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Educators on EdTech: Gaining Teacher Buy-In

EducationWorld is pleased to present this interview by Maggie Summers. She writes about educational technology for Anthro Corporation, a company that designs and manufactures furniture for technology in Portland, OR. The interview features Joe Morelock, Director of Technology and Innovation (and Apple Distinguished Educator) at Canby School District in Canby, OR. The public school district has been awarded the Apple Distinguished Program Award for four years in a row.  

So Canby has maybe 12,000 Apple devices total...
Yes, that’s pretty close.

Tell me about how you’ve continued to be successful after almost seven years of using this technology.    
Now we have an innovative grant program, which is sort of like a fake grant we made up. We set aside some of our funding so teachers apply for what they want to do. They have an idea, and then they take a class throughout the year [that helps them develop professionally], and then they do a presentation at the end of the year with their data: how it worked, what didn’t work, etc. They’re all posted online, so you can look at those on one of our Wikis.
We did that in order to incite innovation, to try to get people fired up to try to do it, so rather than doing it top-down, we’ve got a strange grassroots and top-down approach. So that way, people get excited about doing it on their own terms. The top-down part of it is really about creating that long-term vision about where we’re going to go, but we’re going to let the people closest to the action make a bunch of the decisions, and then they form the opinions.
The way all these innovation practices happen is somebody sees something and they say they’re going to replicate it. It starts out as a big mess, but eventually things that work float to the top. People, especially teachers, like to see things that work with kids, so they’ll do whatever anyone else is doing if it’s working for them.

That’s interesting. It seems like a grassroots approach would be much more effective than saying: “Here’s this set of iPads and you have to do this.”
You have to allow people to onboard themselves. Then that culture ferments for a little bit, and pretty soon some people figure out that they want to be on board… so we’re at that weird, critical juncture where we’re at a tipping point, which I used to think was kind of bogus, you know, but it turns out it’s a real thing and you can almost hear it; it’s almost an audible click: Wow, people are really ready now. So it does happen.

So, what’s your overall philosophy for all this technology in the classroom?  
Well, if you were to boil it down to something simple, it would be that we’re trying to provide students with the access to the opportunity to engage in school in a meaningful and exciting way. So depending upon your demographics, you know, we’ve got almost half of kids who don’t have enough to eat, who come to school hungry every day, so I can tell you they probably don’t have all the great experiences of using technology like everybody else does.
When you come to school and you only use technology in a very prescriptive way, like you’re going to take this test, you end up thinking that’s what computers do. Then when you use them at home, you don’t necessarily create a movie, you just do what you did at school. So we think about it more as an opportunity gap more than an access gap.
So back in the day, these books were how kids learned to read…

Oh yeah, I remember these. [laughing]
Yeah, they’re a horrible experience, right? Skip looks. Jane looks. So in the ‘50s… 1954, 1955… the guy decided reading was boring, so he contacted a buddy of his and said, can you make some books with this many words, etc., and it was Dr. Seuss. That innovation was about engaging kids in reading stuff that was fun, that was whimsical, that was magical, that was kind of goofy, didn’t make any sense but it sort of did, and it had a rhythmic sound to it so they could get into learning the words but also enjoy them.
So it’s the same thing about school now where when kids come to school, it should be exciting and engaging. It’s not their fault that they have a smaller attention span, although I don’t think they do. I think they have a short attention span for things that are boring.

It doesn’t mean that tech is going to fix that necessarily, but what we’ve seen the technology do is be a catalyst for changing the pedagogical practice that then entices kids to be engaged in school. And so the teacher goes: Oh, I can do this thing that I couldn’t do before. Well, let’s try that. Oh my gosh, that was great; that was awesome. So, we’re reducing the opportunity gap, and at the same time, we’re catalyzing the feelings that teachers have toward their practice.

What’s your biggest challenge?
In the grand scheme, it’s the sustainability of a project like this. I would say our biggest challenge is community support. They do support us, but to keep that support is a huge thing. I would say that communicating that vision to people without overwhelming them with research is a big challenge. We look at research, and then we try to translate it from hardcore research to why it makes a difference in classrooms. That role is very difficult. Managing devices, buying stuff, putting things out… even though it’s a lot of work, it’s relatively easy.
But trying to shift from traditional print media to digital media is not just about buying different media; it’s about a change in pedagogical practice, and it requires some professional development, some training, some urging, some tears, all of those things…

I would imagine shifting that paradigm is a slow process.
It can be painful sometimes, yeah, because it’s a lot of people and you have to try to get as many people on board. That’s why we’ve done the Innovative Grant in this way. We haven’t really told them that this is a way for us to engage them in the change of their own pedagogical practice, but they’re sort of doing it on their own.

Would you say this kind of innovative grant is the future of EdTech?
For here, yes. For other places, I don’t know…. I’ve seen innovative grants starting to pop up all over the country now, not because of us, but because of that idea of letting your teachers innovate and try things.
My work is to help clear the path for other people to do that innovative approach, and then take what they’ve done and show somebody else that thing. Hey, did you know someone at this school over here is doing this cool project? And then I just put the two of them together, and I have no idea what happens after that.
It’s about being a connector rather than being a doer. You know, we still have to order an inventory and have all those policies, but that’s less the role of the director than it used to be. Some people can’t give that up because they like doing it. I like tinkering, too, but you have to let other people do that work, and get out of their way.


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