Shoring Up Your Staff: Timely and Sustained Teacher Support

For years experts have been warning that investments in educational technology will only pay off if an adequate portion of the budget is devoted to professional development and technical support. Simply installing new hardware and applications and offering a few training sessions is not sufficient. If left on their own to troubleshoot the technology and to independently explore its potential to make their challenging jobs easier, few teachers will actually find the time to learn how to use the new tools. And if the technology does not get used, schools can never hope to see any return on their investment.

But how are districts providing such vital support in these financially strapped times? On the more costly but effective end of the spectrum is on-site professional development. In a few determined districts this takes the form of a full-time staff development professional for every school. For example, in Hampton, Va., where a state mandate requires there to be one professional development provider per 1,000 students by the 2005–2006 school year, the district will soon have a full-time position in each of its secondary schools and one shared by every two elementary schools. In the four Hampton schools where a full-time professional educator is already in place, “technology is being used more and is being used as a part of the curriculum,” says technology director Georgianna Skinner.

The Richland School District 2 in Columbia, S.C., has also made an ambitious commitment to providing in-house support for professional development. There is an instructional technology specialist in every school with responsibilities that include participating in team planning meetings, modeling and providing support during technology-enhanced lessons, offering guidance on school technology purchases, setting curriculum for the computer labs, and leading after-school and summer workshops.

Richland CIO Debra Hamm acknowledges that the ITS initiative is costly, but sees it as an essential way to ensure that the district gets a return on its substantial investment in technology. “This return comes in terms of student achievement and the use of productivity tools that save teachers time,” says Hamm. In a number of districts where there is a full-time person on-site to provide professional support, the cost is partially offset by other services that same expert provides—including grant writing to generate much-needed new income.

Not all districts feel like on-site support is affordable, however. Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., says that his district has recently moved away from a one-per-site model of professional development, primarily for financial reasons. According to Walery, the in-house approach had major strengths, including on-demand, customized help for teachers who might otherwise be reluctant to use the technology in the classroom. On the other hand, he points out, it was not perceived as the most efficient solution because there was inevitably down time when the professional educator’s services were not needed. Furthermore, with budgets tight, it seemed like a luxury to provide one-on-one support for teachers when a group learning experience might have been just as valuable to them.

In District 230 and many other districts across the country the challenge these days is to figure out how to maximize the effectiveness of a small team of shared technology experts. Successful approaches include a variety of options.

  • The “train the trainers” model widely embraced by a variety of national initiatives. In Columbia, S.C., for example, each school not only has an ITS but also one or more Tech Mentors—regular classroom teachers who have participated in an intensive two-year training program and now mentor other teachers at their own school. “The Tech Mentors have been a great way to increase the expertise of all of our teachers at a relatively low cost,” says Debra Hamm.
  • Districts sharing resources. Sometimes—as with New York’s BOCES and RIC, California’s CTAP, and Missouri’s eMints programs—regional resources are offered by the state. At other times the efforts are more grassroots. Peter Reilly, director of the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center in New York, tells us, for example, that his organization is currently “facilitating 10 miniconsortia of geographically grouped school districts in order to plan and share professional development resources among themselves.”
  • Using student experts to help with tech support and professional development. Some of the best-known examples involve schools that are working with the Generation YES project. While the Gen YES organizers are quick to point out that their new tech support–related Generation Tech program is not meant to turn students into unpaid support staff, sites that have embraced the approach say it dramatically increases the level of technology support available, while offering students valuable and marketable technology skills.
  • Just-in-time information. Until recently, professional developers commonly spent much of their time showing teachers how to use new applications such as word processors, grade books, or Web design tools. Today, in many districts, this sort of applications-related training is now delivered more efficiently and on-demand through online tutorials such as those provided by Atomic Learning—thus freeing up support professionals to work on the issues related to technology integration and school reform. Similarly, just-in-time troubleshooting databases allow educators to check out and fix minor technical glitches independently without having to wait for technical support staff.
  • Other uses of technology to improve support. IT staffers are increasingly relying on help desk systems to help them streamline responses and employing powerful tools that allow them to reboot and troubleshoot systems remotely and install fixes on multiple systems simultaneously. On the professional development front, online communities such as Tapped In, My eCoach, or TaskStream allow for ongoing idea exchanges, support, and mentoring without a need for geographic proximity.While opinions on what makes for the best, most cost-effective approach to technical support and professional development vary greatly from school to school, there is widespread agreement on one basic tenet—that a sound investment in these two areas is essential to the successful implementation of technology in schools.