Oct 31 2006

Technology: A Tool for Teaching

School districts across the nation use innovative approaches to bring the benefits of education technology to their students.

Learning about technology while hanging out at the mall may sound like a dubious—if not impossible—proposition, but Kandy Claybaugh, technology coordinator for Colorado Springs Public School District 11, knows otherwise.

In fact, she will tell you that the statement doesn’t go far enough. With a recommendation from their school or guidance counselor, teens can take any of 30 different for-credit high school courses at Colorado Springs’ Citadel Mall. Two years ago, Claybaugh launched the Digital School at the shopping mecca in Colorado Springs, and since then, she’s seen the district’s graduation rate increase and the dropout rate decrease.

She is one of a cadre of educators who are exploring innovative ways to use technology in schools. Some use the Internet, while others, like Claybaugh, take school to the students.

The Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association (NSBA), a federation of state associations of school boards that represents 95,000 school board members nationwide, recognizes and rewards creative thinking with various award programs.

The NSBA’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN) is made up of nearly 400 member organizations—including school districts, education agencies and education colleges—that share ideas and strategies for using technology to transform teaching and learning.

Each year, TLN recognizes three school districts for their important technology achievements. The 2004 Salute Districts were Colorado Springs District 11 in Colorado, Liberty Public Schools in Missouri and Ohio’s Orange City Schools.

The tenuous state of funding that’s available for education technology makes such pioneering thinking more important than ever to school districts that must work within tight budgets to train teachers who are carrying heavy workloads while also trying to engage students whose attention is pulled in multiple directions, says Ann Flynn, NSBA director of education technology.

One way her organization helps is through TLN. Its membership, conferences, workshops and organized site visits link educators, school board members and administrators with policymakers, researchers and leading high-tech firms. In addition, its Web site offers links to other resources, such as online professional development courses, that are designed to help educators make the most of technology tools.

Tech-Smart School Boards

NSBA and the Center for Digital Education based in Folsom, Calif., co-sponsored their first digital school boards survey last year, which was sent to more than 2,500 school districts.

NSBA presents annual awards for the nation’s most tech-savvy school boards, naming 10 winners in each of three size categories. Liberty County, Ga., won top honors in its category of school districts with between 2,501 and 15,000 students last October. Using a variety of technology tools, the district conducts paperless school board meetings, posting agendas and minutes online, along with lesson plans and other appropriate documents.

In 1998, Liberty County launched its in-house training program in which more than 20 teachers attend year-long education technology classes. After 100 hours of training, which includes one-on-one support, teachers leave class with equipment and knowledge that they can pass on to their students.

The district’s administrators have bridged any gaps in teacher training by allocating training resources to entire schools, rather than just training one or two teachers in a school.

“When we were using technology in one classroom in a school, we found it was too small an effort,” recalls Sharon Joiner, executive director of technology in Liberty County.

Training one teacher to use technology is fine, Joiner says, but she points out that there are many other teachers at a school.

“They can model and come in and see, but what you do [in one classroom] is not going to have that big an impact,” Joiner says.

Liberty County began its initiative to implement 21st-century technology classrooms by creating one model classroom in each of the system’s 14 schools. The school district then extended the initiative to site-based efforts and has allocated resources to two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

Several classrooms will be equipped with tools to turn them into technology classrooms at these sites. Spreading resources throughout an entire school lets teachers update their skills and rely on each other for support.

Trailblazing in Virginia

The first NSBA Trailblazer award was presented in 2002 to Henrico County Public Schools in Richmond, Va., for its districtwide notebook PC program, which promotes independent, interactive learning. Since its launch in 2001, the program has grown to include 28,700 notebook PCs.

Funding for the program accounts for less than 5 percent of the school budget, and the school board gave its support after the administration team found a leasing program for the computers, says Lloyd Brown, the school system’s acting director of technology.

Making technology transparent in classrooms has been challenging, Brown acknowledges. So has developing the program’s infrastructure and maintaining its hardware.

But the IT troubleshooting has been manageable, he says, and the trade-off has been worth it: Computer access to graphics, databases and other resources has helped Henrico County students better prepare for entering college and the workforce.

“The teachers needed reassurance that technology was not replacing teachers, but would be used as a resource tool,” Brown says. “But the students bought into it like it was candy.”

Achieving Goals

Improving teacher training and providing both students and teachers with better access to technology are vital goals for all school districts. Another is making classes relevant and enticing so students want to take them.

Meeting that challenge is what Claybaugh had in mind with her Digital School in Colorado Springs. Students attend classes between two and five days a week, depending on their schedules and goals. They log onto computers, completing each course in about 45 hours.

Once the Digital School opened in 2003, Claybaugh had very little trouble attracting tech-hungry teens into her classrooms. “My labs were packed in June and July,” Claybaugh recalls. “They were lined up before the mall opened, waiting to get in.”

In fact, since the Digital School opened, the district’s graduation rate has increased by almost 4 percent.

Christie Taylor is a Houston-based freelance writer who specializes in business, education and the arts.

The Importance of Arts Education

School districts across the country suffer when budget cuts diminish arts programs. Art supplies dwindle, music lessons decrease and theater productions limp along on shoestring budgets.

“It’s critical for students of the future to be educated in the arts,” says Jennifer Chowning, arts education coordinator for Americans for the Arts, “and to realize that the media arts—video, design, graphics—are also art forms.”

To promote arts education programs, the National School Boards Association partnered with Americans for the Arts in an initiative to increase awareness about successful strategies for keeping the arts in public schools. The partnership created an

online arts resource center, Arts Education in Public Schools (http://www.artsusa.org/information_services/arts_education_community/resource_center_020.asp). Arts Education in Public Schools is designed to provide relevant resources and tools for local education policymakers and school board leaders to help generate support for arts education.

The online center, according to Chowning, “serves as an introduction to the role of the arts in student academic success, provides access to supportive research, highlights promising practices and identifies success indicators of local arts education policy.”