Most teachers, school administrators, students, and parents know that computer literacy is vital to success in the 21st century, but what's the best way to develop technological effectiveness in our schools? To find out, Education World asked educators whose districts' technology programs were cited by the U.S. Department of Education to tell us their secrets.
Community involvement. Professional development. Planning. Those three themes emerged as the key factors in technological innovation in responses to an Education World survey of 32 school districts nationwide. The districts were among those cited for technology effectiveness by the U.S. Department of Education at last year's Secretary's Conference on Educational Technology: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Technology. The consensus was that a combination of detailed planning; early and continuing community involvement; and intensive, ongoing professional development, including the evolution of appropriate assessment methods, is essential in making technology effective in schools. And, educators maintain, those three cornerstones of a successful technology program are inextricably intertwined.
"Back in the '80s, we put Apple IIes on teachers' desks but did not give them any training. Most of those Apples sat in the room with their dust covers on and were rarely used," Sandi Smith, technology teacher and technology center coordinator in the Helena (Montana) School District No. 1, told Education World. "In the '90s, we tried a different approach. The district offered training for teachers, with the first training in software applications. As teachers became familiar with the applications, the training turned to integration into the curriculum." Planning for staff development helped successfully launch the district's technology program.
Richland School District #1 in South Carolina has benefited from a state technology plan and state-level initiatives that poured millions of dollars into enabling districts to plan their approaches and make rapid technological headway.
The rural Cherokee County School District in Alabama, in contrast, operated on a self-described shoestring budget but made up for that with careful planning and execution. The local telephone company launched the technology push several years ago by supplying dial-up access to the Internet for teachers and students. The Cherokee County Board of Education provided funds to install a LAN at each school and tie everything back to a central location so schools could share information with one another and the central office. Hiring outside consultants or contractors was an unaffordable luxury, so over a four-month period, eight students and two teachers wired every school in the county. The student-technology team then connected all computers to the new LAN. With backing from a communications company, Cherokee County became the first school district in Alabama with a wireless WAN connecting schools.
Now partnering with Lucent Technologies, the Cherokee County has met its goal of desktop videoconferencing that enables it to offer students college courses from Jacksonville State University, some 45 miles away. Those programs exemplify what can be achieved with relatively little money and sweat equity when a thoughtful plan is in place.
"We have a training program that lasts all year," Smith said. "During the school year, there is training offered in the evenings. During the summer, we offer training three days a week. Along with the training comes support ... from mentors and educational technology specialists who work with teachers in implementing changes. The support part is very important. We have too few support personnel, but we are moving forward in that area."
"Survey and train," then plan, is the staff development recommendation from Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, project administrator for the Chicago Public Schools. "In order for technology to be used in a school ... all staff [members] must be surveyed to determine their [skill] levels and then a portfolio [must be] developed with a specific path to the goals of the district for technology in the classroom," she told Education World. "And if technology is to be used in a school, everyone should use it, including the administration. You can't expect a teacher to turn in lesson plans designed and written on a database using a computer and then print them out so the administration can review and approve. The database should be reviewed and used for this purpose."
Staff development must be ongoing, sources say, not just offered for a limited time after which teachers are assumed to be "trained." In Okaloosa County, Florida, each teacher with more than three years in the computer system selects a laptop or desktop computer to add to the classroom. "The laptop may be used at home by the teacher," Toby Ford explained. "The concept is that if teachers are better able to use technology themselves, then they will encourage their students to use technology."
A key component in staff development lies in teachers' devising valid, possibly new, means of student assessment. Students from two high schools in the Corydon, Indiana, "research the unpublished history of our county, study local arts and crafts, the impact of the Ohio River on our community, and various other aspects of Historic Harrison County," Linda Burnham, director of technology, told Education World. "Students interview older citizens for real-life stories. They archive pictures and articles along with their research on a Web site and CD-ROM. Students have created a lesson plan book for fourth-grade teachers to use in teaching Indiana history that goes along with their research, Web site, and CD. People from the community are volunteering family photos and calling with information to be included. The public library allowed students to copy old photos and articles in return for the students' archiving this information for the library on a CD.
"This has truly been a community project," Burnham concluded, illustrating how staff development, student assessment, and community involvement coalesce.
Here are some other ways organizations are effectively utilizing computer technology:
The entire community needs to participate in developing a technology plan from the get-go, says Martha Veale of the Fabens (Texas) Independent School District. "Having the buy-in from the school board, parents, administrators, and staff members," she added, "provides the support structure needed to develop success in a technology program."
In Fabens, in addition to taking "tech know" basics classes, community members get involved in school technology in the following ways:
Each student in a fourth-grade class in the Richland school district in Columbia, South Carolina, has "a laptop with free, safe Internet connectivity back to the district's filtered server," explained Andrea Daniels, parent technology outreach consultant. "Students and their parents receive ongoing technology education courses that show them how to use the laptop, Internet, Microsoft Office, and other education software. ... The teacher monitors and assigns computer-related work and integrates the technology into her lesson plans."
In answer to Education World's original question, "If a school leader asked you for one piece of advice on how to develop a successful technology program in his or her school, what would that advice be?" Gregg Martin, director of information technology services at Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) in Vermont, responded succinctly: "Assessment."
Asked to elaborate on that answer, Martin maintained that after "professional development, meaningful access to hardware and software, and support for technical and educational needs" comes the "responsibility of teachers and administrators to implement the performance targets and assessments associated with the technology."
In a report on its progress toward the U.S. National Pillars, ACSU stated, "Over the past two years, [we have] been invested in developing an Information Technology Assessment Program which we feel will give us valuable information about what our students know and are able to do with information technology tools. We field-tested this assessment last year with volunteers from each of the schools in our supervisory union and will be piloting it this year with all third-, sixth-, eighth-, and tenth-grade students. We expect to keep this baseline data internal until next year when we will publish our results publicly."
A deadline of May 1, 2000, was set for all participating teachers "to submit data, including the numbers of students meeting, exceeding, nearly meeting, or falling far below the standards," Martin explained. "We will examine this data during the summer of 2000 and include it in our yearly data institutes, which are used for developing school improvement plans."
When asked about assessment, one teacher, who requested anonymity, acknowledges "some of us are still a little afraid of assessment because what if we've invested all this time and money, and the students aren't getting it?" That comment points to the crying need for creating meaningful student assessment as an integral part of using computer technology. Until purposeful assessment is incorporated, technology programs cannot be truly effective.
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