A Step in the Right Direction

So, I had this good ladder and step metaphor going in my head when I posted last, and then life got in the way and I have been spending more nights in hotel beds than my own and got a little off track. But I remember the gist and wanted to share some tips I’ve picked up in my work about helping promote technology integration, and maybe even come round back to my metaphor.

Earlier this year I was doing a series of webinars for a group of technology integration specialists. These are teachers who help other teachers at their schools or districts integrate technology and I was presenting about creating an action research project around technology use in their school. During each of the webinars, I stopped for some Q&A and asked teachers what they wondered about in terms of technology integration, and without fail someone would wonder what they could do to get reluctant teachers to use technology. Yes, 30 years on in the wave to integrate digital technologies in the classroom, and we still have this problem.

I work rather holistically with schools. Sometimes I get called in to do some training, like these webinars, or I get to visit schools and do observations. One of my favorite things to do is to interview teaches and leaders at schools and figure out what it is they’re doing that others can learn from. I know each situation is different, but I’ve run into several commonalities across schools with exemplary technology-using teachers that I think are helpful and so wanted to share them. These few lessons are learned from those visits and represent some strategies any school can incorporate to get those still-reluctant teachers on the technology bandwagon.

Supplant, don’t supplement. Teaching is hard work and it takes a lot of time. It is not uncommon for a teacher to see 150 students a day, and we ask these teachers to differentiate, modify, and personalize their instruction for each one of those students. Many teachers develop routines, both classroom routines and instructional routines, that help them get through this overwhelming amount of work. Asking teachers to add technology is the wrong approach. You’re asking them to do more, and they’re doing so much already.

In schools that have had success integrating technology and getting even the most reluctant teachers on board, teachers are often shown how to incorporate technology into an existing lesson that then helps them do the lesson more efficiently or effectively. The effectiveness can often be seen in terms of student learning, where all students have access to differentiated information to inform their learning and can personalize how they demonstrate that learning to themselves and their teachers. Voila! Magic words. The students are differentiating their learning and the teacher doesn’t have to come up with 150 different activities. Perhaps an example is in order.

This past year I have been visiting schools in West Virginia that have been implementing a curriculum-based product called techSteps by SchoolKit. This alone is worth it’s own story, but for now, suffice it to say that techSteps provides K-8 teachers (and soon those in grades 9-12) with a range of technology-supported lessons that address core curricular areas. There are many great stories to tell about this effort, but I want to focus on one.

In one school I visited, the faculty were charged with collaborating on model lessons intended to address known problem areas in the curriculum. They were also going to integrate a techSteps lesson, and in a stroke of brilliance, the principal and technology integration specialist decided to use the techSteps lesson as the model lesson. The result was tremendous. Even the most reluctant teachers developed technology-based instruction that modeled the characteristics of high quality instructional design and pedagogy they had learned for developing their model lesson. By making technology integral to the instruction, it was no longer seen as an add-on. Many of those teachers have now created additional lessons that integrate the technology skills they developed in creating their model lesson. Now, more teachers are requesting to use the available technology more often—an interesting problem, but one the school is ready to face.

Start with the familiar. Let’s say you don’t have a technology curriculum product at your school. You can still find ways to promote technology integration. In many schools that have successfully traversed down this path, school leaders have gotten teachers on board by using technology for something teachers were already familiar with.

One of the most popular of these tools is gradebooks. Every teacher is familiar with gradebooks, but online gradebooks allow teachers to input data during or right after the point of a graded activity and share that information with students and parents immediately. In fact, some parents will check their child’s progress several times a day, even if teachers are not posting that often.

I can understand how some teachers can see this transparency as somewhat of an invasion of privacy. Gradebooks are sacred cows. But even the most staunch, veteran teachers, like the one who told me they were going to have to “rip her gradebook out of her dying hands,” admitted that the result is actually parents become more involved in their child’s learning. Parents know right away what students did in school that day and can take immediate steps to figure out how to get students back on track (if necessary) well before the end of a grading period, when it’s often too late. This is in addition to the many analysis and reporting features that make electronic gradebooks superior to paper gradebooks, and the way they can be linked to resources to help those struggling students, but maybe I’ll get to that another day.

Don’t give them an option. This may seem a little harsh, but if there is only one way to do something, and even if that way requires using technology, people often figure it out. Several schools I’ve visited have gotten rid of paper-based announcements and memos. They’ve moved all of the administrivia that used to take up the bulk of faculty meetings and moved it all online, either through e-mail or a school intranet site. The result, say all of these school leaders, is that faculty meetings are more substantive. They focus on efforts such as professional development, collaborative lesson planning, and data analysis.

The process wasn’t all sunshine and roses. At first, some teachers wouldn’t check their e-mail and would miss important announcements. But once these teachers understood that e-mail was the only way this information was going to be distributed, they got on board. And then…they used e-mail for other things. Very likely, they would first use e-mail to communicate with other teachers or even with friends and family. But many of these teachers branched out to using e-mail to communicate with parents. This could include sharing general information about upcoming school or class events, coordinating volunteers, or requests for student resources.

All of these strategies, and others I can explore later, all require one critical factor, and that is a strong leader that models technology integration. Strong leaders are a critical factor in school success, whether you’re targeting technology integration or not. So, a strong leader acts like a ladder or a scaffold, one that supports and helps teachers reach new heights. A strong leader also often challenges teachers, and you should know how I feel about that. I love a challenge. That was one of the common characteristics of the leaders I worked with in my schools. I might be doing o.k., but they were always there pushing me to the next step.

We’re back to my step metaphor, and I hope these three simple steps are ones that people find helpful for integrating technology. I hope to hear back about some steps others have taken in their own schools. Sharing makes us stronger, and I appreciate those teachers and school leaders that have shared their stories with me. More to come.