Oct 12 2006

Tech Training in Tight Times

Technology can be a godsend to schools—if teachers know how to use it. Here, two school IT managers debate the issue of technology training for teachers.

The No Child Left Behing (NCLB) Act and similar programs that are designed to bring advanced technology into K-12 schools pose new twists to a perennial problem: Ensuring that teachers and administrators know how to use the new systems.

How can busy IT professionals, technology trainers and others cope with the training demands wrought by a new wave of equipment and regulations? How much responsibility for tech training resides with IT, and how much rests with the teachers themselves? Two experienced front-line professionals—Tim Tinnirello, director of management information systems, Lorain City Schools, Lorain, Ohio; and John Memmott, district technology coordinator, Oberlin City School District, Oberlin, Ohio—sound off on these and other related questions.

The No Child Left Behind Act asserts that “While upgraded infrastructure now permits most teachers to access technology in their classrooms, few teachers have the knowledge, skills and curricula needed to use technology effectively to improve student achievement.” Do you agree?
Memmott: Oberlin teachers have very adequate access to technology in their classrooms. Every room has high-bandwidth Internet and network wiring, and all buildings have wireless coverage. In addition, most teachers have been provided with notebooks, and all have e-mail accounts and phones in their classrooms. Now we are equipping and training the teachers with handheld computers so they can assess and record student performance. If an Oberlin teacher wants the equipment, software and training, it is available.

A substantial percentage of teachers participate in our Saturday and summer workshops. Most use technology as a communication tool, to support the skills they are trying to teach and to motivate their students to be more involved with their education. However, teachers who show the extra enthusiasm needed to establish a leadership role in technology remain in the minority.
Tinnirello: Yes, teachers’ technology skills are a problem. However, another problem is caused by not realizing that technology comes as a package deal. For technology to be useful, you must have technical support, administrative support, a coordinator of a technology training program, mandated training and teacher willingness to facilitate technology in the classroom. So it involves more than just teachers’ skills.

In your experience, has NCLB created more technology training problems than it has solved?
Memmott: It’s difficult to determine. Yes, it will create problems if the content of our professional development programs is determined through outside forces, and if we lose the freedom to design training to fit our local needs, within the limited amount of in-service time we have. But NCLB might solve some problems if it provides the impetus for more professional training opportunities.
Tinnirello: The problems with teacher training for technology occurred long before the NCLB acronym ever hit the radar. An overall attitude change from teacher-centric classroom to teacher/facilitator classroom must occur. NCLB didn’t create this problem and it’s probably not going to solve it.

NCLB stipulates that districts receiving Educational Technology State Grant (ETSG) funds must spend at least 25 percent on “high-quality professional development in the integration of technology into curricula and instruction.” Based on your experience, has this mandate been realistic?
Memmott: We spend 15 to 20 percent of our technology dollars on professional development. Our district technology committee recognizes the importance of training, and staff surveys support the need for more training. But our low investment is more a factor of the limited time available. Providing more training opportunities doesn’t seem to improve participation. Offering meaningful topics, materials teachers can use in the classroom, and support after the in-service is over seem to have a more positive impact.
Tinnirello: The government should provide an auditable, broad outline of what the grant is to be used for, such as advancing educational technology. Then the feds or the states should let individual school districts use the money to accomplish this goal in their own way.

If you look at the two school districts in this article, you can see the truth in this. Oberlin Schools consists of four schools and 1,100 students in a rural college town. Lorain City Schools consists of 17 schools and 10,500 students in an urban area trying to change from the industrial age to the information age. Could we possibly have anywhere near the same needs? So applying the same cookie-cutter approach to every place in the United States cannot possibly be realistic.

Funding for the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PTTUT) program was halted because the federal government said it duplicated activities within the ETSG and the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants programs. Was that a mistake?
Memmott: I like the technology focus of the PTTUT program; the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program is much more general. Both, however, have a complex level of bureaucracy that is a disincentive for a small school district like Oberlin to participate in the program. I’m a half-time district technology coordinator. Where do I find the time to manage a grants program while supporting our day-to-day needs?
Tinnirello: So the PTTUT was halted because of the ETSG, which supposedly does the same thing. And in its place we now have the NCLB Act, which in turn uses Title II-D, blah, blah, blah. Some genius somewhere will change these money-pool acronyms tomorrow. Then we’ll all be using new acronyms from a 1,000-page book that only a physicist can figure out. Once again, if the grant providers gave more leeway, there would be less of a problem.

A 1999 survey by the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics cited “independent learning” as the most common way teachers learned technology. Is this a good sign or cause for concern?
Memmott: It’s a big cause for concern. As technology becomes more complex, and as we become more dependent on that technology, the need for uniform training and support can only grow. For example, our student assessment, daily operations—attendance, record keeping, communication—and curriculum development are now all interdependent. Learning to be synchronous with the technology that runs those systems cannot be learned independently. We all need to be on the same page and at similar levels for the systems to run effectively.
Tinnirello: Independent learning in any subject has never been a cause of concern for me. If individuals in any profession decide to upgrade their skills, the organization, the individuals and the people they are working with all benefit.

The same federal survey said teachers trying to use the Internet in classroom instruction were lacking in learning time, good instructional software, training opportunities and technical support or advice. Has NCLB funding favorably altered this picture?
Memmott: With or without the NCLB funding, these are still the biggest barriers. More funding always provides more options and opportunities. If the [NCLB] bureaucracy is similar to our E-Rate experience, the only additional obstacles will be the time and resources needed to comply with additional paperwork, as well as time away from the district for training on how to interpret and adhere to the regulations and guidelines.
Tinnirello: Recently, I have been working to acquire instructional software for all schools in the district. The district realizes that this is a problem and is working to address it. NCLB funds will probably be used for acquiring the technologies that are ultimately decided upon.

When it comes to technical support, I know of few grants that will help. Today we just hope to maintain our present staff. Maybe in the future somebody will realize that technology comes as a complete package and not just pieces.

As for learning time and training opportunities, NCLB and other grant programs give teachers many opportunities to increase their skills. As a computer professional I have spent many nights and weekends in classes. Maybe teachers should consider evening, weekend and summer technology classes as well.

Should teachers be offered an incentive to continue professional technology development?
Memmott: Our district has had success in providing equipment incentives, such as handhelds and cameras, that are related to the training offered and then used in classrooms. We are also able to offer graduate credit that is covered through our tuition reimbursement program.
Tinnirello: Teachers must realize that using technology has already become a part of their profession. Soon it will be a major part. Yes, some continuing education should be funded, but only after the teachers have acquired basic technology-based teaching skills. The very reason for the NCLB Act shows that we are nowhere near that level of knowledge. Yet, without a technology-savvy society, we will not compete successfully in this world.

Joseph Maglitta is a veteran IT writer and editor based in Cambridge, Mass.