Oct 12 2006

Working Together To Make The Most Of Technology

School communities must work together to build an education plan that makes the most of technology. Here’s how some schools are making it succeed.

After teaching at one of New York City's most underperforming schools, Charles Bunshaft expected to be impressed when he moved to P.S. 131Q, a high-rated elementary school in Queens. “Impressed” turned out to be an understatement. “It’s incredible,” he says.

State-of-the-art digital cameras and microscopes that are connected to computers are just a few of the things that help Bunshaft capture the interest of his science students.

Thanks to grants and donations, his old school was technology rich, but no one developed a plan to integrate the technology into the classroom, so most equipment sat unused or broken. P.S. 131Q, on the other hand, has an active school community that works together to devise ways to use technology to enhance learning, Bunshaft explains.

The contrasting scenarios illustrate the fact that schools can have the latest, greatest equipment, but it’s rendered useless without a well-developed program for maintaining and integrating the technology into the curriculum. To devise such a plan, schools need to bring together school communities to gather ideas, input, talent and resources.

“Community buy-in and participation are very important,” explains Amy Kersten, who is a parent volunteer who became the technology coordinator at Holy Family School, a K-8 parochial school in Davenport, Iowa.

When Kersten, who previously worked in the software industry, started volunteering at the school nearly a decade ago, there was a sparse supply of computers. Shortly after she was hired, the school won a grant to upgrade and wire its infrastructure. From there, the school got desktops for every classroom, along with wireless notebooks. Last fall, Holy Family won a wireless lab from CDW•G and Discovery Channel School. (See “Planning Plus Kismet” on p. 55.)

Now children who are in kindergarten create slide shows, while second-graders produce reports on the solar system. Eighth-graders use educational software to build Web sites about public figures that have influenced their lives.

“Technology is not an inexpensive resource, but it’s a very valuable resource when it’s used correctly, so you have to plan,” Kersten says. “It can’t just be technology for technology’s sake. It has to enhance instruction in some way.

“Our students just assume that technology is going to be part of their lives,” she adds. “It’s like coming to school and seeing a chalkboard there.”

For Kersten, technology isn’t the most important element in a strong technology program. Teachers are.

The proof can be found in Holy Family’s past. Even when Kersten could count the school’s computers on her hands, a few tech-savvy teachers figured out how to work technology into their classrooms.

Holy Family helped its teachers get comfortable with computers by encouraging them to e-mail their spouses, friends or kids in college. “We took a back-door approach and snuck it in,” Kersten says. “When technology is something personal and fun, people don’t fear it as much.”

Holy Family also offered a variety of computer-training opportunities for teachers. As the technology coordinator for the school, Kersten taught graduate-level courses that teachers could take for credit. Administrators encouraged teachers to attend technology conferences and seminars, which were paid for through the technology budget.

Teachers are the key to integrating technology in the classroom, says Kersten, so technology use has to be driven by them.

Teachers Are Key

At the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School in San Diego, the tech staff agrees that teachers are essential to an effective technology program. This Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation model school, founded in 1999, bought a lot of technology equipment before hiring teachers, and some of the higher-end equipment was underutilized, reports Jed Wallace, chief operating officer of the charter school. Now, technology staff members visit the classrooms and collaborate with teachers to find out how they’d like to use technology.

“You can’t just throw technology at a teacher and say, ‘Here you are,’” says Peter Estacio, technology director.

At the high school, which has been around for four years, Estacio can introduce sophisticated software. But he sticks with the basics at the High Tech Middle School, which opened last fall, and will do the same at the High Tech Media Arts and High Tech International schools, which are due to open next fall.

“Keep it simple,” he advises. “Make sure the technology works and let teachers grow at their own pace.”

Estacio notes that just as each class has its own curricula, it also should have its own technology plan. So he has developed 36 plans for 36 teachers. Some are just getting started with Web sites, while others are using AutoCAD to design Maglev cars and human-powered go-carts for interdisciplinary projects.

Since so many High Tech High parents work in the IT industry, they’re a big help in the school, Estacio points out. For instance, two parents who are CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) designers helped with the AutoCAD projects.

Because it’s a model school, educators often visit High Tech High. Some are surprised to find that the technology isn’t mind-blowing, but Estacio points out an important fact: All of the school’s technology is used to maximum capacity.

Ubiquitous Technology

Thanks to one passionate physics teacher who wrote grants to get computers into his classroom, Cincinnati Country Day School can trace its technology roots back to 1968. When the teacher died suddenly, the school continued his legacy.

Joe Hofmeister, the technology director, describes Cincinnati Country Day as a “conservative if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it school,” as opposed to some “wild-eyed technology-of-the-future kind of place.”

Nevertheless, because of the strong commitment from the faculty, parents, students and board members, Cincinnati Country Day is a leader in educational technology. Teachers from across the United States and Canada pay more than $500 each to attend technology conferences and seminars at the school.

In 1993, Charlie Clark, who was then the new headmaster, decided to make technology systemic in the school. He brought the technology staff and faculty together to create an educational technology plan. The plan was completed by December 1995. At its core was the idea that every student and teacher would have a notebook computer.

In 1996, after Clark attended a conference at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters where officials from a school in Australia talked about their school’s one-to-one notebook program, he sold Cincinnati Country Day’s board on the idea. Within a month, the board helped him convince all the parents to buy notebooks for their children.

The school paid for the teachers’ notebooks, and it matched the percentage that students received in tuition assistance in order to help buy computers for students who were receiving financial aid. Whenever possible, however, the school encouraged parents to make an investment in the machines.

If parents couldn’t afford to buy them outright, the school offered them extended leases, Hofmeister says. “It’s a matter of priorities,” he explains. “People need to be invested.”

Next came the hard part: Integrating technology into the curriculum. Too often, schools either bolt technology onto the back of their curricula or ignore it altogether, he points out. Putting an educator in charge goes a long way toward integrating technology and education, says Hofmeister who, in addition to being the school’s technology director, is also the school newspaper’s advisor and a former math teacher.

In addition to the school’s notebook program, Cincinnati Country Day School instituted wireless computing in 2001. The school has 20 servers, plus videoconferencing equipment and phones equipped with Voice over Internet Protocol. Last September, it deployed 230 tablet computers.

“Part of our strategic plan is to remain on the cutting edge of technology,” Hofmeister says.

But that doesn’t mean that the school has a technology plan, per se, according to Hofmeister. Instead, it has an educational plan that uses technology to promote project-based learning. “It’s about what we draw out of students as opposed to what we pour into them,” he adds.

Hofmeister cringes at how much time schools put into developing airtight technology plans that can’t evolve with the curriculum or with the industry. “They have no idea how quickly these things change,” he warns. “Technology plans are only as good as they are flexible.”

The Devil Is in the Details

When it comes to fostering education, putting technology into place is just half the equation. Technology tools require maintenance and support, as Cincinnati Country Day discovered early on. Soon after students arrived on campus with their new notebooks, the devices started breaking at a rate of eight to 10 per day.

“We walked into that like a babe in the woods,” Hofmeister recalls.

In order to keep the notebook repairs from piling up, the school established a strong maintenance program with a quick turnaround. It also bought a loaner pool of computers for students and teachers to use while their notebooks were being repaired.

To streamline maintenance and support requirements, Hofmeister suggests keeping hardware and software as uniform as possible. Since the school has a four-year refresh cycle for computers—with students getting new notebooks in grades 5 and 9—it supports four different models at a time.

Though Cincinnati Country Day does not require strict uniformity of models, it does discourage, in the strongest terms, the purchase of any machine other than the one chosen by the school for a particular year. If a student does choose a different notebook, the school will not provide support. That approach enables the school staff to develop enough expertise to fix small problems immediately, while also allowing them to negotiate a strong maintenance program with the manufacturer for bigger problems.

Maintenance is just as critical to the success of technology plans at High Tech High School, says Estacio. If computers break, teachers can lose control of their classrooms, and that can lead to a loss of faith in technology.

A common mistake schools make when it comes to tech support is letting students repair the computers, Estacio adds. While the students may be bright and tech-savvy, most of them don’t have the necessary project management skills.

“They fix something, it breaks, then they move on because they’re kids,” he explains. Or, worse yet, they get so involved in fixing the computers that they forget about doing their homework.

Upgrading technology is another area often overlooked by schools, Hofmeister says. Even if computers are paid for through grants or gifts, he advises schools to build replacement costs into their budgets so they can get new machines as needed. Cincinnati Country Day tries to replace about a third of its computers every year instead of replacing them all at once, he says.

In order to have a solid, long-term technology program, schools must constantly sell their constituents on the concept, Hofmeister says. Since new parents, teachers and students come into the system every year, schools can’t assume that their technology initiatives will enjoy continued support. Schools can help keep the school community on board with the technology program with regular e-mails, articles in the school newspaper and presentations given at parent/teacher nights, he suggests.

Last but not least, Hofmeister stresses the need for a tireless network administrator and a strong, fast, reliable network—preferably wireless.

“Our network is a brick,” he says. “If our computers don’t operate, we don’t operate. It’s like electricity or water.”

Melissa Solomon is a business and technology freelance writer in New York.

Key Findings

Teachers see their students’ futures in technology integration

•Among teachers that post homework assignments online (12%) or via e-mail (13%) or both (12%), more than half (58%) said that it increased homework completion rates.

• Middle school teachers are more likely to post homework assignments online (16%) or via e-mail (19%) or both (19%) than other teachers.

• 72% of teachers believe that students with access to computers at home have a major advantage over those who do not have a computer at home.

• When asked what would be the one wish you would ask for from a technology genie, teachers most often wished for more intuitive software that could automatically adapt to individual student needs (24%).

• The most frequently cited technology challenge among respondents is not having enough computers (51%).

Source: CDW•G’s Teachers Talk Tech Survey, May/June 2003 (conducted by Info Tek Research Group, Inc.)

Planning Plus Kismet

Lori Hedberg is a winner. By searching the Web for obscure grants, the wellness teacher at Sidney Middle School in Sidney, Ohio, has brought her district CPR mannequins, kayaks, canoes and a roomful of Nautilus equipment.

“Every time I win something, the question is, ‘Where are we going to put it?’” Hedberg quips.

With 100,000 entries, the CDW•G wireless lab giveaway advertisement that popped up on her screen one night hardly fit her “obscure” criteria, but Hedberg applied anyway. “It was kind of like when Ed McMahon’s contest comes in the mail,” she says. “You never expect to win, but it’s fun to dream.”

At the time, Sidney Middle School was getting ready to move from its 100-year-old building to a brand-new school. The community created a plan to add wireless technology to the school, and a committee of about 300 parents and staff helped design a single-story wireless-enabled facility that could accommodate mobile technology carts, says Principal Todd Rappold. But moving the students and getting settled in was the top priority. “We really thought we were going to have to put the technology plan on the back burner,” he recalls.

However, less than a month before the move, Hedberg got a call from CDW•G informing her that she had won the $50,000 wireless cart giveaway. When that was combined with a grant it won for another wireless lab, the school was able to put its wireless plan in motion.

Turning Dreams Into Reality

Sophisticated technology might seem like a pipe dream to some schools, but Sidney Middle School is testament to the fact that it pays to have a plan. You never know when kismet might make that pipe dream a reality.

Serendipity is Amy Kersten’s word of choice. Her school, Holy Family in Davenport, Iowa, recently started sending its seventh- and eighth-graders to a morning educational cooperative with two other local schools. By sharing resources, students from the three schools could take extra courses, such as Spanish, that they wouldn’t have access to in their own schools.

The problem was that the cooperative didn’t have the strong technology infrastructure that Holy Family had so proudly built on its own campus, Kersten says. When Holy Family won a wireless lab, it was able to add it to the co-op’s resources, thereby benefiting students at all three of the schools. “That was huge for us,” she says.

At Sidney Middle School, Hedberg’s students use the equipment in the gym to complete fitness logs, chart their personal improvement and compare it with national averages. In addition, teachers from all disciplines use the cart to integrate technology into their lesson plans. It includes 20 notebooks, wireless gear, a digital projector and a science curriculum from Discovery Channel School.

As part of the prize package, CDW•G and Discovery Channel School sent a trainer to work with the teachers and help the Sidney and Holy Family schools introduce the equipment to their students. “They’re definitely a class act,” says Hedberg, who was thrilled with the great service she received along with the free equipment.

The onsite training helped all the teachers—even veterans who had never touched computers—build plans to integrate technology into their classrooms, Principal Rappold says. Without these plans, the equipment wouldn’t have made much of an impact on learning.

“Technology for technology’s sake is no better than just using the chalkboard,” he adds.

CDW•G and Discovery Channel School are offering schools a second chance at the “Win a Wireless Lab” sweepstakes, with a grand prize of an IBM wireless computer lab valued at $40,000 complete with IBM Options. Additional prizes will be awarded, including Hewlett-Packard projectors and ink-jet printers, networking products from D-Link and NETGEAR, and curricula materials from the Discovery Channel School Library. The sweepstakes runs until May 15, 2004. To enter, visit http://www.discoveryschool.com/cdwg.

Tech Boosts Learning

Technology clearly plays a key role in a student’s schoolwork. According to a Speak Up Day 2003 survey by NetDay, an Irvine, Calif.-based organization that helps schools meet education goals with the help of technology, 74 percent of students in grades kindergarten through six say that technology helps them with their schoolwork. That number jumps to 91 percent in grades seven through 12.

Getting Extra Credit

Here are some tips on building a strong technology program:

• Ask parents who work in the technology industry for tips on emerging hardware and software, about discounts or donation programs at their companies and to volunteer in classrooms.

• Develop and regularly stress a strong technology acceptable-use policy with strict consequences for violators.

• Think before wasting money on desktop labs. They’re costly, waste valuable school space and create scheduling problems. Student notebooks, classroom workstations and wireless labs on rolling carts help integrate computers into the day-to-day curriculum.

• Don’t waste money on software libraries. By the time teachers get around to trying something out, it’s obsolete. Instead, ask teachers how technology can help their classes, and then get sample copies of software for them to try out.

•Visit schools with successful technology programs to learn what to anticipate when introducing or upgrading technology in your classrooms.