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Assembly Required: PD for a Digital Age

Eight ways to give your teachers the tools they need to make digital learning a success in the classroom.

You can pick the perfect curricula and buy all the digital materials in the world. But if your teachers aren't willing or able to use them, these tools won't do your students any good.

"Oftentimes, when districts attempt to make this digital conversion, they'll start with the device, kind of like, ‘If you build it, they will come,'" says Shanika Hope, vice president of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for Discovery Education. "But you have to build the capacity of the adults first in order to leverage that tool effectively." 

To that end, you need to create a professional development plan that will help your teachers use digital resources to drive student achievement.

1 | Articulate Your Goals
If you don't tell teachers what you want them to achieve with digital resources, they'll assume you're adding in technology just for the sake of it. Make sure they understand that learning is the key word in digital learning.

"Why are we investing in this technology? What do we expect the outcome to be? What are the goals for its use? And what is the plan for using it in the classroom?" says Ann Cunningham-Morris, a director of professional development for the education nonprofit ASCD. "All of that needs to be shared up front."

"You show [teachers] why this is beneficial," says Steven Anderson, director of instructional technology for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina. One goal Anderson makes sure teachers keep in mind is the importance of using technology to help students take charge of their own learning. "You get out away from the board, and you turn it into a center, and you let kids figure things out."

2 | School Yourself First
Scott Muri, deputy superintendent of academics for Fulton County Schools in Georgia, says administrators need to be comfortable with digital resources before asking teachers to implement those tools themselves. "If our leadership doesn't understand the power of technology in the hands of teachers and students, it won't happen in the classroom," he says. "Just targeting teachers first is a mistake." "It's paramount that administrators know how to use [the resources] themselves, because that's the only way they can envision how to support their teachers," says Cunningham-Morris. "They have to have those experiences themselves."

Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist in Lee's Summit, Missouri, says administrators in his district wanted teachers to use Google Apps in their teaching, so they used the apps themselves to keep track of what teachers were doing during their collaboration time. "That makes them good models of the technology for the teachers," he explains.

3 | Meet Teachers Where They Are
Muri recommends using the Technology Integration Matrix, developed by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the University of South Florida, to assess how teachers are currently incorporating technology into their classrooms.

The rubric helps ensure that PD doesn't aim too high or too low but instead gives teachers the tools they need to move forward. "It helps us figure out where [teachers] are," Muri says. "Then we also use that to help guide the next step. ‘Here's where you are—where do you want to go?'"

Hope says that before getting targeted professional development, many teachers haven't used technology for anything more interactive than showing PowerPoint slides, so that may be your starting point. "From there, expose them to other strategies," she says.

4 | Identify Early Adopters
Some of your teachers will embrace new digital resources, while others will be apprehensive. If you start your rollout with the gung-ho crowd, you'll get automatic buy-in, and the other teachers in your district will begin to see how digital resources enhance those instructors' classrooms.

"Just like we want to differentiate instruction to students, we have to differentiate our professional learning for adults in the building," says Cunningham-Morris. "You've got the natives, and you've got the pioneers, and you've got the people waiting behind the wagon who haven't even started yet."

Nat Vaughn, principal of Blake Middle School in Medfield, Massachusetts, asked different instructional teams in his building to fill out applications if they wanted to be part of an iPad pilot program.

Vaughn wanted a mix of techies and neophytes since a pilot program made up of only tech-savvy teachers wouldn't tell him anything about the supports his other instructors would need once the program was expanded. Although the teachers had different ability levels, Vaughn says it was vital that everyone involved with the pilot was excited about trying out the tech. "That, to me, is the most important thing," he says. "That spirit and willingness to fail."

5 | Be Patient
If you expect your staff to completely integrate digital ­resources into their instruction within a few weeks-or even over the course of a single school year-you're likely to be disappointed.

"We say to districts that this kind of conversion is easily a three- to five-year effort," says Hope. Often, she adds, a district will spend an entire year working only with early adopters, and then those teachers will share their learning with the other instructors in the district the next year.

Hope counsels administrators not to worry that their brand-new technology will become obsolete by the time it's fully implemented. "Our job is to help teachers understand that these are tools, and the tools will continue to evolve. What's important is what you're asking kids to do with these tools, and that's universal. That can translate from tool to tool."

Anderson, the instructional technology director in Winston-Salem, says some teachers will need to start off with simple uses of new technology-for example, projecting an existing worksheet onto an interactive whiteboard.

"The way you get buy-in is, you allow teachers to use what they've already been doing, and help them see how they can use it in another format," Anderson says. While that might sound like technology for the sake of technology, Anderson says it helps teachers build familiarity with the new resources. "Then we move them into creating their own types of digital tools," he says.

Teachers can incorporate their existing class materials into digital textbooks, too, Anderson notes. The digital textbooks can be edited, allowing instructors to add content that addresses specific standards.

Don't assume that all of your teachers will feel comfortable integrating digital resources after one PD session. "A lot of times, it's reteaching," says Kevin Goddard, schools superintendent in Sarcoxie, Missouri. "It's just like with kids. We introduce it, and then we have to come back and teach it again. The second time, they're willing to dig in and push some buttons. Too often we give up on training before we give something time to really take root."

6 | Help Teachers Streamline
Want teachers to start using new digital resources right away? Find something they already do that can be made simpler with technology.

"You have to hook them, showing them, ‘Here's a way you can use it for you, here's a way it can make your life easier,'" says Pace, the instructional technology specialist in Lee's Summit. "A lot of times, that's the only hook they need to get excited about it and learn more."

Pace gives the example of a newsletter that a fifth-grade team in his district sends out to parents. Teachers started using Google Docs to create the newsletter when they realized it meant they could then quit worrying about parents being unable to open certain file types. Muri, the deputy superintendent of academics in Fulton County, says officials in his district got teachers to start using the education social networking site Edmodo by simply showing them how they could use it to connect with one another.

"Teachers like to collaborate, they like to share," Muri says. "It wasn't a requirement. It wasn't a mandate. We just built that hunger."

7 | Let Kids Lead the Way
Even if your staff is less than tech-savvy, you have plenty of people in your schools who are on the right side of the digital divide—your students. "It's okay to let kids take the lead and teach you something," says Goddard. "We feel like we always need to be in charge, and we always need to be the smartest person in the room, and that's not true anymore."

Vaughn, the Massachusetts principal, brought students from his iPad pilot program into a professional development session to "tutor" teachers. "It was wonderful to see some of our high-level high school teachers learning from eighth-grade students," he says.

Cynthia McClelland, one of Vaughn's teachers, says she was initially leery about adding iPads, but that she's now sold on the devices—in part because of the sense of "ownership" students have about the technology.

"Last year, I wanted to create a timeline [using the iPad]," McClelland said. "Students said, ‘Try this out, try that out.' They really get involved and bring things to us that have worked for them."

8 | Make Sure the Tech Works
Sound too obvious to even bring up? It's not. If you flood your school with new digital resources but don't upgrade your network, teachers might find that they're not always able to use the devices when they want them. And if the digital materials aren't reliable, they'll turn back to trusty old pen and paper.

Adam Seldow, executive director of technology for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia, says teachers reluctant to use technology need only "one bad excuse" and they'll opt out. "The experience has to be dead simple for both teachers and students."  


Late Fall 2013— 

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