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Strategies That Work

One school technology leader’s winning strategies for staff development in technology integration

By Michael Smith

Here's a slogan worth repeating: You can spend all the money you want on hardware, software, and infrastructure, but unless you train teachers to integrate technology into the curriculum — which is not the same thing as training teachers to use computers — you've wasted every dime you've spent.

Technology plays a critical role in allowing teachers to focus on student-centered instruction. That's why effective staff development can go a long way toward helping us retool our schools and turn them into learning environments that will truly prepare a workforce for the 21st century.

When it comes to professional development for technology integration, the issue is much the same for veterans as it is for new teachers. New teachers may have a better handle on general computer use, but most colleges of education are still preparing future teachers for an educational system that existed in the distant past.

GETTING COMFORTABLE

Here are some of the professional development strategies I have found effective over the past two decades of working to infuse technology in schools.

In the Williamson County, Tennessee schools — where I direct instructional technology — the first stage of our staff development program focuses on competency training. During this training, we show teachers how to begin integrating technology into their curriculum using tools such as Office 2000, AppleWorks, Internet Explorer, and HyperStudio.

In this phase, teachers are still learning how to use the software packages — but in the context of curriculum integration rather than through the old method of teaching a software package in isolation. Using this method serves two purposes. First, it allows teachers to become familiar with a software package the way it will be used in their classroom. Second, it helps teachers formulate ideas about how they can integrate technology into their curriculum.

One of our techniques is to send teachers out on the Internet to find information and pictures about a subject they might teach in their classroom. They then use a database to organize the information, a spreadsheet to calculate and graph the data, and a word processor to display the results. Another technique we use is to show teachers how they can use a multimedia program such as HyperStudio to do project-based instruction. Students find this much more exciting than a 10-page, double-spaced, typewritten report.

We are also moving the training and support down to the local school level and using technology resource teachers at each school as the primary trainers and supports of technology. By getting to know the other teachers individually, the technology resource teachers are better able to meet their needs than someone from the central office.

DAILY CURRICULUM USE

If we truly want to integrate technology into the curriculum, we will have to stop thinking about technology training and how it can be used in the classroom — and start thinking about curriculum training that incorporates technology.

In our district, we help teachers model for students how they can use the Internet and multimedia to develop life skills such as collaboration, information gathering, organization, and presentation proficiency. Teachers find that this technique helps students take greater ownership for their own learning, thus freeing teachers to work with small groups of students as they are needed. This is just one example of how to be a "guide on the side."

I have personally used this system in the classroom for many years and have found that students learn more through project-based instruction because they are the gatherers of information. That way, they retain it longer than they would through lecture and regurgitation.

Of course, once the teachers have been through the training they may begin to view the lack of technology in their classrooms as a hindrance to their ability to move forward. One solution that we have found very promising is a wireless laptop program we call COWS — Computers on Wheels. These wireless rolling computer labs allow us to take technology to the point of instruction rather than taking the students to the computers. A wireless access point connected to the school's network supplies the laptops with Internet and network access. Students use these laptops in the classroom — and even outdoors, as they conduct experiments "in the field."

One would think that effective use of the COWS program would require special training for teachers, but we've found that not to be the case. Except for the initial "how to use a wireless lab" training, very little additional instruction has been necessary. What usually happens is that teachers immediately recognize that the wireless lab removes the roadblocks presented by a lack of sufficient technology, giving them the ability to take full advantage of their technology integration training.

OVERCOMING RESISTANCE

Even after good technology staff development, some teachers will remain unconvinced. Some of these doubters are excellent classroom teachers who just haven't seen the paradigm shift in education yet.

The best way to overcome this resistance is to find a practical application of the technology that makes a difference in the life of the teacher. Often this is a matter of finding an educationally sound software program that is a good fit with the new teaching techniques covered in the staff development program.

Here's a case in point: I once spoke with great enthusiasm to a group of teachers about the virtues of integrating technology into the curriculum, the importance of teacher training, and how we were going to have different levels of training so that they would have the skills to help prepare students for their future, rather than our past.

Afterward, one of the teachers took me to task, insisting that she did not have time to use technology in her classroom. She was busy teaching her students to read, she said, and that was far more important than teaching students to use a computer. I tried to explain to her how the use of technology could help her students in many ways — including reading — but she remained unconvinced.

Undaunted, I encouraged this teacher to take the technology training. None of the training seemed to have an effect on her classroom instruction until we offered training on a software series called Little Planet. This program is designed to foster reading and writing skills for young children by giving them the ability to create their own stories, audio narrations, and books. Once she started using the program and saw the effect that it had on her students, it completely turned her around.

"In the past I always viewed the use of technology as just another intrusion in my already extremely busy daily routine," she later wrote in a letter to the district. "I now realize what an asset it can be in teaching and learning. I no longer view it as 'something else to teach,' but rather as a way of enhancing my teaching skills while preparing the students for the reality of the twenty-first century."

Here's another example: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nashville's Meigs Magnet School — where I was a computer teacher and coordinator — was regarded as one of the leading technology-infused schools in the nation. We accomplished this with teacher training in which 100 percent of the faculty participated. And the training was not a one-shot deal: We followed up on an ongoing basis and led group discussions about how to use technology in the curriculum.

This leap was not easy for many teachers, and some became downright hostile. I can remember a science teacher who got within two inches of my nose and warned me not to dare put a computer in his classroom. He eventually decided to participate in the training, though he remained sullen during the session.

But we didn't give up. We overcame his resistance by demonstrating how the computer could be a tool for administrative tasks as well as how it could enhance his curriculum. By the end of the day, he was asking permission to take a computer home after the training period!

As administrators we should model the use of technology and not give up on teachers who haven't yet become comfortable with computers as an instructional tool. There is a growing gap between the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that most students leave our schools with and what they need to survive in the contemporary world. In the last decade, more information has been gathered than during the previous 5,000 years; students who enter the workplace today will be changing careers eight to 12 times during their work lives. This is the future for which we must prepare children. If we don't, we will have wasted every dollar we have spent on classroom technology.

About the Author

Michael Smith is the director of instructional technology for the Williamson County Schools in Franklin, Tennessee. He is a former computer teacher and coordinator of Meigs Magnet School in Nashville and has received 10 national and state awards for his exceptional work with education technology in the classroom.

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