Between Technology and Teacher Effectiveness: Professional Development

As new technologies permeate our society, they are also becoming more and more of a factor in today's classrooms. The promise of technology in education is significant. Technology offers the potential of individualized instruction for every student as students become actively engaged in and responsible for their own learning. The capability to develop every student into a life-long learner is now even more achievable with developments in technology. Technology beckons educators with more opportunities for learning and increases in student achievement.

In fact, many see technology as the new dynamic in the traditional student-teacher relationship. However, no one can argue that the most important influence in student learning and achievement is still teacher quality. So it stands to reason that the true challenge of effectively integrating technology in education is human rather than technological. While technology advances hold the promise of improved learning instruction, technology-focused professional development for teachers is critical if technology is truly to be used to promote learning for all students.

While most schools offer teachers different levels of support, the ones that stand apart are schools that belong to districts that have long-term commitments to professional development as a major component of effective technology implementation. One-shot trainings and workshops are not effective. A comprehensive, well thought-out professional development plan that moves educators along the continuum from novice to integrator over time, regardless of their starting position, demonstrates investment, commitment and thoroughness on the part of the district. As teachers develop their core technology skills, they need on-going support through a professional development environment that is consistently interwoven with hands-on use of technology to reinforce their efforts and learning.

Fostering a technology culture: A successful, comprehensive professional development program is based on a long term plan and vision that fosters a district technology "culture." Effective implementation begins with putting the vision onto paper the actual map of where the district is headed. This involves a clear definition of what the learning goals are, including specific logistical and tactical strategies for implementing technology into the classroom. The districts where technology has transformed teaching and instruction are districts where the administrative leadership is committed to the use of technology to enhance learning for all students.

The district administration's attitude toward the importance of technology in the classroom has a direct bearing on teacher effectiveness, and ultimately, on student performance. The plan must be "learner centered" and systemic, with the ultimate goal of increasing student performance. Professional development programs focus on changing teaching methods and making teachers facilitators and mentors in the learning process using a multi-dimensional approach, rather than the more traditional, one dimensional methods of instruction relying on just text books and teachers.

Well-planned, sustained professional development for effective technology implementation requires systems change at the most fundamental levels in a district or school. Professional development is the key component to fostering the technology culture, because educators are needed to apply and integrate technology with the curriculum, and engage students in different learning projects aligned with their learning goals.

Formal and informal supports help to create an atmosphere where technology integration is king. Successful districts look for opportunities on a daily and weekly basis for developing technology skills in staff, whether it is team planning time, team teaching, staff meetings any and all opportunities for information to be shared and for staff to challenge each other to the next level. Savvy districts couple these learning opportunities with relevant incentives to ensure effective technology integration.

Having computers in classrooms is pointless if teachers do not have the time to experiment with the programs and implement new practices in the classroom.

Effective professional development programs utilize modeling and peer-coaching methods to help teachers integrate technology and become coaches and facilitators of learning with technology as the tool. Again, collaboration requires time during the day and the week to share ideas and experiences, successes and challenges.

Community Consolidated School District 54 in Schaumburg, Illinois has an early-release practice for students on Wednesdays. During this time, teachers attend district and building workshops offered by Learning Technology Services and Assistive Technology Services staff. The training/workshop curriculum can come from a variety of sources, including materials from out-of-district conferences and technology vendor training materials. Well-thought out training and materials from technology vendors can be woven into the professional development program, but the district needs to assume ownership for follow-up and implementation.

Seven years into implementation in Schaumburg all department buildings have staff members who can provide instruction and support to educators at their site. In addition, staff members are encouraged to take classes after school and on Saturdays on technology and teaching methods/strategies.

Through the years, the drive to optimize investment in technology and improve the quality of teaching within the district has resulted in the development of specialized teams in School District 54. Teams are charged with reviewing software and Websites, creating curriculum resources, scanning text into a digital format, and developing tutorials. In addition, staff from Learning Technology Services and Assistive Technology Services work closely with Curriculum and Instruction on developing special projects and teams that include Kindergarten, Science, Pre-Reading Skills, Social Studies, Balanced Literacy and Bilingual Education.

Teacher incentives: While regular and convenient class offerings are crucial, pairing them with the right incentives motivates teachers to increase their skills. In School District 54, teachers earn salary lane credits or credits towards the purchase of software for home/personal use. They receive the technology in their classrooms upon successful completion of their class and continue to receive support for implementation and integration strategies. This component is seen as a key way to ensure continued use of the technology and the teacher's mastery of their new skills.

Teachers who take a leadership role at the building level can become members of the A-TEAM (Adaptive Technology Enhancing Academics through Modifications). A-TEAM members meet once a month for new resources, training, and collaboration. Using the training they receive, they are then paid to replicate the programs at their own buildings.

Developing district curriculum resources: Building a school site or district intranet is an invaluable strategy for sharing activity ideas and successes. It encourages collaboration and the proliferation of the technology culture. Readily available ideas beget more ideas, and so the wealth of knowledge resources within the district grows. Again, incentives for sharing the best ideas bring kudos to the author and engender a "best practices" environment.

In School District 54, technology supports created by the Learning Technology Services staff and the Assistive Technology Services staff as well as some of the specialized teams are available on the intranet. All areas of the curriculum are supported, and every building downloads the resources onto school computers for same-day use. Materials include supports for balanced literacy, digital textbooks, writing supports, modified tests, study guides and integrated language arts and math activities.

Resource allocation: From a budgetary standpoint, literature suggests that somewhere between one-third and one-half of a district's technology budget be earmarked for professional development. Again, long-term planning is essential to re-skill teachers and to ultimately improve the quality of learning through technology. To help teachers become comfortable and familiar with technology, schools need to provide support at the departmental and building levels. Local support ensures that problems of implementation are addressed quickly and do not impede classroom instruction. At District 54, having the A-TEAM member accessible in the same building helps teachers get the "expert" help needed and also leverages the knowledge of their fellow-educators to expand their technology skills. This approach encourages ownership at the individual level, equipping teachers with the skills and resources they need and at the place and time they most need it.

To create a district culture committed to learning for all students, administrators need to understand the dynamics of technology in the traditional teacher-student relationship. Technology is a tool, just like books, paper and pencil. Technology serves to enhance the effectiveness of teaching but cannot replace the role of the teacher. Therefore, educators administrators and teachers alike must be completely comfortable with all the uses of the tool in order to improve classroom instruction. The promise of technology for today's classrooms is tremendous, but it requires vision, commitment and leadership from the highest levels in a district or school to make it work for students. Teachers are the link the variable and the hope that tie the promise to reality. A comprehensive professional development program that is technology-focused can make or break the effort more than any other single factor. Teachers are the backbone of any school system, and teacher salaries the most significant line item in the overall budget. Investing in their "professionalization" is pivotal to enriching the learning experience of students, in the short term, and for the long term preparing them to become productive members of society.

Email: Joan Cunningham