Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where does a teacher start with technology?

I did a workshop yesterday with Policy Board members for a local teacher’s center.  As part of the workshop, I surveyed them to gauge their interests to make what I did as meaningful for them as possible.  One of the questions I asked on the survey was, “What is one thing teachers need to know about using technology in their classrooms?”

These are a sampling of their responses:

§         how to EFFECTIVELY use it.
§         It's hard for me to say since I am overwhelmed already...I don't know anything about them except how to work in word programs and not very effectively either I might add.
§         How to teach using technology to supplement their teaching.
§         Their students will always know more so let them go…
§         I think that they need to be comfortable with trying new technology; but the districts need to be comfortable with opening up new technologies without thinking that the Internet is "bad."  The more technology a teacher uses the more relevant their lessons will be...most students are techies and they need that connection.  We can't afford to ignore technology.
§         They should embrace technology - it isn't going away.
§         They should know enough to be able to understand what their students are working with or involved with in technology.  They should also be knowledgeable enough to be able to use a variety of technology strategies to offer a more varied way of teaching academic materials.
§         how to communicate effectively.

What I gleaned from the survey and from our subsequent conversation is underscoring the fact that students have already arrived, and the teachers are now playing catch up.  In Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ new book Curriculum21, she talks about how students go through a “time warp” at school.  In their own lives, they live and breathe and communicate and interact in a 21st Century environment.  Then many go to school and go BACK IN TIME! For many students, 21st Century skills are not being used or reinforced during the time they are at school and so the learning that happens is nowhere near what it could be.

The landscape of what is available is incredibly overwhelming, especially considering the fact that most teachers are digital immigrants—they are coming into technology without growing up with it permeating their everyday lives from birth, the way kids today are.

So what can teachers do about it?  To begin with, they can just take a deep breath.  You don’t have to learn the entire scope of what’s available on the Internet by tomorrow.  But, there are starting points:

  • ==) Know that it’s not about the tool as much as it is about the task. I told the teachers in this workshop yesterday that although the plumber has some pretty cool tools, they wouldn’t be very helpful to the roofer.  It would be better to develop a “toolbox” of web tools so that you can choose the right tool for the task, rather than trying to fit a task to a particular tool.
  • ==) Don’t be afraid to take risks. It’s true, the students may be far ahead of you technologically, and it’s okay to give up the “sage on the stage,” “sit and get” mentalities.  You don’t always have to be the teacher—there’s a lot of value in being the learner sometimes. Let the kids teach you something.
  • ==) Find out what other colleagues are using in their classrooms and ask if you can either observe how they do it, or at least explain how they use different technologies.  If you are investigating a particular web tool, program, or gadget that those around you are already proficient with, then you have “go-to” people to help if you need it!
  • ==) Ask the students what they would like to use and let that be your framework for learning something new.
  • ==) Check out Clif Mim’s “Just One Thing” series on his blog to help you focus on a starting point.
  • ==) Start with what you know.  If you are already proficient with Microsoft Word, for instance, perhaps a good technology starting place would be to investigate online, collaborative word processing environments like Google Docs or Etherpad.  Both use a Word-like interface, but have the added benefit of being able to be manipulated by a group of people rather than just one at a time.
  • ==) Go slow.  There is nothing to be gained for you or your students if you are overwhelmed.  There’s too much out there at this point and it’s too easy to drown in what’s available.  Extend your comfort a little bit at a time and build those knowledge bases.  Do what you would have your students do!  Let what you learn inform where you’ll go!  Over time, especially with web tools and applications, you’ll begin to see that many of them have similar functions or use similar operational skills, and once you get the hang of a few of them, new ones will be that much easier to learn and integrate!
  • ==) Make one small change. Do it today. What one new thing can you learn that will help make a difference in the way you teach or the way your students learn?  In Heidi’s book, she talks about starting with assessment.  Perhaps that would be a good place for you as well?  Rather than paper and pencil traditions—what if your students were given the option of turning in a new type of evidence of learning that involved technology?  They could create a video, they could tell a digital story, they could create a website, a weblog, or other online multimedia content.  They don’t need you to show them how to do it, they just need the opportunity of choice.

The time has come to embrace all of this technology in some way. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be willing and invitational.


  1. Great advice and good reminders, Mike!

  2. Great advice - check out some more here too:

  3. Please keep in mind that 'Technology' doesn't just refer to computers- it includes all thinking and all processes with which we 'solve problems and meet human needs'. Yes, Technology involves research and interconnection in the virtual world but it also incorporates the visceral: the making and building of things. To understand how to change and shape their world and what limits they need to work around, kids need to touch and interact with tools and materials. For instance- rapid prototyping is interesting and is becoming essential for idea sharing but it does not provide all the information needed to develop an idea from concept to manufactured reality.....
    It is really horrifying to think that anyone responsible for student learning would be empowered to limit childrens' technological exposure to the electronic and informational realm. (This is the issue to watch out for in the new NAEP standards now under review.)