Oct 31 2006

Five Tips Show How Technology Can Give Teachers More Time In The Classroom

Most teachers face a lengthy to-do list, so time management is critical for squeezing in more time to teach.

As a former high school science teacher, Jim Clark remembers being inundated with paperwork that never seemed to go away. Recording grades, corresponding with parents, writing lesson plans and filling out district data collection forms created an endless cycle of chores that cut into his teaching time.

“If we could get that into electronic form, we could reduce the amount of time and effort needed to fill out that paperwork,” he remembers thinking. Today, as an instructional technology specialist for Wichita Public Schools in Wichita, Kan., Clark devotes his time to making life easier for the district’s 3,700 teachers by automating many tasks that were once completed by hand.

But time management for teachers and administrators involves more than just eliminating paperwork. Clark and other school technology specialists have reined in “time robbers” with easy and often inexpensive technologies.

1. Time Robber: Grading tests and logging scores. Solution: Student response systems.

Clark was frustrated by his school’s method for collecting and assessing students’ grades and comparing that data with other district schools. The district assessments frustrated teachers because they had to manually enter every one of the students’ answers onto a spreadsheet. The data “was supposed to be rolled up into a big report,” but it never happened because data entry became too cumbersome, Clark says.

Today, Clark automates the process with handheld “clickers,” or student response systems from eInstruction. When students take the assessment tests every three weeks, they beam their answers from a handheld remote control device to the teacher’s desktop. The system automatically enters student responses onto a spreadsheet.

“The test gets graded immediately, and everybody who needs to see that data has ready access to it” on the district’s network, Clark says.

The advanced system comes with 32 remote control devices that allow students to answer multiple-choice and numeric-response questions, and view their answers on a LCD screen. One system can be shared by many classrooms for testing, and that saves the district money.

2. Time Robber: Writing, copying and sending parent-related correspondence. Solution: E-mail and PDF documents.

The need to create, copy and distribute parent-related information poses another time robber. “Teachers like to teach. They don’t like handling huge amounts of paperwork,” says Brian Friedlander, a former school psychologist and president of AssistiveTek, a tech consulting firm for special education and K-12 schools.

Friedlander advises schools to take the paperless route and switch to e-mail correspondence. “I’ve been doing work with Adobe Acrobat software—showing teachers how to go paperless and create documents online, then e-mail it,” he says. “I convert Word files to PDFs, and I also distribute [information] on CDs.” This makes information easier to save for teachers and parents, reduces copying time and costs, and ensures that all correspondence reaches parents.

As of October 2003, the Department of Commerce reported that 65 percent of married couples with children under 18 had a computer with Internet access in the household. That number is lower for single parents: 50 percent of male-led households and 51 percent of female-led households are Internet users.

The success of e-mail correspondence plans vary by district, says Eileen Barnett, assistant director of academic technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. For families without Internet access, employers, libraries, community centers and Boys & Girls Clubs can offer free options for sending and receiving e-mail.

3. Time Robber: Writing and logging classroom observation notes. Solution: Personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Administrators at Wichita Public Schools perform walk-through observations of teachers in their classrooms. Previously, the written snapshot of classroom performance was jotted into a notebook, copied and sent to district headquarters. “On an individual basis, the [snapshots] don’t tell you much,” Clark explains, “but they’re meant to show improvement over the year. When the information was on paper, “they had no way of taking that into the data analysis phase, so it reached a dead end,” he says.

Clark purchased Palm handhelds and showed administrators how to take notes electronically, then download data into the school’s database. “We put the walk-through observation [forms] on the Palms, so they can collect them electronically,” Clark explains. Administrators collect numeric data, such as the number of students engaged during class, and that data is plugged into an Excel spreadsheet.

Over time, administrators can tell if the plan to improve the teacher’s instruction worked by checking on the number of students engaged in subsequent observations. “They can look at trends and statistics, so they can start measuring whether there is growth taking place or not,” Clark says.

4. Time Robber: Students taking turns using resources. Solution: Digital projectors.

Most classrooms use static overhead projectors, chalkboards or whiteboards as visual tools. But more teachers at Clark’s school are clamoring for digital projectors, which can extend the use of scarce classroom resources. For example, digital projectors can interface with a single microscope and project the image so that every student can participate. Digital projectors also connect with PCs to show material from the Web.

But finding reliable material on the Internet takes time, says Sally Adkin, senior vice president for external programs at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, N.C. To ease the burden, Adkin suggests that teachers assign motivated high school students to find information on the Internet and put together a classroom presentation.

5. Time Robber: All of the above time robbers leave no time for individualized attention. Solution: Interactive audiovisual.

Friedlander from Assistive Tek consults with special education classrooms where many students require individualized attention. Some schools use reading pens, which can help students understand test material by reading a line of text out loud.

He has also used Write:OutLoud SOLO by Don Johnston Inc., which lets students write and edit written work out loud with a talking word processor.

All technology wish lists come with obstacles—and not just from budget constraints. Other obstacles include old wiring in schools and the lack of resources to train teachers and staff. But Clark is resolved. “We’re going to convince most people that they can use this technology,” he says.

Technologies for Better Time Management

1. Let students record their own test scores with personal response systems.

2. Equip administrators with PDAs to grab classroom data on the fly.

3. Make parent correspondence fast and easy with PDF files and e-mail.

4. Kid-friendly tech tools like reading pens make personalized instruction fun.

5. Share resources with all students through digital projectors.

Stacy Collett is a Chicago-based journalist.