Technology for Charter Schools Too: A Team-Based Training Model

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Last summer, 100 minnesota teachers, administrators and technology coordinators from 15 schools - 11 of which were charter schools - confirmed their commitment to improving technology integration in K-12 education by attending the Teams for Technology (T4T) training program. T4T, a Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) grant project funded by Minnesota, was designed and implemented by vivED Corp. and the University of St. Thomas' School of Education to provide administrators and teachers with the tools and skills required to make systemwide technology integration possible. Dubbed "Teams for Technology," the intent was to create a new level of cooperation between school leaders and teachers by providing them with a better understanding of education technology and the specific challenges encountered by each group in the school community.

Charter Schools' Growth

Charter schools are a growing phenomenon in education. In September 2002, there were 79 charter schools in Minnesota alone. Since becoming the first state in the nation to authorize charter schools in 1991, Minnesota, like many other states, has experienced a steady growth in the number of requests to districts and the state for charter school authorization. Those wishing to start a charter school must obtain a sponsorship from a state-approved nonprofit organization (in Minnesota) or a district. An existing school board may also convert one or more of its institutions to charter school status if 60% of a school's teachers sign a petition approving conversion. Much work g'es into these applications, although approval is not guaranteed.

While more and more charter schools are opening in Minnesota and across the nation, those involved will tell you the task is not easy. Charter developers are modern-day pioneers. They are the educational entrepreneurs responsible for building a school from the ground up. Because of the overwhelming start-up need to address curriculum, staffing, student recruitment, budget and so forth, technology planning and implementation are often forgotten; left until the last stages of planning. Even worse, they are sometimes simply ignored.

A Team Approach to Funding

Charter schools are funded much like traditional public schools. However, they do not have the usual district-supported resources to lean on, leaving charter groups to fend for themselves in many critical areas. This lack of resources also means that charter groups have to seek other funding and grants for such needs as transportation, special education and technology support. On the other hand, this disconnection from a school district is often what draws charter developers to start schools.

But the downside still remains: Difficult economic times have resulted in funding and staff cuts at the district level. To develop a model to serve these similar needs, the T4T proposal identified 11 charter schools, two public elementary schools and two alternative schools that were willing to work together to solve these problems.

In order to compete for a large-scale technology grant from the state, these 11 schools worked with vivED to collect data that would clearly show a common need. Using an online tool, the vivED Dashboard, representatives from each school completed an assessment based on their unique technology environment. The data showed that these schools significantly lacked resources and general knowledge about technology. As is the case in many schools nationwide, they also lacked a modern infrastructure, had limited software and provided few professional development activities to improve technology skills.

However, the greatest weakness found in these schools was in the area of the decision-making processes for technology. Not only did they lack the training and equipment, but also the plans and processes needed to acquire these elements effectively. The data made it clear that providing equipment and training were not enough to move the schools forward with technology integration; in fact, doing so might simply exacerbate the lack of integration. The TLCF grant project had to be approached strategically to meet all of the identified needs.

Technology Needs

To address the lack of a modern infrastructure, the grant request supplied all schools in need with a digital video camera, which had a single still-picture feature, and a portable LCD projector. Providing more and newer computers was debated, but because of limited funds, equipment that would have a more immediate systemwide impact in the schools was selected. Software, limited to the titles used during the actual training, was given to the schools as well. The schools had the opportunity to choose which software was most appropriate for their school based on operating systems, grade levels served, current expertise and software already available.

Besides a need for infrastructure, the assessment data identified a need for both classroom-level training and technology-leadership training. Classroom-level training was defined as using technology to assist in the teaching, learning and management of the classroom. Administrator training was defined as addressing schoolwide issues such as technology planning, purchasing and evaluation. In order to address the unique needs of teachers, administrators and technology leaders, T4T provided separate training strands for teachers and administrators.

Reviewers for the grant process found the request and needs of this group of charter schools compelling, with funds awarded in midsummer. But, the good news of the grant was tempered by the lack of planning time to get everyone who participated on board. Due to federal and state requirements, the program had to be initiated and completed in less than two months. In mid-August, teachers and administrators were partitioned into various training groups to keep class sizes manageable, while providing connections between and among staff.

Teacher Training

The weeklong teacher training conducted by University of St. Thomas instructors focused on developing classroom integration skills in projects that could be used effectively in school settings. They brought extensive experience with technology and classroom integration to the teacher workshops. These hands-on training sessions were based on the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (www.cnets.iste.org), created by the International Society for Technology in Education, and included concept-mapping skill development and video-editing software as productivity tools.

The teachers created WebQuests (see Bernie Dodge's Web site at http://webquest.sdsu.edu) to support curricular units and created ongoing professional development plans specific to building technology integration skills. To ensure training skills could be seamlessly applied in the schools, each site was provided with the same software and equipment used in the sessions.

Administrator Training

The administrator strand of the teacher training was designed by vivED and based on ISTE's National Education Technology Standards for Administra-tors (NETS*A). In designing the administrator course, vivED closely followed ISTE's philosophy of providing school leaders with the knowledge and tools they needed to encourage and create an atmosphere within their schools that promotes authentic integration. VivED used their framework, the Dashboard, in tandem with NETS*A to break down and more easily portray the complex challenges faced by school leaders when they engage in the integration process.

The Dashboard framework identifies the major areas of focus that school leaders must fully understand and address within their schools. The following seven categories contain subelements that allow for an even deeper understanding and a more strategic approach to integration. These categories are: decision-making, budgeting and funding, staffing, buy-in, knowledge and skills, external support, and infrastructure. Administrators and tech leaders received hands-on training in all Dashboard categories, exploring such issues as evaluating technology-infused lessons, effectively allocating funds and building internal support for technology.

Although there were two distinct strands in the T4T training, both sides were working toward accomplishing the goal of effectively integrating technology into teaching and learning. VivED created an online forum (www.vivED.com/forums) where participating school leaders and teachers could collaborate and share experiences throughout the training weeks, while continuing to learn beyond the sessions. The forum proved to be a nonthreatening environment where administrators, teachers and tech leaders could learn, often for the first time, of each other's frustrations, best practices and fears that come with implementing technology in education.

Participants from around the country who are interested in collaborating to improve technology in K-12 schools have now populated the forum. Experts like DiscoverySchool.com's Kathy Schrock and SchoolGrants' Donna Fernandez are also offering their solutions to the challenges posed by forum members.

Leadership training for administrators and classroom integration training for teachers, coupled with the ability to collaborate with colleagues and experts nationwide, made this TLCF project an experience of phenomenal proportions for the participating K-12 schools.

Problems Encountered

As one might expect, not everything went as planned. Typical problems associated with organizing events and training across multiple schools and districts occurred. Scheduling, traveling, roster changes, miscommunication and content changes are just a few of the problems that arose. Here are a few of the major problems that were encountered:

  • Communication with teachers and school leaders was difficult during the summer months.
  • Scheduling changes led to conflicts for some participants.
  • E-mail communication was relied upon but not used by many of the participants, which led to more communication difficulties.
  • Sustainability was not fully possible because of the short grant-project timeline.

Recommendations:

Coordinate early. This is perhaps the most obvious and frequently stressed recommendation for all large-scale education projects, but it cannot be emphasized enough. Many of the problems we encountered could have been avoided with more careful planning. Project managers need to spend time coordinating in advance, even if that means preparing for a grant that has not yet been awarded. Project participants should create loose timelines, goals and contingency plans in preparation for the award. Not only will you be ready when you win a grant, but you will also be prepared to solicit other funds if the award should fall through.

Provide follow-up training. The most frequent suggestion from the participants was to continue the training into their individual schools. In this grant, we were able to meet this request to some degree by adjusting the training flow to allow for some generalized on-site training, though the grant timeline restricted the effectiveness of this significantly. Given a choice, the participants would have preferred initial group training followed by ongoing localized training. This reinforces that one-time training events are not as effective as other on-site, long-term training.

Provide stipends. This grant was designed to occur over the summer and, because participation in training and evaluation activities was considered crucial to the success of the overall grant, all participants were paid a daily stipend. The stipends accounted for a good portion (16%) of the overall grant funding, but was well worth the cost. Any training initiative in schools should look to provide stipends to its participants. Enthusiasm for and perceived value of the training seemed higher as a result of the stipends paid.

Provide separate and combined training for teachers and administrators. This grant addressed the needs of administrators and teachers separately. Although linked by the underlying ISTE standards, the physical training occurred at separate times and locations. The original design of the grant was to allow for more interaction between the two groups, including a combined training day. However, delivery logistics didn't allow for this to occur. Although administrators and technology leaders were advised to attend both training strands where appropriate, the majority attended only the administrator strand.

During the administrator training, many participants suggested that their teachers would benefit from the discussions and expressed a desire for them to be present. Because of the variance in skills required to create a school environment supportive of integration and those required to integrate technology into curriculum, it is recommended that while the two groups remain separated, they also should be given some opportunity to interact. The feedback from the T4T training suggested that both groups could benefit from collaboration on such topics as professional development and building buy-in for technology efforts.

Be prepared for all skill levels. As part of the pre-assessment for the grant, administrator technology competency was evaluated. This data was collected to identify a need for the grant. It was also intended to help group administrators in training classes based on similar skill levels. As it turned out, the administrator schedules dictated that the training groups and the skill levels in all classes were highly varied. This worked to the benefit of the training, because while a few administrators voiced their concern that some of the content was too basic, most thought the collaboration between participants with different knowledge bases was a positive and helpful element of the training. It is recommended that administrators receive time for collegial discussions to allow for this transfer of knowledge. This project could have done a better job of addressing the needs of the more advanced participants. And it is recommended that others address this in their training offerings.

Incorporate hands-on activities. In both training strands, participants used technology in some way each day. Participants found this very helpful, as they were able to learn by doing in many instances. This may seem obvious to some, but there are many training programs that involve more demonstration than actual participation. Further, wherever possible, the training should easily transfer to the classroom instruction. And activities should result in lessons or activities that teachers can use with their students.

A Collaborative Effort

Starting up a new school with novel goals and introducing technology into its administrative and curricular operations are challenges. With planning and hard work there will be successes, but there will also be problems. It's important to have a technology plan with a high degree of buy-in from staff, parents and the community served. However, commitment to implement that plan from only one group is not enough. Success will not stem from only teacher professional development or new equipment purchases, but from a collaborative effort.

The leaders of a school must play a major role in the technology implementation. School leaders must know how to build that collaboration and allow their staff to prosper. Leaders must not only delegate and share the responsibilities for technology in their school, they must also model and direct technology initiatives. Focusing on both the teacher and administrative levels is a much more strategic approach than simply focusing on only one level.

For more information about Minnesota's education technology initiatives, contact Mary Mehsikomer at Mary.Mehsikomer@state.mn.us.

If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, please e-mail the authors:

Daniel Wendol, Vivid Education Corp., St. Paul, MN
wendol@vived.com

Tom King, Ph.D., University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, MN
dtking@stthomas.edu

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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