How to Build a Technology-Based Curriculum

Educators emphasize that infrastructure must precede innovation.

Educators emphasize that infrastructure must precede innovation.

Boy looking through camera
Credit: Mark Wagoner

Editor's Note: Check out our Schools That Work package that profiles Forest Lake Elementary. Find out how this school uses technology to personalize learning.

This how-to article accompanies the feature "Educators Innovate Through Technology Integration."

Although technology is the theme at Forest Lake Elementary Technology Magnet School, in Columbia, South Carolina, the school's approach is really about discovering ways to use these tools to power the engine of learning. Strictly having the hardware and software is not enough.

Principal Kappy Cannon, technology specialist Paulette Williams, and curriculum resource teacher Marian Scullion explain that a school needs to establish a solid strategy, maintain a flexible plan of action, have the faculty buy into the plan, and foster collaboration among staff members. Here are tips from this trio on what to consider when adapting such a curriculum:

Use Your Imagination

Don't be afraid to try new things and take chances. If it doesn't work, you will know -- or your students will tell you. To introduce a comprehensive, technology-based curriculum, envision the type of environment you want to have, research available technologies and how educators use them in other schools, attend conferences, and talk to a lot of teachers, principals, and students. What will best serve the needs of your students? What resources do you have available? What are your school's strengths and weaknesses?

When Forest Lake first entertained the idea of developing such a curriculum, administrators examined other schools for inspiration and ideas. Where they couldn't find an existing model, they invented their own.

Hire or Designate a Technology Specialist

The primary responsibility of a technology specialist is to buttress what happens in the classroom. As technology specialist Paulette Williams says, "There should be someone like me in every school." Finding the funding to employ a full-time staff member to shepherd the integration of technology into the curriculum may be difficult, especially during the current economic downturn. So, again, think creatively. Can you reallocate resources, hire someone part time, or find a volunteer?

Encourage Teachers to Teach One Another

Learning how to use the unending stream of new technology and integrate it into various frameworks and state standards is not a simple task. An effective way to share knowledge and ideas is for teachers to tutor one another about the use of tech tools.

At Forest Lake, training is teacher driven, and the technology specialist, the media specialist, the curriculum resource teacher, and other educators teach each other the same way they teach the students. Educators learn from a specialist or another teacher how to use a specific device, Web site, or piece of software, and then they adapt the tools to fit their teaching style and classroom needs.

Talk It Out

A good way to ensure that the exchange of ideas continues to flow is to hold regularly scheduled sessions for teachers, specialists, and administrators. This way, staff members can share ideas, address problems, and brainstorm about solutions. Besides the weekly faculty meeting, a teacher-led group meets periodically for "Tech Tuesdays," a gathering where members collaborate on technology-infused project-learning lessons.

This type of collaboration builds professional respect, broadens the realm of teaching possibilities, and, most important, draws from the collective creativity of the staff to provide each student with the most appropriate instruction. A caveat from Cannon: "To work, this type of collaborative approach has to have the blessing of the administration."

Drop into Classrooms Regularly

To assist teachers, it's a good idea for administrators and technology specialists to keep up-to-date on activities by visiting classrooms regularly -- if not daily -- and troubleshooting as needed. Forest Lake's staff step in and out of classrooms every day, making hundreds of visits every week. Also, to further the transparency of instruction, teachers display a hefty notebook of lesson plans (the "Flight Plan") on a table in their classroom. At any given time, someone can step into a classroom and know what the teacher is teaching.

Involve Students

Through lessons, testing, enrichment programs, and daily classroom activities, a school's greatest communicators -- the students -- will let teachers know whether their approach is working. Listen and respond to which tools and projects are most and least effective, and encourage kids to speak out.

At Forest Lake, every classroom has at least one student ambassador who greets visitors and informs them about specific activities. They can't wait to describe not only the technology they're using but also the lessons they're learning.

Mary Best, a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about technology, health, and travel.

This article originally published on 5/7/2009

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Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at BrokenAirplane.com

What is "Technology"

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So often I hear people say that the only reason that I use technology is because I like technology (I'm the "geek"). The sad thing is that this keeps others from seeing that technology is not just about having gizmos in the classroom.  Animals and humans have used technology to do what they could not do before. Reach bugs that are too deep, fly to the moon, communicate around the world. All impossible or supremely difficult tasks otherwise.  So if we take this to be the definition of technology, what is it allowing us to do that we couldn't do otherwise? The sad thing is that the reason many classrooms have students falling asleep is because they are being asked to watch or listen to content that has no relevancy to them. How many hours could you sit quietly and do that? I could go to my favorite band or to the world funniest comedian and yet if I was asked to sit and watch for an hour a day everyday for a year, I would fall asleep or grow to hate it. Technology is being used to keep students occupied. Why that might be could be an entire book. The most prominent educational technology, the projector, could just as easily be a white board if all it is doing is delivering content. Requires students to all focus on the screen and copy down word after word when the textbook already has everything in it. Computers more powerful than the Space Shuttle are being used to show slides just as film reels were 50 years ago. Technology needs to involve students doing. Doing things they could never do otherwise. Expressing themselves as much  as in an art class, students not sleeping but making.  Are your technologies allowing your students to do things they never could before?

Tools Are Not Enough...

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Back in the late 1980's a famous hamburger chain put out an ad featuring two senior women examining a tiny hamburger under a bun, and declaring, "Where's the beef?!"  The ad was deemed a success as the phrase was on everyone's tongue, and even appeared in the presidential debates that year.Unfortunately, when the good people who poll how effective ads really are got ahold of this one, they discovered that while everyone remembered the slogan, very few people remembered the brand name (it was Wendy's by the way).  In a similar sense then, I was heartened to see that the teachers interviewed for this article declare that the tools are not enough  - to me the most eloquent statement in the entire article  -  since if the tools do not actually help the student learn for understanding, then the technology is in vain.  The same student who was asleep in Biology class during the showing of a film strip on the life of the catepillar, will also likely be asleep during the 16mm movie on the same topic; as will the student watching it on a television screen by way of a VHS tape; and were the students utilizing a Smart board in the classroom I visited during our Cohort's first semester in Teaching Practicum.While the teachers were well armed with enthusiasm for the topic, well capable of manipulating and encouraging the students to manipulate features of the Smart board itself, the same students who would be generally interested in Chinese immigration raised their hands; those who weren't remained at the back of the room playing with their pencils or talking to each other; while the two English Language Learners struggled on as usual.My point is not to decry technology.  Quite the opposite; as a matter of fact, despite my (decided) lack of prowess among all things techno, once I have mastered the tool you sometimes can't get me away from it (I can no longer live w/out my iPod (grin).  But I'm less convinced that the technology itself is the key.The article unfortunately only mentions this feature of creating a technologically immersed environment for students.  It does not examine the 'why' (as tho the cultural assumption that techno = 'better' is a correct one), as well as it examines the 'how' (again, making all sorts of assumptions that this is the 'better' route to go to engage and teach students.  For myself I have mastered the use of an Elmo laser projector, which on the surface appears to be a great device.  And it is...if that's what you prefer to use.  But whether planted on a desk, or placed on a tall cart the teacher can use while standing, I still (personally) prefer the white board and markers (or even a chalk board).  Not because I don't like the technology, but because in my lessons the technology does not drive the lesson  - the students' genuine enthusiasm for the lesson does.I would MUCH prefer that school districts (like the one in San Carlos we visited to see the Smart boards) would use their bond measures to raise funds for more teachers  - not just so I personally can have a job - but so that class sizes will drop significantly.  For even as a student teacher when I was able to split the class and send half to 'Library Day' and taught the lesson to 15 kids instead of 31, even my most otherwise disruptive "I don't care if I learn anything and you can't make me" kid, became engaged in ways I had never witnessed before - ever!  And all my lesson involved was having kids come up to the white board, stand in the place of a word or punctuation mark, and pronounce the word or say what punctuation they were in the sentence.My point you've gotten here by now, I'm sure.  The article, for my money, needs to do more on the 'why' than the how of it all.  For all of their recommendations (Use imagination (envision a new environment); Discover and use resources in new ways; Attend conferences; Teach one another what you know; Talk out what you're processing with fellow teachers; Involve students) can all be done with or without technologically advanced equipment.Michael

Educational Technology Specialist

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I agree with Mary Best. All the tips she gives are really the key points! Especially the "Talk It Out". In the higher education setting for example, I am seeing that the problem is not necessarily with the allocation of instructional strategies and resources but with getting teachers/faculty who are resistant to technology to start using it! The solution to this problem might be getting teachers/faculty together not for another formal profession development workshop/training but have them create technology-infused project-learning lessons as Mary Best suggests!

Instructional Technology Specialist, Pennsylvania School Board Director

Web 2.0 Applications in Education

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There are so many free technology resources out there that it's hard to decide what to use for the desired or intended learning outcomes. Start small, use an simple or easy tool that supports your instructional goals or objectives. Don't choose an online app just because it's got a cool app appeal. It has to be relevant to your content and objectives and then it can seamlessly infused into the instructional strategy being developed. Make some of these free online tools a natural part of your lesson plans repertoire. Build that 21st Century Classroom today! Give it a shot and try visiting my wiki for tons of tools, strategies and tips for seamless and relevant educational technology integration. http://web20guru.wikispaces.com

Teacher and Ed-Tech Blogger at BrokenAirplane.com

Free and Open Source Software

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A key component to building a strong and equitable technology curriculum is the use of Free and Open Source software. This allows schools to implement powerful software in the classroom without additional cost and for students to continue working at home.

Some technology that I have found especially useful are:
Open Office (Word Processing, Presentations, Spreadsheets, and more)
Camstudio (Video Tutorial Software)
Geogebra (Math and Science Exploration Software)
Google Apps (Email, Calendar, Document Colaboration, Website Design, and more)

Check out my education blog BrokenAirplane.com for more ideas and tutorials. If you would like to see a post on a specific technology, or have a question leave a comment on the blog and I would love to help you out.

Lisa Ernst (not verified)

Technology integrated within curriculum.

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I recently completed a program at the Yale National Initiative for Teachers to Strengthen Public Schools. While attending this institute, I wrote a unit called, "Shakespeare on the Cell Phone: Texting Romance". As I was researching information about technology, while receiving my content on Shakespeare, as veteran teacher at Alice Fong Yu K-8 Chinese Immersion School in San Francisco Unified School District, I realized I was missing the whole picture. When one thinks of technology, they automatically think, computers, ipod, LCD projectors, Bloggs, Smart Boards,text messaging. and instant messaging. They do see the connection to communication, but not as a form of language. I am the teacher that has always embraced technology, but I have come to realize, I am not taking full advantage of the possibilities. For example the application of Shakespeare's words and the student's own words to text messaging is a powerful starting point for our 21st century learners. What better way to empower the students with the connection of their world to Shakespeare's world.

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