On April 12, questions from readers about how educators are dealing with the constant influx of new technologies, such as iPods, were fielded by La Donna Conner, an instructional-technology specialist for Texas’ Carrollton-Farmers Branch public schools near Dallas, and Alan Warhaftig, an English teacher at the Fairfax Magnet Center for Visual Arts, in Los Angeles, and a technology columnist for Teacher Magazine. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: How can I get the school community to embrace technology without having people feel as if it is being forced on them? Can I use technology to establish a culture of trust in the school?
Conner: One way to establish a climate of trust is communication. Using today’s technologies can begin to open those lines of communication. For instance, Principal Tim Tyson of Mabry Middle School, in Marietta, Ga., podcasts what is happening on his campus, and his teachers podcast what is happening in their classrooms (http://mabryonline.org). My district, Carrollton-Farmers Branch in Texas, podcasts what is happening at the district level (www.cfbisd.edu).
Question: Is the banning of various forms of hand-held technology a recommended practice, and, if so, why?
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Conner: As a former classroom teacher, I understand the need for a policy addressing the use of certain technologies. However, sometimes those policies need to be revisited with changing technology. My district does have a policy prohibiting the use of cellphones, iPods, and so forth during the school day. When we were given permission to start our iPod pilot program, this was an issue we addressed with administrators. They saw the potential that the iPods offered and were willing to allow them to be used during the school day, so long as this use was in a classroom participating in the pilot. In my opinion, it would be a shame if, because of a district policy, students did not have access to a tool that might help them be successful in school.
Question: Are there any efforts being made to train teachers to be innovative enough with technology to cause learning to take place through the use of some of the popular gizmos students bring to school?
Warhaftig: Before teachers can be trained, appropriate uses need to be defined. And from what I can see, this has not gotten very far. Billions of education technology dollars have been spent on hardware, networking, software, and technical support, and almost no money has been spent on planning curricular integration or teacher professional development. There are certainly teachers who have found clever, educationally valuable ways to integrate technology in their classrooms, but they are exceptions rather than the rule. As for the “gizmos” our students bring to class, I will regard them as distractions until their educational value is demonstrated.
Question: Are there resources, funds, or programs available to educate technology-phobic teachers on the proper integration of education technology into the classroom setting?
Conner: To me, the most important route to getting technology-phobic teachers to embrace technology in their teaching begins at the top—with the expectation of school administrators. I am fortunate enough to work in a district where the expectation—from the school board, to the superintendent, to the building principal—is that all teachers will incorporate technology into their curriculum. Did this happen overnight? Absolutely not, but as the technology-phobic teachers in the district saw what was happening in other classrooms, were provided with opportunities to attend technology-integration training, and then were given instructional support, the curricular integration of technology by teachers districtwide began to happen.
Question: We see a gap, between 6th grade and college, in students’ engagement in learning at school. How can these types of personal technologies be used to engage teenagers more?
Conner: Devices such as iPods, PDAs, and cellphones are being used by students every day in their personal lives. They are becoming commonplace tools. If students are able to view a video on an iPod before class, there is more time for discussion. Podcasting class lectures allows students to listen anytime, any place. If we can employ the technologies students already are using in their day-to-day lives as a vehicle for learning, we need to do just that.
Question: Do you think it’s possible to have textbook companies provide audio versions of their books for kids to play in their iPods and other audio devices while they commute to school, and so forth?
Conner: Textbook companies already provide many ancillary materials with their textbooks. This could be an excellent tool for students—to be able to listen to books on their iPods. Just think of the possibilities for English-as-a-second-language students, visually impaired students, and students with attention deficit disorder.
Question: How do teachers who may not have an interest in technology learn of ways to capture student interest in different content areas? Can you share examples of strategies being used by teachers to integrate technology in their classrooms and across content areas?
Conner: Teachers in my district have many opportunities to learn about technology integration, from the “technology integration academy,” held during the summer, to the “beyond-hardware initiative” training provided during the school year. Both of these offer teachers small-group training focused on a curriculum objective and using technology as the tool to teach the learning goal. We offer training in everything from FrontPage and Kidspiration, to how to use the teachers’ presentation cart our district provides. This cart includes a computer, a data projector, a document camera, a VCR (we are, after all, in education, and have many tapes in our school libraries), and speakers.
The No. 1 way that teachers who don’t really embrace technology begin to have an interest in it is when they see the exciting things their colleagues are doing with technology. Our teachers use iMovie (even though we are primarily a PC district) to integrate technology across content areas. There is a tremendous amount of research, storyboarding, writing, and editing incorporated when students create their own movies.
Question: Time magazine had an article recently about the damage caused to areas of the developing brain when it is overloaded by technology. What is your opinion of that, if you saw the article?
Warhaftig: The Time article (March 27, 2006) raises profound questions about public health and cultural change that may take decades to answer. Will use of technology accelerate or alter the course of our evolution? Will natural selection require multitasking as an adaptation for survival, or does diminished awareness of our immediate surroundings place us at greater risk of being consumed by critters with a different concept of the food chain? Does paying simultaneous attention to many things diminish our capacity to pay full attention to one thing? In time, historians may regard the companies that sold us technology as no better than those that sold us tobacco.
Developmental and health research on sustained technology use by young people should have been done before most kids in America had a computer, cellphone, and two or three other devices. But that’s not how the marketplace works. If there are ill effects, society will just have to pick up the pieces and pay the price. I’m afraid that the ship has sailed.
Question: How do you allow technology into schools and keep students from using it for the purpose of cheating—for example, by texting test answers back and forth?
Warhaftig: Cheating has clearly been transformed by technology, though it remains a character problem rather than a technological one.
The only solution is to require students to put their communication devices away before a test—to clear their desks and not have their cellphones on their person. Then watch them like a hawk. Of course, this erodes trust in the classroom and takes much of the pleasure out of teaching.
A more serious problem, from my perspective as an English teacher, is falsification of writing—whether by purchasing papers, exchanging them with friends, or copying work other students have proudly posted on their Web pages. It’s a brave new world we live in.
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