Posted by: schooleducator | May 5, 2009

Technology and Teachers: A Field of Dreams?

In the movie, “Field of Dreams,” Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella follows a voice in his cornfield that instructs him, “If you build it, he will come.” He reads this message as an edict to build a baseball field on his farm, where the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series magically appear. Ray throws all of his energies into the building project, against a rising tide of opposition, because he is a dreamer and a visionary, and maybe even a little half-baked. School administrators and tech directors need to be careful to avoid the trappings of a “Field of Dreams” model toward changing teaching and learning with the latest gadgetry. One school web developer explained, “We’ve had more technology than 95% of the faculty use already. This may be an education issue, an edict issue, a “they-don’t-want-it” issue, or a “it’s not exactly what we need” issue (or a combination of all of the above). My suspicion is that the teaching methods here don’t readily make use of online stuff. We have to do some work beforehand to find out what it is instead of trying a “field of dreams” model (e.g. if we build it, will they use it?)”

My wife is a first grade teacher and she has undergone a dramatic transformation in her teaching with technology since we made the move to California from New Jersey. She now regularly uses Keynote and Pages for student projects, parent communication, and documentation of the learning process. A year ago, she did not utilize any of these programs. However, her partnership with a mid-20s teaching associate, versed in and fluent with various applications, helped to kick start her move toward greater technology integration. My wife knows the content of her teaching practice, and she will think through a teaching topic with her teaching associate, who then helps to imagine different ways to utilize and integrate technology. “I talk through lesson ideas with her and she then maps out the technology to match the goals of the lesson. Using technology in the classroom is a lot like teaching writing. It’s all about knowing your audience. For example, Pages works beautifully for my parent newsletter. I have a template, and I add photos and text. My teaching associate created the template and then she taught me how to play with the form,” she explained.

Also, her school has a comprehensive initiative to move in a more sustainable direction, so every project she considers in her teaching forces her to think about how sustainable the outcome will be. For example, instead of creating and laminating posters to hang up, she instead deploys Keynote to run on her Smart Board in the classroom. “Why would I cut up all of that paper, and cover in plastic,” she asks, “when I can use Keynote to accomplish the same goal and it is easier to keep a copy for next year?” In addition, one of her teaching goals for the year was to more effectively use technology. “It’s a lot easier to focus on technology at this point in my career, at year 16, because I have achieved mastery in other areas, like the teaching of reading, writing, and math. Of course I still have work to do in those areas, but I am pretty far along in my pedagogy. With technology, I have to give greater energy and focus, and I can do that because it’s one major area of growth for me, instead of 4.”

Interestingly, at her New Jersey school, she had two computers in her classroom, but “all the kids did was play educational games,” she commented. Also, students were dropped off at the computer lab for their tech classes and she could use the “free” period for planning. At her current school, there is no computer lab. Instead, the tech teacher brings the laptop cart to her classroom, and she co-plans lessons that are integrated into the curriculum. She can’t escape, as she could at her New Jersey school. The technology class time is a vital part of her teaching schedule, as important and integral as reading, writing, and math. The more time she spends sitting next to her first grade students, the more she sees how to use the technology within the context of a social studies unit, for example. In addition, her students are patient with her when she asks for their help in understanding how to use an application. She has no qualms about being the student next to a six-year old teacher. “It’s healthy to flip roles with my students. It constantly reminds me how they feel each day in school, when they have to learn new things.”

At a faculty meeting, the technology teacher highlighted my wife’s use of Pages for her newsletter and showed a completed newsletter to the staff. One teacher asked, in a combination of fear and awe, “Are we all going to have to start doing that?” The problem with sharing technology exemplars with other teachers is that it can cause more anxiety than excitement about possibilities. For many teachers, technology feels like an add on and is intimidating to even think about.

We organized a series of teacher led technology workshops. The goal was to create the chance for master teachers to present their use of technology in the context of their teaching, so as to inspire the rest of the faculty. The school’s web developer echoed the overarching premise behind the workshops: “Seriously though, I do know that unless the faculty becomes fluent in the technology, it will never be an effective teaching tool — independently of whether or not it should be an effective teaching tool.” The question is what is the best way for faculty to gain fluency, without spoiling the efforts of the web developers who are constantly shifting and realigning the focus of their efforts to give faculty the tools to enhance teaching and learning. Again, in the words of the school’s web developer: “My experience to date has been that faculty rarely, with a few exceptions, think out of the box and make suggestions so I’m not sure where we end up: we can build this stuff, but do the faculty and students really want it and do they have the time and desire to use it?” These are very real and valid concerns. He continues his thinking: “It is not unlike the diet book craze. If people acted rationally, there would be one diet book in the world because they all basically tell us to eat less and exercise more. But since people fail at that, they think, “Oh this new catchy title will fix all my weight problems” and they buy a new book. Technology operates the same way. If blogs and email don’t seem to work, then RSS feeds and Ning will solve all our problems when in fact they won’t.”

The teacher led workshops, while broadly hitting on a variety of applications, such as Keynote and Electronic Mindmapping, whetted the appetite of faculty, but also crystallized how much work they still have to do. Also, the workshops occurred out of context, even though the workshop leaders shared how they incorporated applications inside of curriculum. For the amount of effort that went into preparing the workshops, there was little direct or indirect yield, other than a feeling of inadequacy among many of the teachers.

One longtime tech educator urged patience in dealing with faculty development: “You need to allow for organic growth, teacher to teacher. The most effective and lasting way for teaching to change is when one teacher shares with another, grows inspired, and experiments with a new application. Force-feeding technology through workshops can sometimes backfire and actually slow growth.”

The most dramatic example of a change in teacher behavior toward technology in the classroom occurred with one of our longest tenured faculty members. A year ago, at one of our early faculty meetings that dealt with technology in the classroom, this teacher stated that she would rather stick to pencil and paper instead of using laptops for learning. A year later, she has completed a 180. Her course is online, she uses blogs, she includes links, she meets with developers from CK-12, she invites experts to speak to her students about effective Internet research, and she takes risks in front of her students, confident that she can learn, but knowing that she does not have all of the skills at her fingertips.

When I asked her why and how she had changed her attitude toward technology, she explained: “I was stuck and I don’t like to be stuck. I like to take risks and I could see the possibilities of the library of knowledge. For example, I looked up Don Quixote on Google Books and found an 1854 translation. That’s just unbelievable.” She continued: “I can’t deal with the hardware and I don’t want to deal with the hardware. Let tech do that piece. I want to play with the software with kids. I like to change and grow. It’s what keeps things interesting.” However, she admits to her discomfort: “I don’t like it. It’s hard for me, but I’m going to do it and keep on doing it and I’m at a school that prides itself on innovation and risk-taking, so I’ll be okay.” She still likes her little mini-notebook to keep track of her to-do lists, even though she owns an iPhone and could use the Notes application. “It’s too much work to take out the phone, click on the application and then peck on the keypad to type in my notes.” But, one of her students pointed out, she would use it if there were an easier to use version. And, that’s the reality of technology. There is always one more level to go to. She likes to joke with her husband, “where is the anti-gravity machine?”

Her mantra with students is “Research is not a straight line.” Another teacher, deeply embedded in the teaching of research skills to students, notes the challenges endemic to teaching research skills today: “Although printed material is not necessarily accurate, there is a general belief that published materials have been vetted. The dynamic and open nature of the World Wide Web does not imply the same editorial review. With the mass proliferation of blogging, the lines have been blurred further, burdening the researcher. Students must discern trustworthiness, weigh sources against each other, and separate the scholarly wheat from the popular chaff.”

She goes on to explain the tools she needs to be a better teacher: “Depth, however, entails more directed follow up after a first look. Deepening research means more than clicking the links from Wikipedia.org article to another. To research objectively and accurately, teachers need to urge students to consult published works from several sources, both online and printed. The teacher’s role is still to teach critical thinking, but there’s a whole hecka of a lot more information out there to distill.”

While teachers take stock of their own ability to digest the prolific volume of information at their fingertips, one click of a button away, they also have to figure out ways to make meaning for children. It is a two-step process and teachers are all over the map in their attitude toward tackling the technology. Schools do need to clear the obstacles that can impede teacher progress. Slow servers, small bandwith, printer failures, and projector malfunctions can torture teachers and turn them against technology. “I don’t want to have to deal with hardware issues. I just want to click one button and go,” one teacher stated.

My wife’s school switched over to a new web site and she was left to fend for herself to transfer the data to the new site. As she juggles lesson planning, parent phone calls, and attention to her students, she could not believe that the school could not manage this process for her. This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic mangling that can doom teacher attitudes toward technology. It felt like one more thing to do, instead of being an integral part of her work as a teacher.

Teachers are at school to teach students, and schools cannot lose sight of this fundamental aspect of education, even as they transition to new technologies and infrastructures. Teacher development is a field of dreams, matched only by the ability of schools to streamline systems management with vision and professional development for teachers.

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