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Networking Teachers Coaxing Colleagues to Use Technology

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 05, 2008 7 min read
Cheryl Woolwine, a special education coordinator for the Putnam County district in Florida, shows her adaptive-technology program to other workshop participants.

The teachers and technology consultants at an institute here almost make it look easy to integrate streaming video, social-networking tools, and Internet resources into everyday classroom lessons.

Like the digital haiku poems students can create using a single image, a music clip, and some simple text. Or the interactive map of a Civil War battlefield with links to historical photos and accounts of events at the site. Then there are the cellphone applications for conducting instant classroom polls or communicating with students about assignments.

“We want to show teachers how they can use technology to deliver standards-based lessons, and it doesn’t have to take over their classroom,” said Jennifer Gingerich, a former teacher who demonstrated how moviemaking applications can be used to bolster language arts, social studies, and science lessons.

For Ms. Gingerich, a technology trainer in Oregon, and many of the educators attending the Discovery Educator Network institute this summer, letting teachers see how technology tools can be used to generate practical activities for students can win over even reluctant colleagues and spark them to update their instruction.

“On my own, it was very difficult getting started using technology in my classroom, but when I started reaching out to other people, it wasn’t so overwhelming,” said Heather Sullivan, a teacher and technology facilitator at Manalapan High School in Freehold, N.J. “If you can convince teachers to let you show them a few strategies, and they see that it is doable and can be fun, you start to win them over.”

She and other educators are doing just that in live sessions held around the country, in hundreds of webinars and videoconferences, on blogs and social-networking sites, and even in virtual meetings in Second Life, a parallel universe online.

As a leader of the New Jersey network, Ms. Sullivan can offer guidance and resources to teachers in her district and throughout her state, as well as stay up to date on technology-based teaching strategies through participation on the Discovery Educator Network’s national leadership council.

The Cellphone: Turning it Into a Teaching Tool

What would happen if instead of silencing or confiscating cellphones in the classroom, teachers encouraged students to use them?

Hall Davidson, the director of the Discovery Educator Network, wants teachers to realize the potential power the instruments hold for enlivening lessons and engaging students in the content they are learning.

Most cellphones, Mr. Davidson points out, have a number of features that schools once paid thousands of dollars for as separate devices—camera, videorecorder, GPS, text messaging, music player. What’s more, many students, even in low-income areas, own one.

At a weeklong workshop for a corps of teachers who have become leaders in using instructional technology, Mr. Davidson gave a glimpse of what might be coming to a classroom near you.

“Are we going to ignore a device that does all this stuff?” Mr. Davidson asked the group of about 60 teachers at a workshop held this summer at the Discovery Communications headquarters here.

Students, for example, can do first-person interviews with a cellphone, with audio or video that can be posted to school wikis, collaborative Web sites, to enhance their reports and projects. They can receive class assignments and start their research using Web features on their phones. And they can record themselves practicing musical instruments, or a foreign language, and send the recordings to their teachers.

Teachers can also make good use of cellphones, Mr. Davidson says. In just a few seconds, each student can take part in polls posted by the teacher that ask students’ opinions on topics related to lessons or procedures. Videos outlining instructions and lessons for substitute teachers can be recorded and sent by cellphone. When language is a potential communication barrier between parents and teachers, messages can be translated into other languages before they are sent.

While many of the potential applications are not quite ready for prime time, Mr. Davidson thinks that within a year or so they will be, but only if educators see their potential and figure out how to integrate the technology well.

Use and Abuse

Workshop participants expressed enthusiasm for the idea, but with reservations.

Although use of cellphones is widespread, many students still do not have them. And those who do may have older models, with fewer features, or have limits on the number of calls and text messages they can send and receive.

Students also need to control impulses to interact with friends by phone during class. Moreover, school policies are often at odds with using the phones as part of instruction.

“I think that with the use of a specific plan and guidelines for the use of cellphones, there is no way to ignore the possibility of their use in the classroom,” Rachel Yurk, a 6th grade teacher in New Berlin, Wis., who attended the workshop, said by e-mail. “What will be hard is getting these policies in place and anticipating all the ways that kids will use and even abuse them.”

New York City, for example, has taken a hard line with its 20-year-old ban on cellphones. Two years ago, the district angered parents and students when it confiscated thousands of cellphones, which officials argued were distracting students from learning. (“N.Y.C. Schools Take Hard Line on Cellphones,” July 12, 2006.)

But some teachers say it is time for schools to move into the 21st century.

“Gone are the days when we told kids they could only use a pencil in math. Now, we use markers, glue sticks, computer applications, and many other items not deemed ‘worthy’ of math years ago,” Howard J. Martin, an Austin, Texas, teacher and information-technology facilitator wrote in an e-mail. “Any tool that we train students to use responsibly should be considered if proper use shows some benefit to our kids.”

The network, called DEN, was organized by Discovery Education, a division of the media company Discovery Communications. DEN aims to expand the use of instructional technology through professional development for teachers. It offers regular live and online conferences—hundreds of webinars, blogs, meetings, and workshops, all of which help explain and show how various devices and applications work and ways to adapt them to the curriculum.

In the Second Life version of the network, an Internet-based virtual meeting, teachers can attend weekly workshops, hear expert speakers, view software demonstrations, or have impromptu discussions about instruction, all via their personalized digital characters, or avatars.

“It can be very addictive if you really like to learn new stuff,” said Fred Delventhal, an elementary school instructional technology coordinator in Arlington, Va., and an organizer of the Second Life network for DEN. “But this is a viable means of doing long-distance education for teachers.”

Twenty state affiliates hold their own professional development sessions, both online and live, and share resources on their DEN Web pages.

The national network helps Discovery Education provide support to schools and districts that buy its products and services. Although membership in DEN is free to any teacher, more resources are available to customers, who spend $1,500 to $2,000 a year or more for the rights to download streaming video—video accessed through the Web—from Discovery’s archives of some 80,000 clips. But while many of the workshops and webinars might be viewed as promotional—such as those that offer product demonstrations—a number of them address broad or targeted issues related to teaching with technology.

One webinar last May, for example, presented tips for producing podcasts. Other such online seminars demonstrated moviemaking techniques, test-prep strategies, and a technology primer for teachers. Most of the webinars attract fewer than 100 participants, according to Discovery Education officials, but one featuring the producer of Planet Earth, a film series by Discovery Communications, drew more than 1,200 viewers.

Many of the webinars, as well as state-level events, are generated by network members and not related specifically to Discovery products. Twenty state councils were founded by teachers who joined the national network, and their members generally plan and run their own events and Web pages.

All the training programs are designed with academic standards and curriculum requirements for related subjects in mind, according to Scott Kinney, who manages professional-development programs for Discovery Education.

“We don’t want [our product] to be this thing over in a corner that’s nice to have but doesn’t get used effectively,” said Mr. Kinney, a former school administrator. “We want to be an integral part of teaching and learning. So we work a lot on content and on how to build capacity and support implementation.”

Unleashing Passion

That’s where teachers like Jennifer Dorman come in. Ms. Dorman, like some two dozen other educators here, has been invited to professional-development sessions by Discovery Education because of her skill at demystifying educational technology for her peers in and beyond Pennsylvania’s Central Bucks school district. She has become an expert on social-networking outlets, or online groups of people with personal or professional connections, which she uses to foster relationships among educators throughout the country and abroad.

“Technology allows you to connect with teachers all over the world,” she told participants at the institute. “Many teachers are interested in building a professional network, but they just don’t know where to go. There are all these ways to find people you are compatible with and can help you with your teaching challenges.”

Ms. Dorman does just that for hundreds of teachers through her blog and a wiki space she uses to share Web resources, lesson ideas, and online workshops, as well as general technology tips.

“We have a user group that’s very passionate about the product,” said Mr. Kinney. “But we want to bring everybody up [to a higher level of technology usage]. So we try to find one or two passionate teachers in each school. We then support the heck out those teachers, because when they stand up in front of their colleagues and share what they’ve learned, it’s that much more powerful.”

It is often those teachers who have the kind of advice their colleagues can use right away, and the best understanding of local curricular and policy issues that might help or hinder technology use.

For teachers in the Central Bucks district, where Ms. Dorman is a professional-development facilitator, a new technology-integration plan has helped boost demand for her kind of assistance. This past summer, the 20,000-student district offered several hundred workshops on specific technology topics, or featuring technology-based instructional approaches in various subject areas.

But Ms. Dorman’s advice for teachers is to start small.

She points them to a few simple tools, like wikis, YouTube, or RSS aggregators—which provide news updates from Web sites—and helps teachers weave them into class lessons.

Simple is often the message that Ms. Gingerich, the technology trainer, also has for the Oregon teachers she works with.

For her filmmaking demonstration, she points to free applications she got off the Internet, such as Photo Story or Movie Maker. She suggests teachers plan the lesson around a curricular goal and teach technical skills—such as selecting and loading photos, creating titles or text, incorporating sound, and editing the film—in quick, separate lessons.

“You can’t give up three months of the curriculum to make a movie. I use four classes, and the movie is finished,” Ms. Gingerich said. “It’s a research and writing activity, not a technology activity.”

It was advice like that that drew Teryl Magee into DEN a few years ago. When she found out her district near Knoxville, Tenn., subscribed to Discovery’s streaming-video program, she started participating in the online and live workshops to learn how to use the resources in her 4th grade classroom. She now organizes state-level DEN events that introduce teachers to computer-based instructional materials. She also contributed to the DEN Earth and Space Virtual Project, a six-week webinar series on lessons related to planets and space missions.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, the [state and district academic] standards have to take center stage in my teaching,” Ms. Magee said. “But the technology gives you a level of creativity, and it keeps [the students] engaged.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Networking Teachers Coaxing Colleagues to Use Technology

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