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Transformative K12 tech

New breed of educators finding purpose all those devices and digital learning tools
BROADENING HORIZONS—Tech staff at Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District near Minneapolis coach teachers to help students use technology to bridge cultural barriers.
BROADENING HORIZONS—Tech staff at Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District near Minneapolis coach teachers to help students use technology to bridge cultural barriers.

Doug Johnson held the title of audiovisual director when he launched his career in school technology in 1991. Back then, teachers didn’t have computers on their desks and technology needs maxed out at replacing the bulbs in overhead projectors, developing black-and-white film and silk-screening, says Johnson.

His role has evolved since the dark days before the internet. These days, Johnson does a lot more than troubleshoot hardware as director of technology at Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District (8,900 students) in the Minneapolis suburbs.

His staff of 14 helps teachers learn to use the newest technological devices to make instruction more effective and collaborative. The district is also in its second year of a 1-to-1 program.

“It’s fulfilling when you watch teachers discover things that empower the students,” he says. “Technology can bridge cultural differences and turn them into advantages rather than barriers.”

For example, students who are immigrants can access resources in other countries to research their own cultural heroes for writing projects. Environmental science students can more easily report on climate conditions around the world.

Johnson represents the new class of administrators spawned by the merging of instruction and technology. Often called instructional technology directors, these educators serve as classroom coaches and content experts in districts determined to use devices, digital learning and other technology to their full instructional potential.

Instructional tech directors take these steps to help teachers integrate technology:

  • Co-plan lessons
  • Co-teach classes
  • Conduct classroom observations
  • Create project-specific tech help guides for students
  • Assist in finding up-to-date learning materials

(cont.)

Coaching and co-teaching

The first step in getting teachers to adopt technology is to make them feel comfortable, says David Chan, director of instructional technology at Evanston Township High School near Chicago.

“I used to carry a ladder around with me to fix the overhead projectors,” says Chan, a former chemistry teacher. The ladder was often a way to establish credibility and build rapport with the staff, many of whom he didn’t know when he started. “Now, it’s about developing a personal relationship with teachers and making connections with them,” he says.

When Chan began his new role, he immediately recognized the amount of time it would take to integrate technology into a lesson plan. He made it a regular practice to co-plan lessons with teachers in their classrooms. For example, Chan recently helped a teacher and her students create whiteboard video animation and screencasts.

Chan’s team also creates project-specific tech help guides for students. “We are mindful of how we can assist with preparation, delivery and ultimately training of teachers so they will be able to run these projects on their own in a short time,” he says.

Chan also directs teachers toward other PD resources, such as professional learning networks on Twitter. “Twitter is dominated first by celebrities, and then by educators,” he says. “We understand the limited time teachers have, so we try to make the process as easy as possible.”

Instructional tech directors take these steps to help teachers integrate technology (cont.):

  • Direct teachers toward PD resources, such as professional learning networks on Twitter
  • Ensure edtech is promoting collaboration
  • Seek grants for class projects
  • Meet with community members to explain a district’s tech needs

It’s not always about computers

Instructional technology leaders also track how effectively educators are implementing new devices and teaching methods, says Christy Ziegler, assistant superintendent of innovation and performance at Shawnee Mission School District near Kansas City, Kansas. Ziegler uses the SAMR Model to assess technology integration.

The approach highlights the four stages: substitution, augmentation, modification and redefinition.

Substitution is just using a computer, rather than paper, to assign worksheets. Redefinition, on the other hand, is using technology to teach a lesson or assign a project that would not be possible without technological assistance.

“We can’t just bring tech in and expect it to be the new instructional method,” she says. “It’s not a method, it’s a resource. Some teachers don’t want to be involved in tech, so you have to continue the discussion and expand the instructional coaching through non-evaluative support.”

Instructional coaches provide this support by observing a lesson and offering suggestions, or even co-teaching a lesson that includes technology.

Coaches can also offer feedback. When Ziegler visits a classroom, she observes the teaching and learning, asks students about what they are learning and why it’s important.

Ultimately, it’s about nurturing relationships with both students and teachers. “We aren’t just going to make a movie to make a movie,” she says. “We have to a have roadmap of what good instruction looks like.”

Instructional technology directors should always prioritize platforms—such as videoconferencing and interactive displays—that allow students to collaborate on a higher level, adds Dave Eisenmann, director of instructional technology and media services for Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota.

But it’s not always about computers. Allison Stephens, curriculum, technology and innovation specialist at Upper Perkiomen School District in Pennsylvania, has applied for a $100,000 USDA grant to buy a greenhouse. It will fund an interdisciplinary program to grow food for the cafeteria and community.

Barriers and bond measures

Students at Liberty Union-Thurston Schools in Ohio are creating an app to help identify trees with a QR code. To support these projects, barriers must be removed when educators know less about technology than the students do.

This requires teaching the teachers how to use the technology so they can direct students to uncover the whys and hows, Superintendent Todd Osborn says. “Kids today are able to get the who, what, where and when in a matter of seconds on their Chromebooks,” Osborn says. “This changes the way teachers teach.”

Tech directors can also help teachers keep instruction current by being constantly on the lookout for up-to-date learning materials, Osborn says. “For example, we don’t have a text book that will talk about Michael Flynn,” he says. “But there is a website that does.”

Getting the community on board

Buying and maintaining technology often requires communities to pass bonds or levies. Instructional technology directors frequently find themselves on the luncheon circuit, interacting with community members to explain and defend the districts’ latest technology expenses.

Part of Ziegler’s role at Shawnee Mission School District is communicating with the community and business groups, as well as supporting the school leaders’ communication with parents.

When her district’s 1-to-1 Digital Learning Initiative was launched, schools held a series of informational meetings explaining how students would use the technology. “It’s invaluable to tell the story of the investment the community is making in kids—through the media, school patrons and going to business and parent groups,” she says.

They also lead technology task forces made up of parents, teachers, administrators and school board members.

Steven Hopper, curriculum technology coordinator for Ankeny Community School District in Iowa, leads a group that meets throughout the year to define three of four tech priorities, such as physical infrastructure, technical support and professional development.

One of the top priorities is to provide staff with ongoing PD in the area of student-centered inquiry—a learning approach that tasks students with asking questions about their world to achieve a deeper understanding of the concepts being studied.

“Technology,” Ziegler adds, “can provide wonderful tools and resources to support extended learning for children. However, our focus must always be centered on support for strong instructional practices that engage learners in problem-solving, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.”


Shawna De La Rosa is a freelance writer in California.