Learning From Mistakes With School-Based Technology

from Educators' eZine

It's good to learn from one's mistakes...but a lot less painful to learn from someone else's. So here's a painless way of learning from my mistakes!

Serving as a computer teacher and, eventually, the Technology Director of a K-8 school, I made many, many mistakes. After teaching 4th grade, I was assigned to a newly developed Pilot School in Boston, a public school open to all students with expanded freedoms when it came to hiring, curriculum and budget. We had the luxury of a fully networked school where each classroom had two computers and a lab full of Apple 5200's, quite advanced for the time.

The problem was that we had no curriculum, standards or even the slightest clue as to what would be the most effective use of computers in the classroom. Without a curriculum to guide us, the school community worked together to create an urban school that would serve as a model of technology integration throughout the entire city.

Yet, in that decade it was our mistakes that we learned from that allowed us to ultimately reach our goal. It is these mistakes and how we handled these mistakes that form the Top Ten Tips for School Based Technology.

1. Technology should be a tool to enrich teaching, learning, and school operations

What we did wrong: Initially, we developed our own technology standards mainly because there were none available in our district. These standards were skill specific, centered solely upon learning how to use the computer and software.
What we learned: The true impact of technology can be witnessed when it is used to enrich the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom (Brown, 2006; Kulik, J., 2003). Not until we began calling upon the classroom teachers and grade teams to help create theses standards did we start seeing true integration. Each summer, during our staff professional development, the entire faculty would meet to establish technology products and standards that directly correlated to their classroom instruction. For example, our fifth-grade team would culminate their thematic science unit on the solar system with their students learning safe Internet search strategies, how to use the Inspiration program to organize their notes, and a PowerPoint to present their final products. Unlike the skills for the sake of skills approach that we used initially, this process allowed the students to learn technology skills while producing authentic, curriculum –based work (Means, B., & Olson, K., 1994).

2. Create established parameters for technology donations

What we did wrong: After seeing countless numbers of students lack the technological resources at home necessary to complete research and homework assignments, we established a program called Access for All where these low-income students would receive donated computers to use at home. I sent letters home to families, community leaders, and businesses requesting donations of software and hardware. Without any parameters for acceptable donations, we were overwhelmed with copies of Oregon Trail on 5 ¼ inch floppies, dot matrix printers, and a truckload of IBM workstations running DOS (The person who donated these from his worksite had the "courage" to ask me to for a charitable donation form for tax purposes).
What we learned: Establish clear, written guidelines for acceptable donations and ensure that these guidelines correlate with your technology plan. Also, be sure to reformat machines before putting them in classrooms or sending them home with families. You do not want any of the previous owner's personal or private information being shared with the new owners. Microsoft has developed a program called "Fresh Start For Donated Computers", which provides license documentation and free Windows installation CDs.

3. Avoid home visits

What we did wrong: Since we were such kind and giving educators, we would often listen patiently as parents railed of their computer troubles. Endless stories of printer jams, "illegal operations," and undetectable modems were commonplace for the Technology Director during each and every school event. I, therefore, offered my services to help these parents in need. Not the best idea and here are two reasons why:

  • Example #1: While attempting to fix a recently purchased computer that was working slowly, I noticed the reason for the decrease in available memory and speed – downloaded porn. Thus, with the entire family (both parents were on the PTA board) chatting with me in their home office, I proceeded to delete images, videos, and temporary Internet files with sweat pouring down my forehead.
  • Example #2: I was asked by the PTA president to help set up a computer in the attic office at her home. I began to unpack the machine in the dimly lit room as she dusted off the antique desk. She was called downstairs and I then grabbed the dust cloth and finished clearing off space for the computer. She returned and turned on an overhead light and I was shocked to see that the dust cloth was actually a pair of female undergarments.

What we learned: Don't do it! What people do with their computers at home is their own business. If they are in need of training or support, offer families the opportunity to partake in computer instruction along with the kids or during staff professional development. Also, keep the labs open in the afternoon so that parents can work with their children, but be sure that the participants sign an Acceptable Use Policy.

4. Create a School-Based Technology Plan

What we did wrong: Most of my time as computer teacher was spent fixing teacher and student computers. The technology budget in those first two years was exhausted by purchases of the newest versions of software and the fastest, most powerful computers. Yet, our beginning completely ignored the importance of professional development and many of my purchases went untouched by the school faculty and others were incompatible with our present computer resources.
What we learned: A school-based technology plan is an essential tool to shape and guide how technology should be obtained, utilized, and maintained in a school setting. Elements of a successful plan may include Professional Development, Support and Maintenance, Equity, Hardware and Software, Goals, Mission and Vision, and Finance. This plan should be developed with input from representatives from the entire school community including teachers (special subject, special education etc.), administrators, families, students (depending on level of school) and community members. Finally, this plan should be revisited to allow for the ever-changing innovations in technology and the needs of each school community.

5. Develop a School-Based Acceptable Use Policy

What we did wrong: We had students who were being allowed to use the Internet completely unsupervised. We had teachers using their own E-mail accounts at school, spreading numerous network-crippling viruses. One classroom even had an entire wall covered in full color PowerPoint slides, using almost six-months worth of ink in a single afternoon.
What we learned: To ensure any sense of accountability and security, it is imperative to establish an AUP, or Acceptable Use Policy (Merrill, M., King, F., 1998). All those who wish to use any of the technological resources which a school has to offer should sign this document. Offering clearly specified guidelines regarding Internet and E-mail usage, an AUP will maintain resources, diminish misuse of these resources and most importantly, help to keep our children safe from online predators and questionable online material.

6. Adapt Professional Development to meet the needs of the faculty.

What we did wrong: We hired workshop presenters who were software-skill specific. These companies did not know nor did they adapt their training sessions to meet our diverse needs as a "fledgling" urban school. Instead, these workshops were generic in content, merely detailing the tools available on various pieces of software.
What we learned: To ensure that our computers would be used properly, we asked that our teachers partake of professional development if they wanted to participate in the Computer Upgrade Program. If a faculty-member wished to have the opportunity to receive a new computer for his class, he would be required to participate in technology professional development. In addition, in order for professional development to truly impact practice, it must meet the needs of those participating (Brown, 2006). Learning from our mistakes, we chose people from our school community to teach others how they have used technology in their practice. Rather than an outside consultant, one session might be a fourt-grade teacher showing her colleagues how to use Word to make travel brochures or a Kindergarten teacher showing the staff how she creates a slide-show to show to parents during open-house. Similar to the student instruction, the staff is learning the skills while creating something immediately useful. The icing on the cake is that the teachers presenting love the extra pay and the school loves the cost, which is almost always cheaper than relying on an outside group.

7. Create a content rich, maintainable, updateable Web-site

What we did wrong: We developed a school Web site that consumed far too much time. We promised nightly homework updates, photos of students, examples of work, and seemingly endless access to teachers. We failed miserably. We failed to recognize the legal and safety issues surrounding the posting of student images and work. We were unable to keep up with parents who would check for news on an hourly basis. We did not have information that parents would deem useful on a school site such as the handbook, a school calendar, and E-mail contacts for the staff. Finally, in frustration, we stopped updating the site altogether near the end of only our first year.
What we learned: A school Web site can be a fantastic communication and information tool if done properly (Bunz, 2003). We began that next year with an updated site that coincided with a letter and E-mail to all parents defining what this site would contain and how often it would be updated. We also offered guidelines as to when teachers would be expected to update their pages and return parent E-mails. The site also added an abundance of resources for students, families, teachers and the community, resources that did not have to be updated as frequently such as educational Web sites, employment opportunities, and school standards and curriculum. Finally, we established monthly and weekly prizes for families who were the 1000th or 10, 000th visitor to the site or to those who offered contributions to the classroom Web pages.

8. Call upon the entire school community to utilize, enrich, and embrace technology

What we did wrong: We kept the technology resources and the outside world completely separate. Each afternoon when the bells rang and the students left, one and eventually, two, computer labs remained empty until that next morning. We also had an abundance of software and hardware resources that went unused during vacations or were no longer utilized due to the purchase of a newer version or piece of equipment.
What we learned: We began opening the computer labs to our families and community members. Elderly neighbors of the school would be learning alongside students and their parents as they drew pictures or printed out letters. We also established a Software Lending Library where families could take a piece of educational software home to use over the weekend or vacation. All participants were required to sign and abide by the school AUP (See tip #5). The end result was an increase in parental involvement, a strong connection made between the school and community, and an increase in the technological access of our low-income students.

9. Always consider "What is best for the students?"

What we did wrong: When budgets became tight and grants expired, we were faced with many touch choices. Caving into pressure from the district and advice from other schools, we chose cheaper computers, discounted, less-reputable software, and a more generic curriculum. What ensued were computers that malfunctioned, software that failed to meet the needs of the students, and a curriculum that taught the students skills without showing them how to use these skills.
What we learned: Always do what is best for your students and retain the highest of expectations for your students and staff. Never accept mediocrity- they deserve better (Hale, Rollins; 2004). When funds were low we pursued grants. When money for training was removed from the district budget, we called upon parent and teacher volunteers to spend an hour in the computer lab after school helping out. We wrote to Hispanic Community Groups asking for support in buying bilingual software for our Spanish-speaking students that made up nearly 1/3 of our student body. We chose to keep our iMac's in our primary grades, despite being told by our district to phase them out, so that our younger students could use the more age-appropriate one- button mouse. These strategies took more effort on our part, yet, in the end, the students and their experience using computers greatly benefited, making it worth every effort.

10. Celebrate Success

What we did wrong: Our goal was to create a school where computers were utilized to enhance the teaching, learning, and procedures. Yet, with each jammed printer, crashed computer, and erased document, we were quickly becoming a school community frustrated and overburdened with technology. Many teachers felt overwhelmed with so much to learn and so little time in their already busy lives. Many teachers were convinced that they were not "techies" and that this was just a fad that would pass.
What we learned: Effective and successful Technology Integration takes time. Therefore it is important to take the time to one's successes as a teacher, student, parent or administrator when you or your peers are learning how to use technology (Lovely, 2004). When Ms. Nichols, a thirty-two year veteran, E-mailed for the first time, our principal hand-delivered her a bag of candy and a "Computer Nerd" certificate, congratulating her for her newfound skill. We also began publishing a monthly Tech News that was sent home to families and posted on the Web. Each month we highlighted a teacher and his/her students regaling how they had used computers along with other exemplars throughout the school and its use of technology. Furthermore, with each grant and donation, we were able to reward those, who had made those small steps on a consistent basis, with digital cameras (quite inexpensive at this point) or an educational software title of their choice. Success and enthusiasm are contagious and with small gestures celebrating your small successes, those long-range, widespread goals will be that much more attainable.

Email:Matthew Ohlson


Bridgforth, E. & Cradler, J. Effective Site Level Planning for Technology Integration Retrieved October 9, 2006 from http://www.wested.org/techpolicy/planning.html

Brown, D. (2006). Can instructional technology enhance the way we teach students and teachers? Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 17(2), 121-142

Hale, E., (2006). Leading the Way to Increased Student Learning. Principal Leadership (Middle School Ed.) 6 (10), 6-9

King, F., & Merrill, M. (1998, September). Don't get caught in the Web: establishing policies for Internet access in schools. High School Magazine, p. 24

Kulik, J. (2003). Effects of using instructional technology in elementary and secondary schools: What controlled evaluation studies say. Retrieved February 5, 2006, from http://caret.iste.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=studySummary&studyid=1044

Lovely, S., (2004). The Art of Retention. Leadership, 33(4), 16-18

Means, B., & Olson, K. (1994, April). The link between technology and authentic learning. Educational Leadership, 15-18.