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Professional Development | Feature

Training Teachers for 21st Century Classrooms

After receiving a modest technology grant, a middle school in Ohio began deploying mobile devices and traditional computers in classrooms and labs. And a key component of the rollout has been in-depth development for teachers focused on problem solving, project-based learning, and student engagement.

Three years ago, Ohio's Galion Middle School was hardly the picture of technological advancement. "We weren't the most lucrative school when it came to tech equipment," said Andy Johnson, principal. "We didn't have much."

That changed in 2008, when the school moved into a new building, which included a computer lab, a media center, and wireless connectivity throughout the facilities.

Funding New Technology
Eager to fill those new spaces with state-of-the-art technological equipment, Johnson and his team went after a 21st Century Learning Environments Technology Grant (which was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009).

School leaders had only a month to write up the grant and submit it--a fairly tight deadline by most measures. "We quickly assembled a group of teachers and administrators and wrote a proposal about how we wanted to integrate technology into our curriculum," said Johnson, "and incorporate 21st Century learning skills, creativity and problem-solving collaboration into the classroom."

Those efforts paid off for Galion Middle School, which was awarded a $246,793 grant to pay for the technology equipment and for the professional development needed to get teachers up to speed on using that equipment in their classrooms.

Focus on Professional Development
The school put professional development first, spending roughly 12 months on that aspect of the technological upgrade. Of the grant funds received (half in 2009 and the rest in 2010), about 75 percent was designated for equipment and materials, with at least 25 percent targeted for professional development.

All teachers participated in a 12-week, online course that covered topics like problem solving, project-based learning, and student engagement in technology.

"We saw professional development as a key component in this initiative," said Johnson. "We didn't just want to bring in all of this new technology without first giving teachers hands-on instruction in how to use it in their classrooms."

Combining Mobile and Desktop Computing
To kick off the school's technology buying spree, Johnson and his team attended the eTech Ohio conference last year to touch, feel and demo various pieces of equipment. Equipment purchased to date using the ARRA grant funds include six iPods, six iPads, five MacBook Pros, six Mac desktops, and 12 non-Mac desktops, among other equipment.

Johnson said the school is also in the process of setting up a new lab that will be equipped with 30 desktop PCs. Part of the remaining $50,000 in grant money will be used to purchase and install an iPad mobile lab.

Classroom Tools
Thanks to the grant, Galion Middle School was literally able to bring itself into the 21st Century on the technology front. At a recent state educational technology conference in Columbus, Johnson presented a video that showed teachers showing off the ways that their classes were using new technology hardware and methods in the learning process.

In that video, a math teacher talked about how she uses Smart boards and electronic student response systems, while a science teacher discussed the use of "probeware," which allows probes to be interfaced with computers to collect, interpret, and analyze data. Another teacher talked about how his social studies classes are using Skype to conduct real-time video conversations with students in Azerbaijan.

Not all Galion Middle School teachers have embraced the infusion of technology into their classrooms and labs. Johnson said the school is tackling that challenge through ongoing professional development that includes hands-on instruction on how to use tools like the open source course management program Moodle.

"We know that old habits are hard to break and that some people are comfortable with technology while others are not," Johnson acknowledged. "Through the professional development, we're breaking down those barriers and making some progress."

Johnson said he sees the school's new technological bent as being beneficial not only for teachers and students, but also for the institution itself, which loses more than $6,000 in funding every time a student moves to a digital academy or online school.

"To be competitive and stay in business, we have to be able to meet the needs of today's learners," said Johnson. "Kids are already using iPads and mobile phones in their day-to-day lives; we need to tap into ways to utilize these devices in the classroom."

Going forward, Johnson said, the middle school is focused on developing more instructional activities that incorporate the 21st century skills of collaboration, problem solving, creativity and critical thinking. Developing instructional activities that incorporate handheld electronic devices in the classroom (iPods, iPads, cell phones, etc.) is also on the agenda.

Getting there won't be easy, but Johnson and his team are prepared to face the challenges. "There are so many different modes of technology and Web 2.0 tech tools out there that it's easy to get inundated," said Johnson. "Our plan is to pick out a few, become proficient in them, and then integrate them into our curriculum."

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