Oct 12 2006

Feature Story: Tech and Text: A Balancing Act

Teachers and school technologists shift their focus from getting technology into the classroom to incorporating technology into curricula.

How educators integrate IT into the curriculum

THERE’S NO DOUBT THAT TECHNOLOGY HAS INFILTRATED K-12 EDUCATION IN RECENT YEARS, BUT questions linger regarding whether it actually enhances learning as hopeful advocates expected it would. As some educators learned the hard way, mastering technology is as much about higher-order thinking and the basics of how children learn as it is about putting a computer in front of every student. And in some cases, even if the tools are available, not every teacher is using them.

“Today’s kids make up the MTV and video game generation,” says Jem Pagan, whose company, TECCO, Inc., developed an interactive CD-ROM called ALJBRA. The program is designed to help students with graphing and cognitive skills by exploring Algebra concepts. “We bombard them with electronic devices and games, then force them to endure a passive teaching experience that focuses on rote memory,” he says. We can’t do that to our kids.”

Click HereMany experts agree with Pagan’s sentiment, yet there are larger issues. According to Steve Rappaport, director of programs at Advanced Network and Services in Armonk, N.Y., technology has not been effectively integrated in our schools.

“Technology must be pervasive. But the cost of technology is keeping schools from getting to the 1-to-1 ratio of computers to students needed to make it successful. As long as technology is restricted to computer labs, it will remain peripheral to learning,” says Rappaport.

But school districts across the country are carving out ways to make technology part of the curriculum, even on a trial and error basis. The experts say the keys to success are planning, seeking best practices for each subject and providing support for teachers.

Lessons Learned

Just off Route 66 near Gallup, N.M., a small 100-year-old school that serves the region’s Navajo and Zuni nations seems an unlikely innovator. But with the thoughtful persistence of Doug Evilsizor, director of development, and Steve Weeda, technology integration specialist, Rehoboth Christian School has found a meaningful way to integrate technology into this K-12 school’s curriculum. However, before installing the server-driven thin-client network—where all applications are accessible from the servers—Weeda and his colleagues learned their lessons the hard way.

“We put new machines in the elementary school without thinking about how to transition the teachers into using the computers,” Weeda says. “You can’t just drop technology in the classroom without providing support.”

As a result, Weeda got a new job. The school needed a technology specialist who could focus on how to use the technology in the classroom, while also serving as a resource for teachers. Giving teachers access to technical expertise is one of the keys to successful integration.

“It’s been a great approach for us,” Evilsizor says. “It’s a big new world for a staff that’s been accustomed to teaching in another way.”

It helped that the person acting as advisor was also a teacher.

“I have been successful largely because Rehoboth teachers see me as an insider, a former Rehoboth teacher,” he says. “When a teacher meets me, his initial reaction is one of trust rather than skepticism toward an ‘outside consultant’ who doesn’t know the kids they teach.”

Another sure-fire way to make technology a significant part of the curriculum is to provide professional development for teachers.

“About one-third of our budget was set aside for technology development. In order to smooth the transition, it’s important to train staff,” Weeda notes.

Rehoboth’s model incorporates a staff person to support teachers, use of mobile desktops and seamless access to applications for all students. With the server set up as it is, students can log in from anywhere and access all applications, including word-processing apps and e-mail. They can bring the mobile units home, which is especially important to the region’s many low-income families who cannot afford to purchase home computers.

“The mobile desktop gives kids freedom,” Evilsizor notes.

There are some kids who commute 60 miles one way with 45 percent from low-income families. To help these students make the best use of their time, the school has also developed the computer-at-home program, which subsidizes low-income students by providing them with their own computers and Internet accounts. This approach still doesn’t solve the connectivity problem, however, because only about 60 percent of students from the Navajo Nation have phone lines at home (according to the 2000 census). But for those who do, Rehoboth has set up partnerships with a local ISP, which offers more service to the reservations than any other provider.

Building on the success of Rehoboth’s thin-client network, Weeda and Evilsizor are developing a more formalized approach to integrating technology into the curriculum planning.

“Our goal is to create a development track that ensures the curriculum is consistent throughout and develop a model for all teachers to follow,” Weeda says.

Few schools across the nation are as close as Reboboth to developing a technology-integrated curriculum. Part of the problem is a lack of equipment in the schools; the average public school contains only 124 instructional computers. But a bigger issue, according to experts, is lack of funding for professional development that would help train teachers and formalize the integration of technology into curricula nationwide.

“We have not, as a nation, made a commitment to providing support for technology,” Rappaport says.

Dealing With Teacher Resistance

At Madison City Schools in Madison, Ala., the biggest obstacle to technology integration is getting teachers to training that is now available. Kathy Rains, the district’s director of technology, encourages all the teachers in her district to take advantage of tech-related professional development courses. The training has been voluntary so far, but her goal is to make tech professional development mandatory. Rains created the successful Master Technology teacher program, which rewards teachers with notebook computers if they complete at least 60 hours of online training courses for integrating curriculum.

“Professional development is key to making technology work in classrooms,” Rains says. “You must provide incentives for teachers to come to training. That’s why training is more likely to succeed if it’s mandatory.”

Why are Rains and other technology directors finding it necessary to hold fire to their teachers’ feet?

The eight schools in Madison City school district, including one high school, two middle schools and five elementary schools, had no technology in their classrooms when Rains started. In her first year, she and her team networked every classroom. “Now we are focusing on the integration of technology as a productivity and teaching tool,” she says.

But no matter how much technology you wheel into the classroom, it’s worthless unless teachers know how best to use it. According to Rehoboth’s Weeda, helping teachers to develop core competencies will drive professional development.

Rappaport agrees. “Businesses train workers on how to use technology effectively, but schools generally don’t,” he says. “Teachers use computers at home, but don’t know how to use them in the classroom. I also hope to see a willingness to participate in a formalized technology development program and integrate technology into the curriculum included in each teacher’s professional evaluations.”

John Reiels, director of technology at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wis., previously focused on providing his teachers and students with access to technology.

“Now technology directors in schools are integrating and finding ways to improve instruction and help students achieve more with technology,” he says.

In order to achieve those goals, districts and schools must first identify the best instructional strategies. Then they should determine how to support those strategies, Reiels says. “Don’t isolate curriculum development, instructional design and technology planning,” he advises. “The three must work together.”

One challenge for Nicolet’s 100 teachers is how to effectively integrate technology into curricula when the school’s 1,450 students must share 600 computers. Like many schools in similar positions, Nicolet uses mobile notebook carts, each of which carries 15 notebook computers. Teachers sign up for the carts prior to classes in which each student must have access to his own computer. This system allows schools to integrate technology into curricula without having to purchase a workstation for each student.

But, even when schools resolve equipment-sharing issues, they must still grapple with staffing and training problems.

“We now realize we need an instructional technology coordinator; someone who knows both teaching and technology. We also need to ensure that teachers learn how to use technology effectively,” Reiels observes.

Reiels and his staff have also created a technology mentor program to help those teachers who want to use technology to change the way they teach, but don’t know where to start. Reiels pairs up each of these teachers with someone who understands and knows how to successfully integrate technology.

“It’s been the most effective program overall,” Reiels says.

Higher-Order Thinking

Reiels believes that effective use of technology depends on the development of higher-order thinking skills.

“There’s more involved than just gathering information. You need to compare, analyze and synthesize information and make a concerted effort to be aware of interdisciplinary connections,” he says.

In the state of Alabama, the K-12 curriculum includes a technology class that teaches students how to use a number of software programs, including Microsoft Office and Inspiration Software’s Kidspiration.

“These programs are not subject- but productivity-oriented,” Rains says. “Teachers can develop projects that help students use these programs to develop higher-order thinking, Rains explains.

Carole Johnson, curriculum specialist at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., believes that schools should always focus first on curriculum. She counsels teachers not to teach technology in isolation.

“Students need to learn to acquire information, process it and communicate what they’ve learned,” Johnson says. “Technology gives students a great tool for doing just that—but only when it’s successfully integrated with curricula.”

Making Tech Integration Work

As schools look toward integration of technology into K-12 curricula, it is important that they learn how to evaluate technology-based teaching materials. The ERIC Identifier from the ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher and Teacher Education in Washington, D.C. (www.ericit.org) published a paper, authored by Diane S. Reed and Robert F. McNergney, about how to best determine if the technology materials you’re about to purchase are actually worth the money you’ll pay for them. Key points to consider include:

Determining authenticity: Will the technology used bring real-world examples into the classroom?

Stimulation: Will the technology result in student engagement and collaborative learning?

Content: Does the product emphasize open-ended exploration and enable students to seek and manipulate digital information in engaging ways?

Technology and instructional tools: How much time must the teacher invest in learning to use the technology?

Assessment: Is it possible to measure student engagement as demonstrated by their observable performances?

Improving The Technology Experience

The CEO Forum (www.ceoforum.org), which promotes and assesses the progress of technology in America's schools, recommends six actions that schools, federal and state governments and research organizations can take to ensure that education technology investments improve both students' ability to achieve and the educational experience as a whole.

1. Focus education technology investment on specific educational objectives. However, in order to have a positive impact, investments in education technology must be made to help achieve clear, measurable educational objectives.

2. Make the development of 21st century skills a key educational goal. States should incorporate 21st century skills into standards.

3. States should update assessment tools to measure standards and include 21st century skills by 2003. Technology should be used in assessment so that the methods of assessment accurately reflect the tools employed in instruction.

4. Continuously improve strategies to measure progress and adjust accordingly. Frequently measuring the full impact of technology on student learning when integrated into the curriculum and using that data for continuous improvement will help ensure effectiveness and create guidelines for accountability.

5. Increase investment in research and development and dissemination. Federal and state governments, school districts, institutions of higher education, think tanks and foundations must fund research and development to determine the most effective uses of technology to improve student achievement.

6. Ensure equitable access to technology for all students. The federal and state governments, school districts and schools should measure education technology to ensure all students have access to essential tools. Federal and state governments and school districts should monitor education technology in the key areas of hardware, connectivity, professional development and digital content They should ensure that school funding processes enable equitable access, enabling all students to benefit from education technology.