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Special Report

Ed-Tech PD Focuses on Student Learning Needs

By Leslie Harris O'Hanlon — March 11, 2013 10 min read
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Kindergarten teacher Maria Knee says her pedagogy hasn’t changed much since she began teaching in 1972. She wants her young students to work for real purposes, have opportunities to talk with one another, and explore concepts in hands-on ways.

What has changed are the tools she uses. Starting six years ago, Knee, who teaches at Deerfield Community School in Deerfield, N.H., created a class blog, which serves as a digital journal of what’s happening in her classroom. As part of the blog, Knee infuses several technological tools into her teaching.

Students use digital voice recorders to read stories that they create and that are stored on the blog. They also use digital cameras to make video recordings of themselves demonstrating concepts they have learned. In addition, they edit video, deciding what information is most important and what can be snipped away. And they connect with other kindergarten classes in different states and countries through their blog.

Much of what Knee has learned about using technology in teaching comes from her own research. She has formed connections with teachers in other states and countries who blog with young students. She reads voraciously, and listens to podcasts and webinars about educational technology.

Traditional professional development, however—the kind in which teachers attend a one-time workshop or conference to learn a new teaching method, for example—hasn’t provided much help in bringing her classroom into the 21st century.

“I don’t really find that a lot of professional development meets my needs,” Knee says.

That reality needs to change, say many education experts.

To help teachers integrate technology more effectively into their teaching, professional development around educational technology should be a higher priority for schools and districts, experts say, and it needs to be ongoing and collaborative.

Most importantly, they say, professional development on educational technology should focus, with razor-sharp attention, on what students need to learn, rather than on how to use a specific device.

“Too often, when we talk about professional development around technology, we are not starting with the learning outcomes we want to achieve,” says Leslie Conery, the interim chief education officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports the use of information technology in learning and teaching.

“Instead, it’s ‘I want to use an iPad in my class. So I have to sit and learn the device.’ While sometimes you do just have to sit and learn how to use a device, that shouldn’t be the starting place,” she says. “The starting place should be what you want your kids to learn, such as learning how to be better readers, to write more creatively, or to hold good classroom discussions.”

Plus, technology shouldn’t be learned in isolation, but in the context in which it’s going to be used, experts say.

“All successful learning begins with a problem, and it has to be one you can relate to,” says Barry Fishman, an associate professor of educational studies and learning technologies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “So, rather than saying I’m going to help you use wiki, a much better place to start is to say, ‘I understand you want to foster collaboration or knowledge-building. Wikis can lend themselves to that approach.’ ”

Many districts and schools are in fact moving away from solely using the traditional format of professional development to encourage technology integration into teaching.

To turn his school into a technologically savvy place of learning, Eric Sheninger, the principal of the 660-student New Milford High School in New Milford, N.J., worked with a group of three teachers on technology issues. They focused their work on finding ways that technology could bolster student engagement in learning.

The group then researched and experimented with different programs and tools those teachers thought would excite students and deepen their learning. They shared what they learned with colleagues at the school.

“We created a culture of calculated risk-taking, and teachers were given a level of autonomy so they were empowered to find a better way, if they could, through technology,” Sheninger says.

Also, Sheninger used social-media sites, such as Twitter and Google+, to form his own personal learning network, a group of other educators interested in sharing ideas about how to use educational technology to improve teaching and learning. He took what he learned from his online personal network and passed it on to his teachers.

A Personal Approach

Three years later, that initial group of teachers has grown. Now, about half the staff regularly integrates technology into teaching.

For example, some teachers use free Web programs, such as Poll Everywhere, that allow students to use their phones to text an answer to a teacher’s question. The answers are displayed on a screen for everyone to see, which allows teachers to check quickly for student understanding.

See Also

For more technology-infused professional development opportunities, check out Ed-Tech Training Options.

Students and teachers also are using programs such as Edmodo, Google Docs, and Prezi to organize courses, post videos, participate in class discussions, collaboratively write and publish papers, and create multimedia presentations.

“We place a premium on our own expertise to basically form our own model of professional development on educational technology,” Sheninger says.

Virginia is also turning, more and more, to teachers to educate their colleagues about better uses of educational technology.

In 2005, the state legislature created and funded new teaching positions called “instructional technology resource teachers.” Those teachers work with other teachers to infuse more technology into their classroom approaches in ways designed to benefit student learning.

“The traditional approach of the three-hour training session on a teacher workday or an after-school, 45-minute training session when everyone is tired after a long day of teaching wasn’t working,” says Jean Weller, an instructional technology specialist for the Virginia Department of Education. “We knew that if we really wanted teachers to integrate technology, they need help right then and there, as opposed to whenever they go to a workshop.”

Each Virginia school district hires its own instructional technology resource teacher or teachers. Initially, those teachers were simply educators who were already using technology in their teaching. Now, many of the resource teachers have completed coursework to be certified in instructional technology, Weller says.

The resource teachers help colleagues integrate technology into their teaching, help with lesson planning, assist students with technology infused projects, and act as mentors to classroom teachers.

"[The resource teachers] meet the teacher where he or she is at, so they do a little of everything,” Weller says. “If a teacher is still a novice with technology, the teacher might search for technology integration lesson plans for student activities at sites like Thinkfinity, or PBS, or iTunes U or the new eMediaVA that give the teacher a good outline of what to do. If the school division has decided to adopt iPads or tablets, the [resource teacher] does the whole spectrum of training—how to physically use the devices, how to use software and do minor troubleshooting, how to find resources for the devices that they can use in their own classrooms, how to use the resources to teach in an integrated way, how to get data out of the devices into a usable format and then what that data can tell them about each student’s progress.”

They also co-teach lessons with classroom teachers. The advantages of such peer-to-peer professional development are numerous, Weller points out.

“It’s targeted to what the teacher is doing, so that it’s not this impersonal, theoretical thing,” she says. “It’s very much focused on what the teacher is doing at that moment, what their needs are, and what they are interested in trying.

“Also, having that person-to-person contact makes things so much better,” says Weller. “They have a real person to talk to, and someone they feel comfortable with.”

That more personal approach is evolving in other ways, too.

In the 18,000-student Parkway school system in Chesterfield, Mo., for example, each school has a technology committee, composed of the principal and teachers at that school, says William Bass, an instructional coach in the district. Those committees work with teachers at the schools to identify issues they want to address in their classrooms with technology.

If the teachers need more help, they can call in an instructional technology specialist from the district for more support.

“We are trying to take a grassroots approach,” Bass says. “The teachers are the ones who drive it, and then there’s support during that planning process or wherever they need help along the way.”

Online PD Lessons

One fast-evolving trend in professional development is the use of virtual classes or sessions.

A major advantage of online learning is that teachers can connect with educators locally or worldwide through their online coursework, says Amy Michalowski, the director of academic affairs for the Virtual High School Collaborative in Maynard, Mass.

The collaborative offers a five-course series of classes about using technology in the classroom. The program focuses on teachers’ working together with a community of learners, rather than sitting behind computers by themselves, not interacting with anyone, Michalowski explains.

The collaboration happens through class discussions, blogging, and other activities and projects.

“Teachers can find other like-minded instructors in their cohort and work together on developing a lesson, work on something else they want to create for their course, or work on developing a blended unit [of face-to-face and online learning],” Michalowski says.

In many online professional-development courses, teachers are required to use various technological tools, such as wikis, Google Earth, or VoiceThread, a collaborative, multimedia slide show that allows people to make comments about images, documents and videos. After using digital tools in their own professional development, Michalowski says, they can then use them more effectively and creatively with their students.

“They themselves are being engaged in learning with technology,” adds Barbara Treacy, the director of EdTech Leaders Online, a program of the Education Development Center, a global nonprofit organization based in Waltham, Mass.

“This is good because they actually get what’s going on with the learning environment, and how it is enhanced with technology,” she says. “Using it in their own learning is a great way to help students use it.”

Meanwhile, to emphasize cost-effective professional development, some districts are using Skype, podcasts, and webinars to deliver professional development that teachers can access at their convenience from their own computers.

For instance, the Keller Independent School District in Texas, which serves 33,130 students, sometimes records educational technology presentations using SAFARI Montage, a program that allows districts to upload their own digital videos for viewing, and then gives them access to educational videos produced by other groups, such as PBS.

“Instead of 500 teachers coming to a professional-development [session], they can get on the Internet and watch something, which is also recorded and made available for later use,” says Michelle Howard-Schwind, the director of organizational improvement for the district. “We are trying to develop just-in-time learning without getting them out of the classroom.”

Nationally, much professional development for teachers around educational technology is self-directed. Teachers have to build their own connections with other educators, think about what they want to improve in their own classroom, and research and experiment with different technology tools.

The key is to start small, says Knee, the New Hampshire kindergarten teacher.

“Teachers should find one thing that they would like to change or something they want to make better and look for ways to use a technology tool,” she says. And “teachers need to get outside of their school and see what is happening in other places. And be open to learning.”


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