The IT in the Classroom Imperative

I was recently having what has become a very frequent conversation for me.  The conversation surrounds the different ways of ensuring students get the IT skills they need, through IT classes or IT in the classroom, through IT lessons or integrated IT in the classroom, through IT teachers or classroom teachers, in computer labs or in classrooms with laptops, on a schedule or as needed.

I found myself saying something I have grown fond of and that is “Computer teachers, or integration specialists if you like, are charged with helping teachers integrate IT into their lessons.  We expect that from them.  But classroom teachers are not formally charged with getting help.” (I am long-winded apparently)  Classroom teachers are not expected to integrate IT in a formalized way, like in their job description or through performance evaluation criteria (at least not in the schools I have worked at).  Even when you have a whiz-bang IT specialist who gets out there and plans with teachers, it too often is an uphill battle and that person can become very tired of making folks do things they don’t want to do and change when they are happy doing what they are doing.  If integration doesn’t happen, the IT specialist is seen as ineffectual but classroom teachers are rarely seen as complicit in that failure, at least not openly and individually.  “They” may be seen as such, as a grade level or team, if they act as such as a grade level or team, but classroom teachers are rarely fired because they did not integrate technology into their curriculum (at least not in the schools I have worked at).

What makes teachers learn new methods, integrate technology and change their practice?  What makes them embrace tech tools in their teaching?  What would make them go to the IT specialist spontaneously and say “Hey I want to learn about podcasting because my students need to know how to do that to improve their learning.”

And then it hit me (I am slow on the uptake apparently). That is exactly what would make them say such a thing: if it were true and they knew it and believed it to be so.  If a teacher knew that the students in their classroom would learn better, more, and with greater effect, because of an IT tool, they would want to use it.

Teachers will do what is best for kids or what they believe is best for kids.  That is the IT imperative.  Professional educators will change their practice and learn new skills if it will benefit the kids.  PD, therefore, must make that case.  Not the case that IT is easy or makes teaching or learning easier.  It doesn’t. IT often makes things take longer and is actually harder.  But the benefits, the long term learning benefits, outweigh that.  PD must show that, convincingly and repeatedly.

Shifting the Focus on Technology Integration

For over a decade now I have worked as a technology teacher at international schools in Asia.  Schools with excellent technology resources and excellent teachers.  Why then does high-quality technology integration prove so elusive?  What is it that stands in the way of effective collaborative teaching?  I think the answer lies in several areas of the planning process and it is these unresolved pitfalls that hinder quality integration.

Firstly, what do I mean by quality integration?  We all know it when we see it and when we are involved in it.  Those rare times when a unit is planned involving many teachers, each contributing their areas of strength and spurring each other on with their enthusiasm.  The times when many classes are involved in large projects and students are moving about from one classroom to another, to the lab and library and back and maybe even to the art rooms and all students are actively engaged in meaningful learning experiences.  Times when it seems like utter chaos perhaps but you can feel the energy and the enthusiasm and the learning seems almost palpable.  Each teacher involved is working to their strengths and offering students something unique and the students in turn are engaged in a variety of learning opportunities, catering to their auditory, visual and kinesthetic needs.  This is quality integration because many teachers and disciplines are involved and everyone is working towards a common set of goals and it is purposeful and meaningful to the curriculum.

There are a few key ideas here that hint at the reason that regular, day-to-day technology integration doesn’t always happen.  One thing is scale.  In these kind of huge projects, involving all classes at a grade level or a division or even a whole school, it is usually a large-scale involvement that simply can’t be sustained all the time.  Getting so many people involved is hard and takes a lot of committment and energy, so we only want to do it if it is “worth it” and accomplishes a lot.  Day-to-day tech integration does not meet this criteria and so it does not receive the same kind of energy and enthusiasm.

Another thing is planning ahead.  Large-scale themes, units and projects involving many teachers work well if they are well-planned and everyone is involved at the beginning stages of the planning.  This is a crucial error in what I often see happen with integrated technology lessons and units.  Typically, teachers plan a unit either alone or with a colleague or with their grade-level team and then, when they are all done, they approach the librarian, or the art department or technology teacher and ask them how they can support the unit.  Inevitably this creates more work, adds lesson to the unit and reinforces the idea that technology, for example, is an add-on.  How can technology enrich our unit?  How can it extend our unit?  While these are not bad questions, the technology teacher, the librarian and any other teachers involved need to be in on the ground floor.  They need to be a part of the planning process from the outset and they need to ask slightly different questions:

  • How will students learn in the unit?
  • How will the teacher convey important information?
  • How will the students work, individually or collaboratively?
  • Where will they find the information they need?
  • How will they process that information?
  • What tools will they use to organize and analyse their facts or data?
  • How will they communicate their learning to their peers?
  • Who is their audience for their final product?
  • How will they convey their learning to their audience?

For each of these questions one can then ask, How can technology enrich the unit?  How can it extend the learning?  How can it meet the diverse needs of my learners?

Unfortunately the recent emphasis on standards and benchmarks has shifted the focus away from technology as a tool and on to technology as a distinct curricular area.  With technology standards and benchmarks and technology co-ordinators or technology teachers (call them what you like) taking on the role of ensuring they are “met” by students, there is a seemingly unanswerable question of responsibility.  Technology integration is based on the idea that technology is a tool and that it is best taught in the context of the classroom curriculum.  Ergo integrated lessons need to grow out of the classroom curriculum.  Classroom teachers have enough on their plates these days, with their own standards and benchmarks and if asked would likely tell you that it is the technology teacher’s responsibility to plan lessons and units that meet their own standards and benchmarks.  Technology teachers/coordinators/integration specialists, myself included, generally respond that it is a collaborative process.  We must work together to plan integrated lessons and units and ensure that students are meeting their classroom benchmarks as well as the technology benchmarks in some kind of magical unit that kills two birds with one stone.  The problem is that that is very difficult to do and extremely difficult to do every week.

How then do we tie this all together and ensure quality integration?  Firstly, I would argue that we need to get shift our focus away from technology standards and benchmarks.  Not throwing them out entirely, but looking at them from a different angle perhaps and shining the light on the classroom curriculum more brightly.  Teachers do indeed have much to do, much curriculum to cover (or uncover) but we can no longer, in the 21st century, look at effective student learning without technology.  Reading, bias, accuracy of information, writing, editing, publishing, mathematics, data analysis, graphing, social studies, research, questioning, science, art and music are all done with technology these days.  Not using technology tools to teach and learn in the classroom is just not “good teaching”.  Can we teach reading and writing and ‘rithmetic without computers?  Of course we can.  Should we?  I would argue no, we should not.  It is not a reality for our students to read only paper books, to only hand-write stories and essays and look solely at a paper map to find their way.  Most of what they will read for pleasure or information is digital even now.  Blogs, chats, emails and text messages are what they are writing today.  GPS and digital maps rich with added information are already standard ways of finding your way from point A to point B.  We must look at our classroom curriculum and find where the technology belongs.  Answering all the questions posed above with technology in mind, from the outset.

Who should be doing this?  Teachers of course.  Classroom teachers have a big job, just as they always have.  They need to prepare their students for their present and future lives.  How can teachers be experts in Language Arts, Math AND Technology?  That is an old way of looking at 21st century curriculum.  To be an expert in Language Arts is to know the appropriate digital tools for your students and to know them well enough to teach with them.  That has always been the case and is still is.  Teachers do not need to be experts in all technologies.  They do not need to know everything there is to know about MS Word or the Internet.  They need to know enough to teach their students what they need to know.  This is the same thing teachers have always needed to know.  They need to know their own curriculum and how to teach it.

So let’s start there.  What do your students need to know?  What do they need to be able to do in Math at your grade level?  What do they need to be able to do to effectively communicate what they have learned?  That is what you need to know and be able to teach them.

Does that mean we no longer need technology teachers, co-ordinators and integration specialists?  Yes and no.  I think we need to re-think their role and maybe even give them a new name.  A good tech specialist (let’s call them just that for now) needs to be a staff trainer, a good teacher, one who is up on the latest technology tools, one who knows curriculum, has a good knowledge of what is developmentally appropriate, is good with people, is helpful and can work collaboratively with other teachers.  And, if we are truly committed to supporting teachers in teaching 21st century curriculum, we may actually need more of them.  If students are using technology more regularly in the classroom, in the library, in the music classes, in the art rooms and out in the field, on computers, with handhelds, on laptops, on tablets, and things we can not imagine today, we will need tech specialists on hand to support teachers whenever and whenever necessary.

I could go on but will save some for another post, another day.