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Smart Classrooms | Q&A

Involving Teachers in Technology: One District's Approach

An Illinois school district stands up to the challenges associated with new IT implementations.

When it comes to technology, K-12 districts usually grapple with fundamental challenges when it comes to getting teachers to integrate the new equipment and software into their everyday instruction. Some "get it" quickly, while others lag behind, letting the technology gather dust in the corner while they return to their traditional teaching methods.

Jim Owens, superintendent at Westville Community Unit District II in Westville, IL, has found a way around the challenge and credits good communication and ongoing professional development with creating an IT-based learning atmosphere at his three schools.

We talked to Owens about his strategies and secrets. Here's what he had to share.

Bridget McCrea: When did you first begin infusing technology into the classroom?

Jim Owens: It kicked off about four years ago, when our 1,200-student district--which comprises three schools--began assessing the role that technology would play in education and in the workforce. We began looking at what our students were going to need, how they would learn, and what new opportunities were coming down the pike. Historically equipped with a decent amount of computers and technology, our district came up with a plan that would enhance that existing infrastructure and, over time, come to include everything from whiteboards to HP tablet computers to iPads.

McCrea: What role did teachers play in this initiative?

Owens: A team of five teachers from our K-6 elementary department wrote and won a grant from Hewlett Packard, and each of them received an HP tablet computer, LCD projector, digital camera, printer/scanner/copier, plus support and training materials. The following year, 10 teachers applied and received 10 more technology setups exactly like those that the recipients received in round one. Another grant allowed us to equip 20 classrooms, mostly in the elementary school, with Promethean [ActivBoards], slates, response systems, document cameras and flip video cameras.

McCrea: How important was teacher training during these IT rollouts?

Owens: We gave everyone laptops and projectors and clickers, but we knew that if the IT wasn't impacting academic performance, then it would be a waste of time, and nothing more than a play toy.

McCrea: What did you to ensure that didn't happen?

Owens: First of all, we spent a year figuring out what technology to buy and only selecting options that our teachers would actually use. Then we applied for a $250,000 Enhancing Education Through Technology [EETT] grant. During the six months following the new equipment installation, teachers were taken out of their comfort zones and shown how to most effectively utilize the technology in the class.

[EETT's primary goal is to improve student achievement through the use of technology in elementary and secondary schools. Additional goals include helping all students become technologically literate by the end of the eighth grade and, through the integration of technology with both teacher training and curriculum development, establishing innovative, research-based instructional methods that can be widely implemented. The program has been eliminated in recent federal budgets.]

McCrea: What strategy worked best in terms of teacher training?

Owens: One particularly effective training tool involved flip video cameras and a directive to create a project illustrating the impact that technology was having on the respective teacher's classroom. This simple exercise frustrated a lot of our teachers, who didn't know what we wanted from them or what the right answer was. We told them that there was no right answer, that we just wanted them to get creative and share how they were using technology in the classroom. Once they "got it," the teachers really surprised us by coming up with some innovative ways of integrating technology into their lesson plans.

McCrea: What challenges did you encounter, and how did you tackle them?

Owens: Trying to get everything up and running on 100 computers with one IT person has been a real challenge. Getting our infrastructure in place also took time, particularly in terms of the wireless network that had to be there to support all of the equipment. We literally exploded on bandwidth and are looking to expand our wireless network again in July to try to keep up with it. Also, motivating teachers who have no interest in technology has been an ongoing issue. The good thing is that we do have a contingency of instructors who are very excited about all of the new tools and capabilities, and that enthusiasm tends to spread. Students also play a role in this: When teachers see that their pupils are excited about using an iPad in class, for example, there's more incentive to integrate such technology into lesson plans.

McCrea: Are you planning to infuse more technology into your district's classrooms?

Owens: Right now we're looking for more grant opportunities, with an eye on expanding the district's 1:1 computing program, and possibly getting teachers more interested in project-based learning. We're definitely not just going to sit still because we've made all of this headway; we want to keep the momentum going. We'll be looking at our data and results and focusing on using technology in a way that improves performance and enhances the educational experience for our students.

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