Transformed By Technology

Teachers move from the basics to improving and learning with technology.

CHARLIE BUNSHAFT GOT HIS first real taste of technology in the classroom when a colleague gave him a projector he wasn’t using anymore. Bunshaft, a K-5 science teacher at P.S. 131Q in Queens, N.Y., used it to project PowerPoint presentations with textbook passages, questions and ideas. But when he’d slip in customized material, such as a photo of his son, Owen, during a lesson plan on mammals, he’d see his students’ attention levels soar.

In the three years since then, Bunshaft and his students have tracked Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency Web sites. His students have created tech-driven science-fair projects that, for two years in a row, took the top awards in every category they entered. They have researched the Web to learn how to grow a school garden that won awards from singer Bette Midler and the New York Sanitation Department, as well as a personal invitation to CBS’ The Early Show and a write-up in New York Newsday.

“We’ve been busy,” Bunshaft says. “Technology’s a big part of what we do.”

Like Bunshaft, who has been teaching for 14 years, educators around the nation are finding that their classrooms are being transformed by technology. CDW•G’s fourth annual Teachers Talk Tech survey, designed to gauge teachers’ impressions on the state of technology in schools, found that technology continues to change the way teachers teach and students learn.

Teachers say they are making the transition from learning technical skills to using technology to improve core curricula knowledge. “I’m worlds beyond what I knew three years ago,” Bunshaft says.

And it’s making a difference. Of the teachers surveyed, 82 percent say computers engage their students in the learning process versus 76 percent in 2005, and 65 percent say their students’ academic performance improves with the use of classroom computers, compared with 61 percent last year. “I think every teacher should be teaching with technology every day,” Bunshaft says. “There’s no reason not to in 2006.”

EFFECTIVE LEARNING

In three years, teachers have dramatically transformed the way they use technology. Bunshaft, for instance, used technology as a presentation tool in 2003, whereas today he uses it interactively with students.

His students, 80 percent of whom are immigrants, created personal Web sites to keep distant relatives informed about their lives. They also used Google Earth to see aerial photos of their homelands.

In this year’s survey, 60 percent of the teachers who responded say technology is effective in teaching scientific concepts, compared with only 51 percent last year. When it comes to critical thinking skills, the number of teachers who think technology is an effective teaching tool jumped to 68 percent from 59 percent last year. As a writing skills tool, 71 percent find technology effective versus 64 percent in 2005.

Those numbers still reflect some degree of resistance to technology, which many teachers feel is healthy. Margery Wieder, a 30-year teaching veteran at Newton North High School outside Boston, feels that while technology has a role in education, it’s less useful to her as an English teacher than it would be if she were teaching another subject. Her classes, she adds, are most effective when students are discussing ideas rather than working on computers.

“Technology could distract people from getting kids to talk with each other and think about what they’re reading,” Wieder says.

Wieder does use some technology in her classes. Her students research authors online and write papers at home, she takes attendance on a notebook PC, and she communicates with parents and students via e-mail. Wieder uses projectors to show artwork or poems that they discuss in class, and she takes her students to the computer lab for in-class writing or to the library for online research every few weeks. They occasionally play computer-based games, such as Jeopardy, and Wieder plans to build a class Web site this year.

But, Wieder says, “I’d hate to use too much class time doing computer work when it’s something they can do on their own time. I’d rather have them interacting with each other. Most days you’ll find my class [sitting] in a circle talking.”

Wieder has searched for lesson plans online, but, she says, “I’m not really impressed with what I find. I like developing curriculum, and I feel that’s one of the things that I’ve gotten better at after so many years of teaching.”

Wieder is not alone. While some teachers resist technology because it’s intimidating, Wieder is careful not to use it for its own sake. Particularly because of the nature of what she teaches, Wieder would rather limit technology to activities that can further learning.

She knows she can’t dismiss technology outright because it’s a tool her students will inevitably use in the future. “They’re going to go places technologically — they already have — that I will never go,” says Wieder, who plans to retire in a few years.

Bunshaft of P. S. 131Q agrees. Because his students are young and can quickly grasp new concepts, he feels this is the perfect time to incorporate technology into their learning. “It’s irresponsible not to use it, because they’ll have to use technology in college and at work,” he says.

Bunshaft feels there’s a big gap in students’ technology skills that teachers should work to eliminate. “Why wouldn’t you expose them to technology if you have the opportunity?” he asks.

Technology has changed the way I teach “a great deal.”

40% 2004
56% 2005
54% 2006

SOURCE: TEACHERS TALK TECH SURVEY, CD W•G, JUNE 2006

Technology is important in schools, especially for the following:

Administrative functions
76% 2004
88% 2006

Communicating with others
71% 2004
86% 2006

Research for preparing lessons
73% 2004
81% 2006

Teaching tool for students
65% 2004
79% 2006

SOURCE: TEACHERS TALK TECH SURVEY, CDW•G, JUNE 2006

PAYOFFS AND TURNOFFS

Technology engages students, but teachers still face plenty of challenges in using it during class.

Rich Blackford uses technology in his eighth-grade social studies classes just about every day, but he always has a backup plan. “What if you can’t get on your network?” he asks. Or the power might go out, adds Blackford, who teaches outside of St. Louis, which suffered days-long power outages in July.

Technical difficulties are among the many challenges faced by teachers who are incorporating technology into their classrooms. In CDW•G’s Teachers Talk Tech survey, teachers cited the following (in this order) as their biggest obstacles to integrating technology into daily instruction: access to computers, time, budget, class size, having to prepare for standardized tests, teacher training, set curriculum and other factors, including technical problems and lack of tech support.

The list goes on. Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo., where Blackford teaches, was built in 1967. Trying to put 21st century technology into a ’60s era building is difficult at best, he says.

Access to computers is a stumbling block for many schools. Newton North, a high school outside of Boston, is usually far ahead of its peers, but, says English teacher Margery Wieder, “We’re far behind when it comes to technology.”

P. S. 131Q in Queens, N. Y., doesn’t have that problem. The school recently won a Beaumont Foundation of America grant for a mobile technology cart with 15 notebook PCs, a projector, a printer and three digital cameras.

But, says K-5 science teacher Charlie Bunshaft, who fully embraces classroom technology, “I have days when I’m ready to pull my hair out. You have to run from computer to computer, and there are 12 problems and they’re all different.

“The payoff, though, is that the kids aren’t just staring at the clock,” he adds.

One turnoff is that using technology in the classroom demands a great deal of prep work from teachers. Preparing PowerPoint presentations is more time-consuming than jotting down notes on a blackboard, Blackford says.

His district is talking about creating curriculum and assessment databases, so teachers can share lesson plans and tests. Starting such a system is time-consuming, but once it’s built, teachers will have quick access to an array of new resources.

The Web itself can be a powerful but dangerous tool, Wieder says. Some students are tempted to lift material from the Internet and pass it off as their own.

Internet research can also result in overkill, Blackford says. Typing “American Revolution” into Google produces more than 17 million results. He uses a site called ikeepbookmarks.com to bookmark good sites and lets students search that list. For most schools, cost is the bottom line. “I don’t know that the technology is limited so much as we’re limited by budget,” Blackford says. But he holds out hope that as more teachers incorporate technology into their classrooms, vendors will provide more sophisticated and cost-effective tools. “I think this is just the beginning of what we’re going to see,” he says.

I am an advanced or somewhat advanced technology user.

43% 2004
63% 2006

SOURCE: TEACHERS TALK TECH SURVEY, CDW•G, JUNE 2006

Melissa Solomon is a freelance writer based in New York.

Oct 31 2006

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