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Three Keys to Technology Excellence

 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.


  • Parents often wonder and worry about exactly what their children learn by using computers in the classroom -- but not in Fabens, Texas. There, parents and school board members take "tech know" basics classes offered by the Fabens Independent School District. Day and evening classes are given in English and Spanish at various campus facilities. Fabens has achieved true community involvement in its school technology program.


  • Many teachers complain about a lack of professional development that would enable them to more effectively use sophisticated hardware and software in their classrooms. But teachers receive the instruction they need to pass county-produced skills tests on Microsoft Office programs in the Okaloosa County School District in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, mathematics teacher Toby Ford told Education World. Those teachers get to know their way around the computer, and not surprisingly, they're comfortable leading their students. In addition, Tools 2000, a state computer assessment and recognition program, "requires tests and skill production as well as lesson plan production and evaluation by outside-the-county personnel," Ford reported. Florida also has a certification for computer science, which requires college course work and a passing score on a state test. "We have teachers working toward all these goals at different levels in the school," Ford said. Staff development is a top priority in Okaloosa County.


  • In South Carolina's Richland School District #1, which serves the capital city of Columbia, detailed planning and ample funding became the backbone for the technology program, which includes an instructional Web site, curriculum connections lessons, a laptop lending program, and a technology van. A $184 million referendum in 1996 enabled new school construction and renovation as well as establishment and expansion of a district-wide technology infrastructure. A three-year, four-pronged infrastructure plan, funded by a $9.23 million bond, was initiated in spring of 1997. It created a wide area network (WAN) with Internet access at all locations, expanded all school local area networks (LANs) to all classrooms, replaced file servers in every school, and added computers in every classroom and every media center. Planning enabled the district to effectively implement its technology program.

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:


  • Niceville (Florida) High School uses computers in a sequenced, grade-level plan to help students, beginning with ninth graders, explore opportunities for careers.
  • Okaloosa County School District in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, has developed school-based businesses that enable art students to design and produce T-shirts for sale to clubs and organizations and sewing students to do special computer scanning and production work. Assessment is by community acceptance and grades.
  • ESTRELLA, a program overseen by the Illinois Migrant Council in Chicago, provides secondary students who are migrant farmworkers laptop computers to access a distance learning program with courses approved by their home-base school district. That way, students earn credits toward graduation even when they miss school because their families migrate to another state to work in fields or processing plants. In addition, students use the Internet, e-mail, and Microsoft Office, and they learn how to write presentations and manipulate images.



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:


  • Senior members of the community use a computer provided by the school district at the community center.
  • Residents at a housing project have two networked labs provided by the school district.
  • Residents can use computers and Internet connections provided by the school district at the county library and a health-care clinic.
  • Residents of a home for abandoned and abused children can use computers and Internet connection provided by the school district.

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.



  • Fabens (Texas) District Site This site features a link to the Fabens Independent School District Technology Plan. The plan provides 13 criteria for an effective technology plan, as well as an introduction and mission statement, an account of the planning process, and information about needs, timelines, and budget.
  • Secretary's Conference on Educational Technology: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Technology A summary of the technology effectiveness conference, spotlight on the schools involved, and a list of those schools (with one or more contacts for each) round out the Web site. The keynote of the conference was a "systematic review and analysis of what works best." The primary question asked was "Is [computer technology] providing a return in student achievement"?
  • Technology Training Center This site provides the nitty-gritty on technology training in Helena School District #1, covering workshops, classes, and open labs. One nice feature is a tutorial section that can be used to learn Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
  • Chicago Public Schools Links connect you to the Instructional Intranet, which provides teachers with electronic access to a range of planning resources, and the Student Zone, which helps students and teachers "use technology to pursue educational goals."


Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


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