This post is a response Scott McLeod’s call for teacher bloggers to write about the use of technology in the classroom, with the hope of helping each other & administrators to have a clearer understanding of how technology can make education more effective, efficient, and engaging. As he writes:
Administrators’ [and teachers’] lack of knowledge is not entirely their fault. Most of them didn’t grow up with these technologies. Many are not using digital tools on a regular basis. Few have received training from their employers or their university preparation programs on how to use, think about, or be a leader regarding digital technologies. So… let’s help them out.
So here’s my contribution to Leadership Day 2010. I want to reflect on a success of my school district in the past school year and then think about what some of the next steps might be to continue successful implementation of technology into our K-12 curriculum in the future.
During the 2009-2010 school year, I was accepted to participate in my school district’s first cohort of teachers participating in a Computers for Teachers (C4T) program which provided us with Apple MacBook laptops & software in exchange for signing up for 60+ hours of professional development (PD) to learn how to use them to create “technology-embedded units & lessons” and integrate these units into the classroom.
The first year of Upper Arlington’s C4T program had many strong points. First of all, I am very fortunate in that my school district has had great foresight about what it will take to begin integrating 21st century skills into the classroom and has taken the initiative to employ six 21st-century skill integration coaches. These coaches’ sole job is to help teachers conceptualize lessons, units, activities, and projects that we would like to try out, and then help us plan the best tools to make those things happen. They even will team-teach with us the first time (or 2nd or 3rd!) we go to try out a new piece of software or a new web 2.0 tool to help us ease into the new territory in a way that is more comfortable and less intimidating.
The 21st-century skill coaches were more or less the leaders of our C4T program and were responsible for organizing the workshops, professional days, and conferences we attended to amass our 60 hours of PD. They did a great job of making themselves available to us during planning periods, early release days, or after school during contractual times.
The strengths, then, of the C4T program’s first year included:
- Flexibility – of the coaches & teachers
- Variety – of PD experiences made available to us as teachers
- Availability – of the coaches, the hardware, software, and a reliable internet connection
The weaknesses of the program were few, but worth noting and reflecting upon in order to plan for future cohorts, with the hope of improving the quality of those teachers’ experience. At some point in the program, I felt (and colleagues confirmed) that there was more of an emphasis on quantity over quality. In practice, for me, this meant that as the end of the school year approached, (already a very stressful time of year for any teacher), I became more stressed out about making sure I had met that 60-hour mark than I was about ensuring that the PD in which I was engaging was useful and relevant for me as a high school Spanish teacher.
In addition, the program encouraged us to use a proprietary lesson plan document in lieu of whatever system we were used to using as teachers to plan for instruction. Though I understand that this may have been an attempt to organize our lesson plans for easy sharing with future cohorts, it was for some reason one of the most stressful aspects of the program. I often would dream up a project, contact a coach, plan the entire scope of the project, carry it out, and only when our C4T lessons were ‘due’ would I actually sit down to write it all up in the formal lesson plan document, which, at that point, felt like an exercise in unnecessary busy-work, as it clearly wasn’t a step that I personally needed to go through in my initial planning.
Now, I can see some readers thinking “well then just use the proprietary form to begin with!” which, while a good substitute for a solution, isn’t great, because it still forces the teacher to plan in a way that is unnatural for them. It takes teachers a number of years to settle into a system of lesson planning with which they are comfortable and efficient, and this system is hard-earned! For me, it has taken about 3 years to come to a place where I can plan with relative ease & efficiency, and so, to be forced to use an unnatural system now feels like taking one tiny step forward only to be forced to take two GIANT steps backwards.
Finally, because of the nature of the program and its goal to engage us in extensive PD in a single school year, C4T took us out of our classrooms rather frequently. We were required to meet with a coach for at least 6 hours to plan projects over the course of the school year, which was actually super helpful, and not a problem as we usually met during planning periods or after school, as I mentioned earlier. The other requirements, however, were more difficult because they involved leaving the classroom, planning for a substitute teacher, and interrupting the flow of instruction.
These included 2 full-day professional workshops, 10 hours of classroom-integration workshops (which amounted out to several 1/2 days out of the classroom), and attendance at a local educational technology conference for 1-3 days (I chose to attend for one day only as I began to regret how much I was out of the classroom at this point – ask any teacher and though they will admit that professional days are necessary now and then, most will also typically report that its easier to be present for a school day than to have a substitute teacher -especially as a language teacher when the sub usually can’t further instruction in any way).
There was also a required 3-day summer orientation/tech camp and an end-of-the-year sharing night which, while time-consuming, were helpful and (in my opinion) fair because they did not take us away from students during the school year, and they served the purpose of introducing us to the hardware & software initially and reflecting on our work afterward in a collaborative setting.
At the end of the program, I concluded that if I were to recommend a colleague to apply for the C4T program in the future I would strongly encourage them to participate in C4T and C4T only. I was on my district technology committee and a few other small building committees at the same time as I participated in C4T and by the end of the school year I felt like I was out of the classroom at least once a week – it was exasperating!
The weaknesses, then of C4T’s first year included:
- an emphasis on quantity over quality – # of hours & types of required PD
- rigid requirements – required lesson planning document & the required quantity & types of PD
- an oversight of the importance of the teacher consistently being in the classroom – the students & their learning are, after all, the whole reason we are engaging in the program in the first place!
Overall, I am so happy I participated in my district’s C4T program. Having a laptop in my hands has changed how I teach. It has increased my efficiency and effectiveness and I am certain it has made my lessons and projects more engaging for students.
Suggestions I would have to improve the C4T program in the future include:
- Increased Flexibility – although the coaches were very flexible with us, the program itself had some inflexible tenants – the lesson plan document, the set number of hours & types of PD, etc.
- Increased focus on building a Personal Learning Network (PLN) – The first year of the C4T program was focused on learning to use hardware & software for the purpose of designing lessons for students. Although this is an important goal, I believe the program would be more balanced with an increased focus on learning how to use the hardware & software for the purpose of designing a personal learning network for teachers. Many teachers engage in PD only when required by their districts or in order to renew a teaching license – it’s time that we as teachers move into the 21st century and take control of our own PD and learning and find like-minded educational professionals via social networking tools and begin to share ideas, curriculum, and tools. If we don’t step forward into the 21st century, its certainly going to be difficult to expect our students to do so!
- Increased accountability – With an increase in flexibility will come an inevitable worry on the part of administrators that some teachers will take advantage. To combat this from happening (and to continue to attract what my district has referred to as “homerun hitters” to the program rather than those who may try to game the system just to walk away with a laptop) the program will need to figure out a way to hold teachers accountable for their PD – a way to make it focused on quality over quantity, and a way to ensure its relevance for each teacher in the program. I’m not sure how this can be accomplished, I just know it needs to be built into the program if increased flexibility is also added.
- Increased Feedback – Finally, the program leaders need to seek feedback from the participating teachers regularly to assess what is working, what isn’t, and what our interests/challenges are. Although our coaches sought feedback at the end of the program, this was a short survey and was only asked for once from what I remember – in this arena I think the coaches should take the lead from the teachers – sometimes you can’t just stick with the plan – you have to modify it based on student (read: participant) interest and the challenges they are facing at that specific time. Increased feedback will allow leaders to develop more relevant PD experiences – teachers will respond to PD that is designed especially for their needs and be more engaged – and the more engaged we are, the more we learn and take back to our classrooms with the end goal of increased student engagement & learning!
I am lucky to teach in the district that I do, but no district or school is perfect. The moment we become satisfied and stop pushing forward to try to constantly improve is the moment that we begin to let our students down. I hope that the C4T program will continue to grow and improve and hope to remain active in it in the future (from the instructor side of things). Technology isn’t going anywhere, no matter how frustrating that may be for many teachers; therefore, its time to get on board and learn how to harness its potential to increase student learning in the classroom!