There are a lot of differences between education and businesses. There are also a lot of similarities. Too often educators don’t think about schools using cost-benefit analysis. If they did, especially when it came to technology purchases, schools would be in much better shape. For example, should a school purchase a computer lab for teachers to use with their classes during the day? It’s easier to gauge the cost–most educational leaders usually just look at the dollar amount. They don’t take into consideration installation, maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs. This doesn’t include software costs either. These factors all need to be taken into account when making hardware purchases. What’s the benefit of the lab? What about the benefit of installing two labs? It’s difficult to quantify benefits often in education but experienced educators can make some fairly accurate predictions. Some educators just buy technology hoping teachers and students will use it. The reality is that technology needs to fit the vision and purpose of the school. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste.
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I just attended the FETC 2009 Virtual Conference for educational technology. The keynote speaker Calvin Baker from Vail, Arizona talked about how his district is using technology to promote teacher creativity. At first I thought it would be a talk about how technology can help teachers create “new media” to “wow” their students out of their stereotypical slumber. As you can tell, I dislike the notion that I need to use technology to entertain my students. Luckily, I was completely wrong. This was a great presentation because what he said made a lot of sense. Here are some poignant highlights.
Districts need to get new technology into the hands of the teachers first. If you do, then they learn how to use it and incorporate it into the classroom. Bravo! Another thing Calvin talked about was that there needs to be accountability and structure when using new technology. It’s not a free-for-all. Many promoters of new technology want to throw any and everything against the wall to see what sticks. That’s irresponsible in education. Calvin explained a web tool they developed called “Beyond Textbooks.” It’s basically a way to connect teachers together in meaningful ways–in departments, within schools, across the district and even across the state. Too much of teaching is a solitary activity–to the detriment of the profession and to students. This tool includes shared calendars so a teacher can see what other teachers are doing and when. I like this type of sharing and accountability. An open learning environment benefits all. Too many teachers don’t do what they need to do and no one ever knows about it. A shared calendar is a step in the right direction.
Another aspect of Beyond Textbooks is the sharing of lesson plans. A colleague and I have been talking about this for years. There’s no reason a new teacher should have to spend years developing solid lessons when there are great lessons already available: they are in the filling cabinets of most veteran teachers. What Beyond Textbooks does it help pool all of the great lessons from across the district and make them available for all to use. My district has been working towards something like this but it’s a huge undertaking and we haven’t been able to get it off the ground. Because the lessons are seen and used by other professionals, the quality of the products is very high. When there is an audience, people tend to perform better. Plus it gives teachers the opportunity for others to see what great stuff they’ve created. OpenEducation.org and THE Journal wrote about this initiative. Open up education–what a great idea!
There is a forum attached to each teaching resource so that teachers can connect to other teachers in a meaningful and timely way. Too many websites offer to “connect teachers” but they don’t have any real meaning. As a result, teachers join social networks and then never visit them again. The Beyond Textbook repository is key to the daily life of teachers: specific lessons tied to their specific state standards in their district. The forums allow teachers to comment and give feedback on the lessons thus improving the lessons. This technology can also give teachers the intrinsic rewards that we all crave.
Teachers love to create and share the things that improve instruction. That’s why a great many teachers are in this business. Technology like Beyond Textbooks can help these creative individuals have even greater impact. I wish my state had something like this.
If you have ever gone to an educational technology conference, it seems that every teacher there is a technology expert. The presenters and workshop leaders explain how easy their technology is and how much it improves student learning. Many teachers I’ve talked to, especially ones new to technology, come away feeling excited by new possibilities but also a little deflated because of the sheer volume of possibility.
If all of the new technologies were that easy, why isn’t everyone using them? Part of the reason, I believe, is that there are so many technologies available. Teachers can’t be experts at all of them. The prevailing opinion of many technology folks is that teachers need more and more technology. It’s true that many aspects regarding technology are relatively simple. Users have menus and boxes to click the various options–it’s all right in front of them, right? The sad reality is that unless you have already learned which box to check or which menu to select, it doesn’t matter. Implementing new technology takes time, energy, and effort. And these are scarce resources in the teaching world. So what is a teacher or instructional technology specialist to do?
Leverage your talents.
What I mean by this is that you need to take advantage of the wide variety of technology skills in your school. Everyone doesn’t have to be a “blog expert.” You just need one or two. Find someone on your staff who is or can become the expert on one technology. They do what I call the “heavy lifting”–they research good blog tools, they learn how to set up accounts and find out which check boxes to select, and they learn how to effectively integrate blogs into the classroom. Then you leverage their talents during Staff Development time. They help teach the rest of the staff. If you have a core set of technology tools and a core group of experts who can help others, you will be on your way to tackling the mountains of technology available. And you will have success.
Teachers don’t have to become technology experts. By leveraging training and support, schools and instructional technology specialists can achieve much more.
With the explosion of Web 2.0 technologies, one of the things I hear over and over is: “And it’s free!” As educators and technology leaders, we need to be very aware of what is free and what isn’t. Since the beginning, there has been a culture of sharing on the Internet. This sharing includes the good and bad. But there has also been the need to pay the bills. Websites aren’t free. Google doesn’t exist as a community service. Profit is what keeps websites and software companies running. So when a website says that it’s free, one must keep in mind where the money is coming from. Some web 2.0 start-ups are hoping to gain a solid base of users and then get purchased by a larger company. There are lots of examples of this. Other websites give away their product for free for a period of time and then realize that they have to start charging. Smart Internet users know that there’s always that possibility. Other websites offer their services for free but then eventually shut down. How many sites have the last entry on the page: “sorry we couldn’t afford to keep this service/website running”?
Don’t get me wrong. I like free. But I also understand economic reality. When educators begin to rely on “free Internet services,” they need to keep in mind the eventual costs. These might include the cost to pay for the “free” service sooner or later. Or they have the cost of discontinuing the service–this is the cost of lost time and energy investing in integrating the “free” technology into various school programs. There are also costs of moving from one “free” technology solution to another. That’s lots of time and energy wasted–that’s a huge cost. Technology leaders also need to consider the costs of advertisements. I’ve seen school buses plastered with ads for the local emergency clinic. These ads are typically aimed at adults. Schools need to be very careful when they decide to force advertisements on their students. I’ve seen school sponsored sites that have ads for a variety of products–some completely inappropriate for schools. I don’t want my kids looking at ads when they are using school sites.
Another cost that most don’t consider but I think is important is the cost of spreading out technology over too many websites/web services. Everyone wants to give their base product away for free but you have to use their site. That means that in order to take advantage of cool and free Web 2.0 technologies, students and teachers may have to log into and use three to four different sites. That’s 3-4 additional logins in addition to the ones associated with school logins. That’s why Google is scrambling to combine as many things into one login as possible. And we all know Google’s revenue stream is from advertisements.
Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Not in the internet world. There is always a cost somewhere. Educational technology leaders need to keep these costs in mind when they make decisions.
When I think about all of the things in technology to discuss, it’s almost overwhelming. Probably the one topic that leaps to the top of my mind is “lost opportunity.” There are so many chances to help teachers integrate technology effectively into their classrooms. However, much of the time, it doesn’t happen.
I just spoke today with a colleague who was part of a year-long technology education program. He wanted to do something new professionally and he wanted to challenge his students. However, after a year in a very “forward-thinking and collaborative technology group,” he only came away with one or two lessons. That and a laptop. (Not surprisingly, the promise of a laptop was the main draw for many who joined this program.) In the end, the main obstacle to effective change in his classroom was time. He told me that it was too difficult to learn the software, to teach it to all of his students and then to teach them how to use it to demonstrate understanding of a concept. For him, it wasn’t worth it.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of teachers who feel the same way. So what can educational leaders do? They can listen to their teachers. Often the leaders of schools listen disproportionately to the many “technology experts” that promote the use of this tool or that tool. Too often these experts aren’t in the classroom anymore. They spend much of their time learning about new technologies and teaching others. That’s a fine thing to do. But to be most effective, they need to be in the classroom on a regular basis–not just for quick visits but full-time. Then they would know and understand the difficult realities of integrating new technology into the classroom.
Seasoned technology specialists who still teach can help other teachers implement technology effectively in their classrooms. They can help turn lost opportunity into real possibility.
The driving force behind technology use at any organization is often hidden. Sure, technology happens but when it does, it’s difficult to know exactly how or why. Schools are no different than other organizations. Lots of people talk about what technology–what they want, what would be nice to have, how much time they’d save, etc. But many times, no one really knows how or why technology get purchased and integrated–or in most cases not.
Educational leaders need to open this process up. Examine the structure of the technology support team and how they relate to the end users. Educators need to ask a lot of questions. How is the tech support staff structured? What are their mandates and goals? How does the tech support staff respond to end-user needs? How do end-users utilize the services of the tech support staff? Who is leading the way in terms of technology adoption and integration? Does it come from the end-users? or the tech support staff? or from the educational leaders? What drives technology? Are the software folks talking to the hardware folks so that everyone has a shared vision?
What I’m saying is that there are a lot of disconnects. Many useful technologies don’t get adopted because there isn’t someone with foresight and vision in charge. Sometimes technologies don’t get implemented because no one is looking at the process. Other times technology gets purchased and it sits because there isn’t any follow through.
Without a clear vision for technology, the tech support staff can get trapped in a “fighting fires” mentally. They wait until something breaks and then fix it. Crisis management isn’t a bad thing–unless this is the way an organization always functions. It’s no way to run a top-performing school. There are so many great things that can be accomplished with insight and planning.
So take a look at YOUR school and ask yourself what’s driving technology integration. It needs to be committed individuals with vision, planning and follow through.