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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Overcoming Technology Barriers: How to Innovate Without Extra Money or Support

Five easy, practical steps toward better digital integration in your classroom.
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

According to a recent survey by the nation's two largest teachers' unions, most educators are enthusiastic about the role technology can play in improving learning, but many still feel unprepared to take advantage of digital tools in the classroom. What's stopping them? The persistent barriers include too few computers, a lack of technical support, and inadequate professional development.

"Access, Adequacy, and Equity in Education Technology," published by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, provides several broad recommendations for effecting change over the long term. They include: Improve classroom access to hardware, software, and the Internet, bolster technical support, strengthen professional development around the instructional uses of technology, and enlist teachers unions to advocate for tech funding and support. Yet it fails to offer solutions for educators looking to take immediate action. (Download a PDF of the report.)

Edutopia.org asked several innovators in the field about what practical steps teachers and administrators could take right away -- without making any major investments or waiting for policy shifts -- to improve technology integration in our classrooms. Here's what they suggest:

Step 1: Innovate with the Tools You Already Have

Oklahoma City math teacher Telannia Norfar has one desktop computer for students, graphing calculators, her school-issued laptop, and a projector, plus access to a mobile cart of laptops she shares with three other instructors. The PCs are equipped with Microsoft Office and Web browsers. Norfar gives her ninth graders real-world assignments that put these digital tools to good use.

In a service project for Northwest Classen High School's PTA, Norfar's students used algebra to analyze local cell phone plans to determine the best value. Acting as consultants, students then created electronic presentations, which included graphs, to explain their findings to their families. To support her nontraditional approach, Norfar required one more thing: "I needed a 'yes' principal -- and I have one," she explains.

Similarly, two Canadian educators got the go-ahead to design a collaborative project for the upcoming school year in which elementary school and secondary school students worldwide will calculate and compare their carbon footprints using online tools. "Our principal asked us, 'What do you need the most?' We said we needed time to use the tools we already have," explains Jim Carleton, who helped develop the project for the Simcoe County District School Board, in Ontario, where he is a technology-resource teacher.

"It's not about the stuff," Carleton emphasizes. "It's about making connections and working with what you already have. Our principal trusted us and allowed us to take that risk." Administrative support meant they were able to tap time allotted for professional development to plan the Carbon Footprints Project.

Step 2: Seek Out Free, Easy-to-Use Digital Resources

Award-winning New Hampshire kindergarten teacher Maria Knee says she doesn't need a lot of equipment to complete successful technology-based projects with her young learners. She often deploys simple but powerful online applications in the classroom.

For example, Knee used VoiceThread, a tool for creating collaborative, multimedia slide shows, to let students in Australia comment on the work of her New Hampshire classes. That brought peer feedback along with international camaraderie. "Most important is a supportive environment," says Knee, who also takes advantage of webcasts, podcasts, and other vehicles for professional development that are free and available twenty-four hours a day. "You won't know about a technology until you start using it. Just go and do it."

Leslie Conery, deputy CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, applauds this "Just do it" message. "We can't wait until every condition is met to get started with technology," Conery states. "You have to jump in with what you have. But at the same time, the community needs to keep working on getting equitable access, building a vision, advocating for professional-development funding, and meeting the other essential conditions."

Step 3: Overcome Your Fear of the Unknown

For some, jumping in is easier said than done. Teachers' fear of learning something new is still the main hurdle to technology integration, says Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley Schools, in Overland Park, Kansas. Moore says Blue Valley has invested heavily in technology, and to ensure that teachers use digital tools in the classroom, the district gives teachers time during the regular school day to learn from one another.

Teachers meet in small-group professional-learning communities to discuss issues that relate to student learning, including technology integration. Creating time and opportunities for teachers to share ideas has led to "a common language about student learning and has accelerated our use of instructional technology," Moore notes. "You can't do that if teachers are working in isolation behind closed doors."

Education consultant Gary Stager, a longtime advocate of what he calls "truly disruptive" technologies in education, agrees. Educators need to see other educators teaching in different ways in order for new practices to take hold, he says. His suggestions for accelerating the process: "Create rituals. Have teachers bring examples of something cool that their kids have done. Build a community of practice. Get teachers more comfortable talking together. It doesn't cost anything, yet this seems to be hard for schools to do."

Of course, teachers don't need to wait for districts to create formal opportunities for professional growth. "Find someone to learn with, a study group or buddy in your own building or in another school," Conery says. "Take a unit you love and talk about how you can infuse technology to enhance learning and go even deeper."

Step 4: Start with Small, Fast Projects That Enhance Learning

Teachers who are new to using technology will gain confidence from "safe, discrete" learning activities that connect to what they are already doing with students, says Paula Don, director of educational technology for the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). "Show them something that's immediately accessible. It needs to fit their objectives so that it validates and enhances what they are already doing," she says.

Recently, Don introduced some of the SDP's curriculum developers to a resource called Google Lit Trips, which combines place-based literature study with the satellite technology of Google Earth. (See the Edutopia.org article "Google Lit Trips: Bringing Travel Tales to Life.") Don showed her colleagues lit trips for books that were already on the district's reading list, including The Grapes of Wrath. When they clicked on placemarks on the lit trip for Steinbeck's novel, the curriculum specialists saw video clips and other imagery that made the dust-bowl-era story more immediate. Don says it changed the conversation between the curriculum specialists and education-technology experts: "It got us working together."

Education professor Mike Muir, who directs the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning, recommends introducing educators to an engaging task that's relatively easy. "Teachers need to be successful early," he says. "You want to start with something familiar and close to what they are already doing, but so different that it can be a portal to new possibilities. It's about paradigm shifting." Muir suggests starting with inquiry-oriented lessons called WebQuests. As part of the lesson, students use Internet resources (typically preselected by the teacher) to answer higher-order questions about a specific topic. "Find some that relate to what you are already teaching," Muir advises.

Step 5: Learn with Your Students

"We've been trying to talk teachers into integrating technology into the classroom for thirty, maybe forty years. It's not working," says Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES (Youth & Educators Succeeding). The company enlists students -- whom Martinez calls "the other 92 percent of the population in schools" -- as part of the solution. "Can we teach students to help teachers use technology more effectively in the classroom? We've got twelve years of data that says we can," she says. (Read an Edutopia profile of GenYES founder Dennis Harper.)

GenYES encourages teachers to learn about technology in the context of their own classroom, side-by-side with their students. Professional development that's embedded in the classroom has more staying power than one-shot workshops. More than 1,200 schools have participated in GenYES programs, which include training for students and on-site professional development for teachers. Martinez also advises sharing the vision of twenty-first-century learning with students. "Say to kids, 'Here are the things we imagine could happen with this technology. What do you think?'"

The bottom line is, do the best you can with what you've got. And, as Martinez says, when you achieve great results, "you should let people see the evidence that it's working."

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for Edutopia.org.

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