Four top IT leaders discuss trends, 21st-century classrooms and their thoughts about one-to-one.
Everyone knows how helpful it is when teachers can get together and trade ideas about best practices, but for most IT leaders, it’s hard to find peers on a regular basis. So EdTech went out and did the legwork for you. We gathered four top technology leaders and asked them about some of the hot trends in K–12 today. Here are their thoughts on topics ranging from what technology they are waiting for, the vital skills teachers should possess and how best to deliver IT support.
Technology Administrator and Cyber School Principal Philipsburg Osceola (Pa.) Area School District
How has your state’s Classrooms for the Future project helped your district?
We’re a very rural school district with limited funds, so we were anxiously awaiting the changes in [our] instruction that the Classrooms for the Future [project] will bring. Classrooms for the Future is able to bring us a complete lab in each of our core subject areas. That involves an interactive whiteboard, projector, a teacher laptop, and peripherals such as printers, cameras or video cameras. In addition to that, [we’ve started a one-to-one program] for students. The students don’t take them home. They rotate through their regular schedule and they’re able to use the laptops that are stationed in each room.
The big focus of this whole project, though, [is] not the tools and the toys students are getting. It [is] to change instruction. If you look at the three different areas that change student achievement or affect student achievement, you have your curriculum and assessments [as two of the factors]. You can’t really change those two things. Your curriculum and your assessments are given to you by your state. The only thing you really can change is your instruction.
And that’s what we’re trying to do, but with support from a technology coach that teachers can rely on to look at different ways of instruction or different technologies for different Web applications, and just the professional development with the hardware.
With such a technology transformation taking place in your district, how have you handled teacher support?
Instead of just trying to change the culture and forcing it down [teachers’] throats, we tried to plant seeds by taking volunteers and saying, “Who really wants technology in their classroom, who really can use it, and who would benefit from it?” Then we support those teachers wholeheartedly so they don’t have to worry about other issues, and they start to get more and more comfortable. It then becomes infectious and other teachers want to get on board.
There’s no way that an administrator or a grant god from the state is going to come in and award all this money and then just instantly change the culture of a building. It’s got to be [from] within.
What do you think are vital skills for teachers to possess?
Teachers are not technicians, and they shouldn’t be expected to waste time trying to make the technology work. To be an effective teacher, you must raise student achievement. They must be able to monitor and adapt technology skills and knowledge to improve instruction. It’s all about quality control; teachers must take an analytical or evaluative approach to determine how to implement technology in the classroom.
Chief Academic Officer High Tech High, a group of innovative K–12 charter schools based in San Diego, and High Tech High Graduate School of Education, a new graduate school
Working at a group of schools named High Tech High shows how important you think technology is in schools. How do you use technology to improve student learning?
Of course, with a school named High Tech High, people think we are on the cutting edge of technology. We may or may not be. I have a colleague who talks about the definition of technology [as] whatever didn’t exist when you were growing up.
I don’t think technology is a silver bullet for the problems with the American high school or with education in general. And I don’t think merely throwing a bunch of technology into a school actually addresses the central challenge of the quality of teaching that’s going on.
So we know that, for example, kids sitting around listening to lectures is not that effective as a way to learn, and yet I think some of us might think if we post MIT lectures on the Internet, all of a sudden it’s going to transform learning. But it’s still just a lecture.
At High Tech High, we’re trying to use technology for three things, which is to have kids researching, producing and presenting. So they use the Internet, among other things, to do all kinds of research about original research questions. They are producing documentary films. They’re making robots. They’re producing Web sites, and then they’re presenting their work publicly to real audiences, so the technology for us does help to achieve those goals.
What technology trend are you anxiously waiting for, and how would it help improve learning?
The thing I think could be quite interesting is [the idea of] open-source textbooks, I call them “flexbooks.” CK-12 [a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco] is a group we’re partnering with and they have these open-source textbooks. You can download little chunks of different [materials] and combine them to form your own version of a [textbook].
Similarly, [Creative Commons, a Massachusetts nonprofit group] promotes a new intellectual property licensing strategy which is being used by some in the open-source textbook movement. So a teacher who’s teaching a robotics course or a physics course can go on and grab sections from different books and assemble them online as a free textbook for their students or, if they want, they can print hardcover versions for about $20 instead of $130.
What one aspect of your school works well and could be easily replicated?
The insistence upon the public display of student work. We do insist that everyone’s going to make [his or her] work public. We have an “exhibition” where every single student is here in the evening, and there are tons of adults, and the kids are presenting their work. Some of it has technology and some of it doesn’t.
And we all look at the best work and we say, “That’s really terrific. I want my work to look more like that.” And the kids are thinking that, and the teachers are thinking that, and our school principals are thinking that. It really has been, I think, the single most effective thing we’ve done in terms of driving our practice forward.
Superintendent Lake Washington School District No. 414, Redmond, Wash.
Describe what you think today’s 21st-century classroom should look like and how your district is moving toward this.
When I think of the 21st-century classroom, I think of 21st-century skills. So instead of thinking about the physical attributes of the classroom, I think about the characteristics of teaching and learning what’s actually going on in the classroom. And more and more, we look at the work of kids and how kids will be working in the future.
Teaching for us in the 21st-century classroom begins to look more like the workplace, where you have students collaboratively working around complex problems, tearing the problems apart, putting them back together, using their content knowledge.
The question becomes, what do the tools need to look like in order to support that kind of classroom environment, whether it be hardware or software? From a hardware standpoint, we think it is ubiquitous, so it’s not necessarily about saying that every kid will have a laptop. It’s more about making sure kids have easy access to the tools they need in order to accomplish [the work they need to].
So in some cases, it may very well be a laptop. In other cases, it may be a research station. In other cases, it may be a PDA or an MP3 device so they can listen to content-specific information that they’re getting from the University of Washington, for example.
What we do know is that there are some requirements that have to be in place in order to make that happen — a robust infrastructure [for example]. We accomplish that through a fiber-optic network, through up-to-date equipment. We know graphical capabilities are required. We accomplish that through ceiling-mounted projecters in classrooms, through interactive whiteboards, through digital overheads.
Describe a specific way that you handle IT support in your district.
We need to be extremely thoughtful about how we architect support. Often a school system will argue, for example, that you need to have a technician in every building, and I frankly don’t agree with that. I think that what you need to do is make sure that you have the available technical resource in order to address the problems no matter where they reside. I’ll use a specific example:
In our district, we invested heavily in our network to make sure we had the capability of supporting our users online. We used DameWare [Development], an online mirroring application, so we can have a centralized help desk. These help-desk [workers] can actually take control of the user’s computer and walk them through a problem. Culturally, that was a tough transition because at the time we did have technology people in every building, but what we found was that we actually increased the volume of the calls and the kind of help that we could provide our users. After a three-year transition, our users across the board said whatever you do, don’t get rid of the help desk.
It seems like you’re close to starting a one-to-one program at Lake Washington. What’s holding you back?
We never look at an initiative unless it’s sustainable over the long haul. One of the reasons we’ve been hesitant [to start a one-to-one program is] we have all of our equipment on a four- to five-year replacement cycle. So can we do it every four to five years is the question, and even in our environment, where we have a pretty generous tax base for technology, we couldn’t sustain that.
When devices become a bit more flexible and a bit cheaper, when we start seeing powerful devices in the $300 to $400 range instead of the $800 to $900 range, I think that changes the game suddenly. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hundred bucks. If you don’t address pedagogy and instructional practice as part of the initiative, it’s all for naught.
Director of Technology Consolidated High School District, #230 Orland Park, Ill. (also Chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee for the Consortium of School Networking)
Explain the role you think data-driven decision-making has in creating a 21st-century classroom.
In District 230 we are trying to use data the best way that we can. We’re in about the sixth year of doing an online gradebook, and since we’ve written the application from the ground up, we were able to incorporate standards into it two years ago. [Assessments can be transferred directly from state standards and then into the gradebook.]
The data that we’re able to pull from is really quite amazing in terms of standard achievement. What we have found is that now we’re able to start looping that data back around, and teachers are beginning to have discussions with each other unlike we’ve ever had before. They’re able to actually compare how students have done in particular areas in terms of how they’re understanding or not understanding a particular concept, and [ask,] “What is this teacher doing versus [another] teacher?”
I think being data driven is going to be very important, and how we use that data is critical to [having] teachers begin to figure out, “Am I using a best practice here? Is what I’m doing in class really working?”
How do you feel about one-to-one programs? Is your district considering any type of initiative like this?
I think access to technology is going to be essential. Technology must be accessible so students are able to use it just like we use it when we do our day-to-day jobs. And I think many schools, ours included, [aren’t] there yet. We’re not at a point where we can say that when a student needs to use technology, they have it at their fingertips and they can do what they need to do.
I think that’s a place that many of us are striving to get to. We’re beginning to create our next three-year technology plan, and we’re looking seriously at either doing some kind of one-to-one initiative or something that’s going to really increase our access level dramatically, because I think that is essential for any 21st-century school.
In order to do any of this stuff you have to have very solid infrastructure in terms of teachers and students being able to have access to all this data and the resources on the Internet. So it’s essential to have robust LAN and WAN connections. We’ve just recently upgraded our Internet access with an optiMan circuit. We just doubled it, and I think that is going to be something that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about.
How important is IT support and how can a district gauge if it has enough?
You have to have infrastructure in place not only in terms of the wires and the boxes, but you have to have the support personnel. Typically, in schools, that has been an area we’ve been lacking in. It seems to me that we’re making headway, that most school districts [have] really woken up to [realize] this is something we do need to support.
We look at the resources in terms of personnel that are used for just cleaning the building. We put a high priority on that. At the high school level, there are legions of people we have working to make sure the building is clean, but then sometimes the administration might have a difficult time paying for an extra person to repair the technology.
Are there any other trends out there that you see becoming more important for schools and IT?
One thing I would mention is green computing. This is something [that was discussed at the last CoSN Emerging Technologies committee meeting in March]. We see this [as] being a huge trend. And I think we’re going to be getting pressure from our communities through our boards of education that will say, “OK, what are you guys doing as a district with technology to be more green?”