skills, the 4th graders often came to me with little to no actual ability using Microsoft Office Suite. Due to a change in the faculty, the primary grades now use Microsoft Office Suite, have to log on and off using a user name and password, and are receiving extensive skill based instruction. In a few years, this will afford me the ability to expand the technology program to include many of the recent developing technologies including Google Apps (used for collaboration), wikis, and podcasting to name a few. Current enrollment is 451 students, two classes per grade, with between 25 and 30 students in each class. Students receive specific skill based instruction once a week. The curriculum based teachers often bring the students to the lab during the open lab times for projects that are used to enhance instruction and may require additional skill based instruction.

The school has two fully equipped computer labs, one with 25 HP desktops, and the other with 34 HP desktop computers. Additionally, each classroom has between two and three desktop computers, and each teacher has a laptop computer. The desktop computers are all connected to the network and utilize a wired ethernet connection. The laptop computers all have wireless capability and the entire school has wireless connectivity throughout the building. All computers on the network have Windows xp Pro Operating System and the ability to connect to the Internet. Each lab has a ceiling mounted projector connected to the teacher workstation which I feel is the best way to teach technology skills.

Since I have a tablet computer, also connected to the projector, I have been able to connect computer generated lessons and identify areas I wish to focus on using the stylus similar to what could be done using a document projector. All of my lessons begin with step by step instruction on the skill being taught culminating with an example of what the final project is to look like. Projects do not always result in something being printed. For example, using Photostory 3 (a free program from Microsoft), the 8th grade students created electronic autobiographies of themselves. Modelling this activity using the tablet and the projector, I was able to demonstrate how to use the program, add images, music, transitions, and make the movies unique for each student. Finally, the projector allows students to be able to share their work with each other. I would not be able to assign the types of projects or teach the advanced skills without the projector.

Since the students are learning much of the skill based instruction in the primary grades, this change will afford me the ability to modify lessons and teach the students how to podcast, create wikis, and blog. I have always wanted to create a blog to use with the junior high students (7th and 8th graders) to develop collaboration skills and create meaningful dialog pertaining to issues important to students of that age. My feeling was that poignant questions directly connected to the curriculum would enhance the learning of the specific topic being taught in the classroom. While I have seen demonstrations of this technology, until I have a chance to work with it myself, I do not feel that I can incorporate it into my skill based instruction.