Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
Stacey Davis, Ron Beazer and Mike Smith used to do a lot of "drive-by training." They, along with their colleagues in Baltimore City Public Schools' Teacher Student Support (TSS) group, would conduct two-hour workshops and get teachers excited about using technology in their classrooms. But within a day or two, as workloads mounted, the teachers would resume their old habits and those training sessions would fade from memory.
Some of the district's 204 campuses and programs have made major investments in technology, making the wheel-spinning all the more troubling. "Our concern," explains Davis, a functional analyst for TSS, "is if you're spending all this money on technology, do you have a good plan for it? If not, let us come in and help you."
It's a common concern among instructional technologists: Bringing technology tools into the classroom doesn't necessarily mean that teachers are leveraging them to develop students' 21st century skills. Meaningful change, experts insist, comes from long-term professional development (PD) that models the type of learning that schools expect of their students.
"The key to integrating technology successfully is to convince teachers that they can do something with it that they can't do without it," says Dr. MaryFriend Shepard, coordinator of the Ph.D. Educational Technology Specialization in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University. "If they're just transferring what they're already doing to online, then they'll balk — and for good reason. When they learn how powerful technology is, you can't stop them."
To that end, Baltimore's TSS team came up with a pilot program it dubbed "Retool Your School." An instructional technologist meets with each teacher for a day to help incorporate new tools into a specific part of a lesson plan. (For instance, a teacher who starts class with a thought-provoking question might have students post answers on a discussion forum rather than raise their hands and answer one at a time.) The teacher works on that one part of the lesson for four weeks, then meets again with the instructional technologist to analyze whether it changed the dynamic in the classroom.
"There are some teachers who are going to do it at a very low level at the beginning," Davis says of the Retool Your School PD model. "But then it will grow."
School principals also must attend training, she adds, and commit to using technology in their own jobs.
Susan Poling, technology coordinator for Shelby County Schools in Columbiana, Ala., agrees that administrator participation is crucial. "I really believe this. For nearly 20 years, I thought the best strategy for improving technology integration was to concentrate every bit of professional development on teachers," she says.
"But after this last year, when we shifted our focus to administrators, I am convinced that training and collaborating with them is the real key."
It's about creating excitement in the schools, Poling continues. "Teachers have too many reasons not to do it — the time that it takes, the fear [of unfamiliar technology] that they have, the classroom issues, the curriculum's too packed." But if administrators believe that 21st century classrooms are important, they'll raise their expectations and give teachers the support, security and motivation to create them.
When Randy Fuller was principal of Shelby County's Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, Ala., he didn't need to be convinced of the importance of technology. Because the school offered computer classes, had a systematic plan to purchase equipment and employed teachers that modeled the use of technology, he was confident that Oak Mountain students would graduate with the skills they needed to be successful.
Then his son, Matt, went to college. "I felt like he was prepared," Fuller says. But when Matt took his first quiz in an online algebra class, he struggled.
Matt's travails opened Fuller's eyes. So in 2009, as superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Fuller launched the iam.21 initiative to set goals and devise strategies to ensure that 21st century learning became standard practice in the district's 39 schools. (The slogan, coined by the district, stands for "integrating authentic, meaningful" 21st century skills into the classroom.)
The challenge was convincing faculty and staff of the need for the program. "Teachers need more than catchy acronyms and broad statements about 21st century skills to get them to change their teaching practices," Poling explains. "Many of them believe that their students are already tech-savvy, which to them means they really don't have to change."
As Fuller had discovered, students know how to use the tools they want to use. But those technologies aren't necessarily the ones they'll encounter in college or in the workplace.
Prior to the iam.21 initiative, Poling's team offered the district's 2,500 teachers a variety of training opportunities, including afterschool workshops, classroom modeling and online PD. But the teachers who typically attended were already excited by technology; those most in need of training weren't participating. The challenge, she knew, was finding a way to motivate those reluctant teachers.
They asked themselves, "Who do teachers respond to?" And that gave them their answer: Teachers respond to the people who evaluate them, who they see every day and who set expectations for their school. "If we could get principals on board, surely these teachers who have been sitting on the sidelines would join in," Poling says. "And that's exactly what happened."
The district created a 10-month program in which 217 Shelby County administrators participated. They spent two hours each month learning to use tools for their own work and watching teachers demonstrate how they use the same tools in their classrooms. Organizing and conducting the workshops took countless hours away from the time that Poling's team would have had to work with teachers. "It was a tremendous risk on our part," she says.
But it made a big difference. When manufacturers and developers demonstrate tools, they make it look simple, so principals expect teachers to hit the ground running. "Our sessions helped them understand that they need to set expectations high and ensure teachers get the initial professional development they need to get started," Poling continues. "After that, there has to be a plan to nurture the teacher's progress from simply digitizing what they used to do on paper to really transforming their classroom."
Such a transformation "can easily take two years," she adds. "Now that our administrators realize this, it has really changed their vision of their schools, as well as their appreciation of what their teachers are doing."
David Volkman was an unlikely target of envy. From 2001 to 2009, he was superintendent of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Township School District, where 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and schools have little funding available for technology.
Yet at educational technology conferences, he would captivate his peers when he explained that Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, one of the district's four schools, was among the 540-plus schools around the state receiving technology, training and onsite coaches through Pennsylvania's Classrooms for the Future initiative.
"The state's emphasis on professional development and the support structure provided through instructional technology coaches and mentors ensured the strong success of this program," says Amy Munro, an education researcher for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. But all three elements — the technology, training and coaches — were essential. "Just as with a perfect storm, all of the elements need to be in place and the conditions conducive to effect perfect reform."
First, the state provided notebook computers and interactive whiteboards for classrooms so that teachers wouldn't need to rely on computer labs. Second, it developed five 30-hour courses that blended online and face-to-face learning. Finally, it paid for part-time technology coaches for each school and put them through boot-camp training, where they learned coaching skills and instructional practice, as well as technology skills.
The coaches and their regional and state-level mentors built a strong professional development community, says Holly Jobe, who served as project manager of the Classrooms for the Future program throughout its duration and is now president of the International Society for Technology in Education's board of directors. If a teacher was looking for a new way to teach Romeo and Juliet, for example, a coach could solicit ideas on the program's electronic list server or a variety of other Web 2.0 technologies that they used, such as professional learning communities. "A flood of ideas would come back," she explains.
To participate in the program, administrators had to create sustainability studies. When the program ended, many schools cut their coaches because of the economy.
But some kept them, and others expanded the program to middle and elementary schools. "They saw how valuable this is as a professional development model," Jobe says.
Classroom management is challenging, and it's intimidating for teachers to build lesson plans around tools they aren't comfortable using. But having access to someone in the classroom builds confidence, she adds. "The biggest thing that we kept hearing about was the change in the school culture," Jobe says. Teachers started visiting each other's rooms and sharing new ways of teaching and learning.
"There's nothing better about professional development than when your peers buy into it and you're feeding off each other," says Volkman, now executive assistant to Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The culture change had a physical manifestation too, Jobe says. Teachers moved desks out of rows and learned to step aside. "They were used to being the 'sage on the stage,' " she explains. But thanks to Classrooms for the Future, the teachers became guides and let the students become active learners.
"There were lots of 'Aha!' moments when teachers realized that they didn't have to do the work," Jobe adds. "Kids could do the work."
Make professional development meaningful for teachers by moving beyond these assumptions.
Children learn all they need to know about technology in their computer labs.
In their free time, students tweet, Google and text. But in school, they sit in rows, listening to their teachers and following along in their textbooks until it's time to go to the computer lab.
"We've got to take technology out of the labs and put it in the classrooms," says Dr. MaryFriend Shepard, coordinator of the Ph.D. Educational Technology Specialization in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University. "We learn when we need to know. We're not going to look it up an hour later. I'm amazed when I go to schools and see all the [smartphones] hidden away in people's pockets."
Training sessions give educators everything they need to effectively incorporate technology into their teaching.
Rather than demonstrating technology at offsite training sessions, let teachers try it themselves in their own classrooms, with appropriate support where needed.
As digital natives grow up to become teachers, they'll naturally incorporate technology into their classrooms.
Like their students, young teachers use technology outside of school, but because they didn't learn using technology, they don't know how to integrate it into their curricula. "Teachers generally teach the way they were taught," explains Holly Jobe, who served as project manager for Pennsylvania's Classrooms for the Future program. "They're not going to change unless they experience it in a different way."
In a Walden University–commissioned study released last year, 783 teachers and 274 principals or assistant principals responded to questions regarding the effects of technology use on student learning and skills. Educators, Technology and 21st Century Skills: Dispelling Five Myths found that despite common perceptions, new educators feel that their teacher-preparation programs don't adequately equip them to incorporate technology into classroom instruction and to foster 21st century skills. Rather, they report that they rely on advanced training programs to gain those skills.
The other four myths debunked in the study are as follows:
Myth 1: Newer teachers and those with greater access to technology are more likely to use it for classroom instruction. Reality: Veteran teachers are just as likely as new teachers to use technology, and lack of access does not appear to be the main reason why teachers don't use technology.
Myth 2: Only high-achieving students benefit from using technology. Reality: Teachers and administrators feel that technology benefits a wide range of students.
Myth 3: Because students today are comfortable with technology, teachers' use of it is less important to learning. Reality: Teachers who use technology in the classroom report higher levels of student engagement, learning and adoption of 21st century skills.
Myth 4: Teachers and administrators have shared understandings about classroom technology and 21st century skills. Reality: Administrators believe that teachers are using instructional technology more than teachers report using it, and administrators report more positive student outcomes from technology than teachers do.