New technologies flooding into classrooms are supposed to engage students and make life easier for teachers. But a lack of training means educators are often intimidated, rather than liberated by new gadgets.
While school districts enthusiastically use tech funds to purchase interactive white boards, iPads, and laptops, teacher development is largely overlooked, says Jason Martin, technology coordinator for students and staff at Columbiana Exempted Village School District in Ohio.
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"It's a lot more fun to brag to a school board that you bought all of this stuff than that you trained teachers on how to use it," Martin says, "Unfortunately, I think more money gets spent on the devices, and not enough gets spent on professional development."
To fill the knowledge gap, many schools are turning to in-house tech gurus and free training opportunities to bring their staffs up to speed before the new technologies breach classroom doors.
Columbiana, for instance, uses internal grant applications to ensure new devices are only doled out to educators with the knowledge base to use them. The process requires teachers to outline how they will use the technology to make their lessons more efficient, effective, and engaging. The early adopters then train colleagues voluntarily, spreading the new technology to other classrooms. This approach is more effective than relying solely on training from product vendors, Martin says.
"If we get free professional development by purchasing SMART Boards we definitely take advantage of it, but some of the trainings that they do are more of a sales pitch," Martin says. "When we have our teachers train, they're teachers who maybe a year ago knew nothing about the product, so they have a good understanding of coming from the ground up."
Teachers at Columbiana now use digital microscopes, iPads and iPods, netbooks, interactive SMART Boards, and wireless slates. Martin sits in on classes and sends out electronic surveys to teachers to determine which areas require further training, and then he incorporates them into district–wide professional development days or sets up one-on-one training.
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A stark contrast to the highly wired classrooms at Columbiana is Ebinger Elementary School in Chicago, which is getting ready to open its very first computer lab. Principal Serena Peterson wants her staff to be digitally literate before the lab opens its doors in January.
"I have teachers saying, 'Are you going to have a technology coordinator?'" says Peterson. "I tell them, 'No, you are the coordinators.'"
To prepare, teachers are attending free public classes at the local Apple store to learn iMac basics and sitting in on workshops at nearby schools. Peterson is also using her own experience to show staff how to use iPad apps in their lessons and calling on tech-savvy instructors to lead peer workshops.
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Keeping training close to home is more about building community than saving money, Peterson says. "It's a circle of trust," she says. "We use each other as a small learning community."
Building this type of professional development network is essential, says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, author of The Connected Educator, and cofounder of Powerful Learning Partners, a professional development company.
District-led training doesn't address technology at the pace it is changing, so teachers need to build a community of like–minded educators to turn to when tech questions inevitably arise, Nussbaum-Beach says.
"It used to be, study hard because what you know matters. Then it was, it isn't what you know, it's who you know,'" she says. "Now it's, do you know what who you know knows?"
See U.S. News's coverage of Technology in the Classroom.