Skip to Content

Ready to Upgrade?


Untangling technology can be a daunting proposition. We download it all and figure out what you really need to know for your classroom.


By Cynthia Kopkowski

See if you and June Colley have anything in common: She’s a highly skilled educator who works every day to keep her students engaged and performing at their academic peak. Her students’ admiration is readily evident and is reflected back to them in her sunny classroom manner. And yet when it came to learning how to use advanced technology and integrate it into her instruction, the Creswell, Oregon, elementary teacher—typically a model of calm, cool, and collected—was terrified.

“I was overwhelmed,” Colley says, her eyes widening and mouth forming a silent, theatrical shriek. “I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to learn it and then get my second-graders to use it.’”

But those thoughts occupied her two years ago, and a lot has changed since then—perhaps with you too. Teachers are more receptive than ever to the idea of adding a healthy dose of “gee whiz” to their instruction to enhance its appeal and effectiveness.


The thought of integrating technology into her class overwhelmed June Colley, until she got training and saw the wealth of possibilities.
Still, “some portray teachers as techno-phobes,” says Barbara Stein of NEA External Partnerships and Advocacy. “That is definitely not the case.” To the contrary, NEA polling as far back as 1995 found that most teachers were already using computers both at home and at school. In a survey last year of 1,000 K–12 teachers nationwide, a whopping 80 percent said they consider themselves at least somewhat advanced computer and software users.

But two things temper all the good news about educators’ increased techno-literacy. First, today’s great gadget can be tomorrow’s Atari 500, and with all the demands put on teachers, it can be hard to stay current. “I like to work with technology,” says Vicki Vannier, a high school teacher in Bartlett, Nebraska, “but I don’t have enough time in the day to keep up with everything that has been released.” Second, it’s not beefed-up professional development courses that are boosting teachers’ computer confidence, it’s often their own efforts: Seventy percent say they get eight hours or fewer of training in the entire year.

Many school systems have been slow to help teachers standardize instructional technology and glean the most benefit for their students. And it’s not just about learning to automate the morning attendance, Stein says, but about making fundamental changes in pedagogy. “A vast gap exists between the degree to which industry has prepared its employees for productive technology use and that to which public education has prepared its employees,” she says.


She knows little ones are eager to get their hands on a computer, but they can get easily frustrated, so she focuses on simple, age-appropriate technology integration.
Favorite Web site: MiKids.com. Lessons by grade (K–5) in a variety of subjects. First-graders can click and drag antonyms in one section, while older students can participate in an interactive lesson on constitutional rights in another.
Best Gadget: Digital camera. Have students take photos of flora and fauna on campus. Then download the images and let them label them for a scrapbook.
What are some reasonable technology-use goals for today’s teachers? Administratively, they should have the training and tools necessary to electronically track grades and attendance, post homework, and e-mail parents and administrators, notes Kathy Schrock, a former teacher turned instructional technology administrator for the Nauset Public Schools in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Instructionally, teachers should feel comfortable replacing overheads with multimedia presentations; creating digital worksheets for students; finding and identifying online sites for students; using LCD projectors and electronic whiteboards, and moving large files back and forth between school and home.

A mushrooming array of tech tools presents even greater challenges to educators beyond just learning how to use them, says technology analyst Don Blake of NEA Quality School Systems. “A teacher may feel comfortable with a computer, but using it to manage authentic, simulated instruction demands a completely different level of technology literacy,” he says.

GIVE THEM A HAND(HELD)

Fortunately, some school districts are finding ways to get teachers the training and tools they and their students need to compete in today’s digital world. Enter Lynn Lary, an instructional technology specialist and NEA member administrator in Eugene, Oregon, who regularly packs up her years of teaching experience and hits the road, traveling around the state to help teachers in Lane County’s 133 public schools learn what’s out there and how to welcome it into their classrooms.

It was a federal grant that brought Lary and about 20 crates of handheld computers to Creswell, Oregon, in 2004. That’s where June Colley learned to use handhelds (also called PDAs, for “personal digital assistants”) and to guide her second-graders at Creswell Elementary School through an extensive catalog of programs available on the devices. Math, spelling, reading, and writing comprehension were no longer relegated to textbooks, photocopied worksheets, or the board. With the click of a silver stylus against the small computer screen, her students whiz quietly through exercise after exercise. Colley walks through the classroom offering students encouragement, helping them when they get stuck, and expanding on a lesson point on the whiteboard when needed. Barely a peep that isn’t related to the lesson emerges from the students, fidgeting is at a minimum, and nobody requests a bathroom break.


Once educators are exposed to new technology, they want to learn as much as possible, says Lynn Lary (right), an NEA member who trains colleagues like Oregon support professional Michelle Brown.
Down the road at Creswell Middle School, Jill Murray, a veteran teacher and self-described technology “dinosaur,” also learned from Lary how to maximize class lessons with handhelds. Like Colley, she worried about the first day, when it was just her and her freshly acquired skills facing a class of pre-teens immersed since toddlerhood in computer games, videos, and more. Her approach to conquering her anxiety? Embrace her students’ ability. “I don’t put those barriers up in my classroom,” Murray says. “I learn from the kids.” As her confidence in her technological teaching grows, so too does her students’ confidence in their learning progress. She references a common compliment that teachers who embrace handhelds, laptops, and game show-style answering devices in the classroom have paid their students: “They’re feeling better about themselves because they get instant, confidential feedback.”

Her students’ results shuttle directly from the devices they’re using into progress folders, which she can access. Technology in the classroom is also helping some students shed their writer’s block. “Before on writing exercises, I would be lucky to get two or three sentences,” Murray says. “Now, using the keyboards, they’ll type paragraphs.”

Creswell Middle School math teacher Ron Armstrong was stunned to find that giving kids handhelds actually made them want to spend more time on math problems. When his students first got the devices, he let them work on problems for the first five minutes of class while he took attendance—but that wasn’t enough. Now students show up to class 15 minutes early just to practice their math exercises. “They’re interested, and they’re motivated,” Armstrong stresses.

OVERCOMING THE FEAR FACTOR


He knows that attention spans are at a premium for tweens, and bringing a little “gee whiz” into the classroom can go a long way.
Favorite Web site: Learn about all things oceanographic at SeasSky.org. Students can follow the site’s voluminous links to explore shipwrecks, marine life (listen to the humpback whale!), and current marine conservation efforts.
Best Gadget: “Gameshow” clickers (official name: interactive wireless response pads) let students answer questions by clicking the remote-control-like device. You’ll know instantly whether they “get it.”
While some teachers are early adapters of everything electronic, others are hesitant. In fact, where a teacher works can affect his or her comfort level with computers, according to a survey by NetDay, a nonprofit group working to help teachers meet educational goals through the use of technology. The survey found that urban teachers tend to be more comfortable using computers—65 percent are very comfortable, compared with 54 percent of suburban teachers and of rural teachers. NEA believes that given the fast pace of change in public schools, meaningful staff development, especially in the area of technology, must be a priority in all schools, even in the smallest of communities.

That’s why, one day this past winter, tech specialist Lynn Lary got into her car and headed for Riddle, Oregon (population: 1,017), located 90 minutes south of Eugene. A winding highway took her through the state’s fog-shrouded peaks and valleys and deposited her in a timber-mining town so small that the topic of teachers having the day off for technology training was on the morning’s gossip agenda at Riddle Pharmacy on Main Street. But thanks to the same grant that brought Lary to the Creswell School District, the teachers in this rural area also have access to the latest instructional tools.

“There’s a direct correlation between the technology teachers have in the classroom and the technology teachers use,” says Lary. “Those who have gotten things like a laptop, a document projector, or digital camera—as soon as they get them, they start using them as a resource.”

Some educators are intimidated by new technology—no matter where they live—simply because of a lack of exposure. Laura Feld, a teacher in Hopkins, Minnesota, freely admits to her angst. “I am a techno-terror!” Feld exclaims. “Perfectly normal machines do strange things when I use them. I know the programs or Web sites that would be great for my students, but I don’t know how to fix uncooperative machines.”


With little or no professional development, educators often must teach themselves new technology. Colorado teacher Eric Jefcoat learned podcasting during a break.
In some cases, but certainly not all, the divide between teachers anxious to bring technology into their curriculum and those just anxious about it is broken down along age lines.

“We tend to teach how we learned,” says Eric Jefcoat, a computer literacy teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado. He notes that more and more teachers fresh out of colleges of education “don’t consider technology integration a big deal because they’ve grown up with it, come out of college learning it, and it’s just more natural to them.”

Still, there are plenty of intrepid veteran teachers open to trying their hand at something new. A few years back, one late-career teacher told Lynn Lary that she had no use for technology in her classroom. Then the woman’s daughter moved overseas. Soon, she was mastering e-mail and digital photography, and before long her elementary school students were producing digital slideshows.

“Someone who is just not using technology much personally is not going to jump in and use it in a way that’s going to transform student learning,” says Jefcoat. “They need to be encouraged to dip their toes into the pool.”


He needs to find ways to convert his “been there, done that” students’ comfort with technology into classroom energy.
Favorite Web site: EduScapes.com has everything a teacher needs to know about geocaching, a type of scavenger hunt that uses global positioning, latitude, and longitude.
Best Gadget Use: Podcasting. Students download and listen to podcasts on their iPods. How about recording some extra musings on the day’s lesson in your own podcast that they can tune into at home?

ACQUIRING TECH: BEST PRACTICES

As with any professional development effort, the strongest program is one that puts heavy emphasis on teachers’ input. “In some districts, someone high up makes the decision and all of a sudden every seventh-grader has a laptop, whether or not that’s the most effective use of technology dollars,” notes instructional technology administrator Kathy Schrock. Instead, teachers should have an active voice in the process and be empowered to research new technologies and write small grant proposals seeking funding for pilot programs. “If that person likes it, then they can make the case to others,” she says. “They can spread the word: good, bad, or ugly.”           

Technology committees with a strong teacher presence are another great way to evaluate the suitability of a new gadget or software and what its useful lifespan might be. “Teachers are in an excellent position to determine if it’s the thing of the day and will be the thing of tomorrow,” Schrock says.


Educators in Riddle, Oregon, get time off to attend daylong workshops where they hone their skills.
Of course, having the gadgets without the training to use them is a no-win proposition. The most effective training programs offer educators multiple sessions and conferences and provide sample lesson plans that integrate technology into curriculum, hands-on learning opportunities, and access to helpful instructional Web sites. In places like Creswell and Riddle, teachers are paid to attend at least two daylong training sessions each year, and grant money pays for substitutes to work in their classrooms. With the availability of online training and videoconferencing, even cash-strapped districts (and which ones aren’t?) can offer their teachers access to development instruction.

For most teachers, the opportunity to stay current with the rapidly changing technology around them is exciting and motivating. Even those who find the process a bit daunting say that the chance to engage their students and bring them up to the next level academically is too enticing to let nerves deter them. Even a little bit of technical knowledge allows educators to use technology as the hook to help them better relate to students.

Eric Jefcoat found that his students were suddenly more keenly interested when he started recording podcasts of his classroom lessons and related tutorials for students to use during class or at home. Ditto for teachers who lead students in creative writing exercises using blogs, or who take their students on a thrilling aerial tour of the Grand Canyon using Google Earth software.

“As a teacher, hopefully your number one priority is to inspire your students to become lifelong learners,” says Lynn Lary.

“These new technologies are a powerful way to do that.”

Join the debate: Should technology be used in every classroom ?

Get Wired! Check out our online technology guide for educators.

 

Photos: Craig Mitchelldyer, Nathan Ham, Scott Buschman, Stockdisc, Smartboard

Published in:

Published In

March, 2006