I'll confess I have little patience for most classes and workshops, whether they’re about technology or anything else. Sitting, even for a few hours, and listening to a presenter drone does little for me except help develop a strong empathy for our kids.
Which raises the question: Is technology training a good investment of our energy and time, or is it just another fad? Technology is a permanent fixture in education and virtually every other industry, so if you, as a teacher, have scarce time to devote to learning new skills, learning the ones that will last you the rest of your career is a sound investment. And all teachers need to be technologically literate. If we aren’t, we are as unethical as a doctor who refuses to learn how to take advantage of a CAT scan.
The International Society for Technology in Education does a good, if ambitious, job of describing what teachers should know and be able to do with technology in its National Educational Technology Standards (see www.cnets.iste.org/teachers). But until somebody invents a brain chip that imbues the implantee with these skills instantly, teachers will need learning experiences to acquire them.
For many schools, large-group instruction remains the most popular means of technology training. To be fair, these "computer boot camps" instill at least a passing knowledge of how to turn on the machine, open a program, organize files, and operate a word processor, e-mail program, Web browser, and electronic grade book—prerequisite skills for higher-end uses of technology. And as a result of boot-camp-style instruction, most teachers have learned the basics.
But after reaching that point, staff development models need to reflect the more individualized requirements of specific teaching assignments.
Most districts’ offerings still tend to be "just in case"—just in case, that is, a teacher might need to know how to use, say, Web-editing tools, video-editing software, or databases (the same philosophy that my algebra teacher had about solving quadratic equations). What’s more, the same classes are offered to elementary, secondary, and special ed teachers, as well as to guidance counselors and reading specialists, without acknowledging their unique goals and needs.
Considering that keeping up with all the changes in education, not just technology, is such a challenge for teachers, such a scatter-shot approach to tech training is inefficient and ineffective. The focus of all training must shift from "just in case" to "just in time"—learning only what you need to know, as you need it.
When it comes to technology, this approach relies less on district-mandated classes and more on individual learning opportunities. The rudiments of most software programs can be learned in less than an hour—just enough to get started—when done one-on-one, and that help can come from other colleagues—or even students.
Many teachers learn right along with their classes when a librarian or technology specialist works collaboratively with them, and online tutorials can be a convenient and effective supplement to face-to-face instruction. (My favorite, Atomic Learning, offers short videos with specific how-tos for nearly every software package and operating system schools use.) These digital tutors are always available, understandable, and exceptionally patient.
No matter what the approach, learning technology should only be one part of a broader educational goal. Learning to use a database, for instance, should be part of doing more effective assessments. Learning to use mind-mapping software such as Inspiration should be part of enhancing writing instruction. And learning to more effectively search the Web should be part of improving student research skills. In other words, the focus should be on improving professional practices, not learning to use a computer.
Most educators, including me, are better teachers than students. But if we structure technology training to suit individual adult learning styles and place it within the context of improving educational practices, teachers can and will become technologically literate—just in time.
Doug Johnson, director of media and technology for Mankato Area Public Schools in Minnesota, can be reached at [email protected].
Vol. 16, Issue 2, Page 55Published in Print: October 1, 2004, as Classroom Tech