Dream IT: Project Solution

I currently teach Grade 4 (core subjects) at a K-12 independent co-educational boarding/day school. I am also the holder of an endowed chair, allowing me additional funding for a three-year period to conduct educational research in an area of personal interest (educational technology). This also affords me the opportunity to share my research with faculty members, parents, and students at workshops, faculty meetings, and parent coffee mornings. The school is divided into a Lower School (Kindergarten-Grade 8; approx. 180 students) and Upper School (Grade 9-12; approx. 450 students). It is situated on a 100 acre campus, and faculty are spread between 3 main buildings. Each classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard system and each faculty member is provided with a school-owned Apple laptop and extensive software suite.

In the Lower School, students from Kindergarten through Grade 3 have access to 3 desktop computers per classroom. The average class size in these grades is typically between 10-15 students. The Grade 4 students have access to 3 desktop computers and 8 iPads. Beginning in Grade 5 through Grade 8, all students are provided an Apple laptop; although, a large portion of students purchase their own Apple laptop. Students in the Upper School (Grade 9-12) are required to provide their own Apple laptop. The one-to-one program has been running for approximately 15 years, with the bulk of the teachers who received the initial training having retired and the landscape of educational technology having evolved drastically. There is currently no strategic scope and sequence of digital literacy or technological skills; although, faculty are teaching these skills based on their individual needs.

Over the last five years a significant number of new faculty have been hired, many that would be considered early career teachers (less than five years experience). With recent accelerated growth in technology, there is currently a disconnect between the training provided in many teacher training programs and the level of technological knowledge and understanding required to meaningfully integrate technology (Groce, Jenkins, & Lumadue, 2012). There is often an underlying assumption that as recently hired teachers are young, they therefore must be good with technology; however, there is a significant difference between being able to use technology for your personal needs and having the knowledge and understanding to be able to use it in a meaningful way in an educational setting. At my school, there is currently a very limited technology related teacher induction program to familiarize new teachers with the basic features of the learning management system.

Over the last four years various divisions within the school have been in the process of gaining authorization for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programmes. This has required an extensive study of school wide classroom practices to bring them inline with the requirements of the IB. As a result, professional learning has been centered around concepts related to good teaching practice and the effective implementation of the IB programmes. This has directly influenced the pedagogical practices teachers utilize and in many cases course content. For some faculty members this has meant dealing with a significant amount of change. With the initial authorization process nearing completion (MYP still in process of gaining authorization), faculty have been on an intense learning journey and there are currently varying levels of openness to additional changes. There are also varying levels of interest in the effective use of educational technology.

Combining these factors together, the current use of educational technology within my school is non-strategic, and left up to individual teacher to include. There is a small group of teachers who are utilizing various aspects of technology well; however, there are limits to the current channels of communication (i.e., online learning management system, internal email, department meetings) to share good teaching practices. Presently, many colleagues are approaching me individually with questions to assist in the use of specific tools or in selecting a tool based on their individual objectives on a regular basis. Although I enjoy sharing my knowledge and assisting my colleagues, my efforts are not resulting in my colleagues developing their own capacity for building their technological knowledge and understanding.

In order to assist other faculty members I have examined a variety of strategies to achieve these goals:

(a) develop individual teachers technological knowledge and understanding related to the following facets of understanding (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005),
interpret – identify the affordances and constraints of available technological tools
apply – effectively utilize technological tools and adapt them based on the context and content
explain –  justify why utilizing a specific piece of technology is appropriate
self-knowledge – engage in reflective practice to self-identify their current level of technological knowledge, and areas for further exploration;
(c) build stronger collegial communication networks through a peer-to-peer learning focus;
(d) increase school-wide strategic meaningful utilization of technology;

One common strategy to develop technological knowledge and understanding is the deployment of technology integration specialists or technology coaches. The role of these individuals varies from school to school; however, they are usually responsible for faculty professional learning in educational technology and providing classroom level support. They also serve as a central person to coordinate the scope and sequence of technology between grade levels, divisions, and as an organization (K-12). In this role, I feel it is important to design professional learning to be driven by the needs and interests of the faculty and allow them to construct their knowledge in relation to their content and context. This person can also facilitate peer-to-peer learning, by connecting faculty members who could provide assistance or mentoring to each other, and form small groups based on faculty interest. This aligns with the cognitivism and social-constructivist perspectives of learning that value the importance of the social context of the learning experience and the value of prior knowledge in the acquisition of new knowledge.

This strategy is effective in building faculty technological knowledge because they are able to plan for an ongoing program of professional learning, and provide job embedded support to teachers. They are also able to differentiate their support based on instructional content areas. These are all characteristics of effective professional learning that translate into sustainable changes in classroom teaching practice (Hunzicker, 2010). This would provide an excellent solution to the problem; however, it is not realistic given the financial considerations associated with a proposal of this magnitude, and it is also out of my control given my current position.

In order to develop awareness of the increasing need for faculty professional learning in technology with the eventual goal of having a technology integration specialist, a smaller scale project is more realistic. By engaging interested faculty members in a smaller scale project to demonstrate the potential growth in the effective use of technology with professional learning, the benefits of having a technology integration specialist to provide a higher level of support and training will be established.

One smaller scale concept that I have considered is forming an affinity group or professional learning community (PLC) of teachers interested in the effective use of technology. This is strategic from a pedagogical perspective as often professional learning is structured as a singular event where the use of a PLC creates an ongoing learning experience. Members can be exposed to smaller chunks of information, have time to grapple with them in their practice, and return for support and encouragement from the group. The group also provides a place to communicate successes and celebrate the achievements of members of the group.

In designing a PLC, participants would receive an initial in-personal training session to help establish a base level of shared knowledge. Then, a digital toolbox would be utilized to help participants personalize their learning and provide ways to interact with other motivated colleagues. Members of the PLC would meet at face-to-face sessions approximately every 4-6 weeks to share and learn. These meetings could take place over a breakfast or lunch break. Through this model, teachers working toward the similar goals would be able to utilize each other as a support system and personal learning network. This system leverages the shared knowledge of the community members in strengthening the knowledge of the whole.

Prior to beginning the PLC, it will be important to conduct a survey to gauge participants current level of technological knowledge and skills that they are interested in developing. This will provide some direction for the learning and ensure that participants have a voice. By spending time to assess the current level of knowledge, the planning for the initial face-to-face session can really be tailored to the needs and interest of the group.

During initial face-to-face training sessions, community members would receive an introduction to the TPACK framework (Koehler & Mishra, 2008), as well as technological knowledge of the tools in the digital toolbox. The digital toolbox will serve as the foundation for communication within the professional learning community, as well as a way to document the transformation. Depending on the teachers classroom context, some of the tools could also be able to be utilized within their classroom environment. Selecting the appropriate technology tools for developing the the community feeling, and building relationships among faculty members is essential to the success of this approach. It is important that the tools empower the learners so they feel in control of their experience, and can tailor the learning to meet the diverse needs of the group.

In considering possible tools to facilitate building a learning community, commonly used current technologies were examined first. All faculty members already have a school email account through FirstClass, and it is possible to set up ‘conferences’ within this system. Our current learning management system (LMS) is another option; however, it lacks integration with many other tools, and content can quickly get buried in the feed with teachers’ course content. These options would be straightforward to get started as faculty already know how to use these tools; although it is important to be sensitive to the current volume of email and LMS messages faculty are already dealing with. Another consideration that through the use of email and the LMS, there is power in the hands of the sender. The sender decides what information is ‘pushed’ to you, and often content is over-shared through message boards or ‘reply-all’ functions.

Utilizing another LMS such as Schoology or Edmodo was also considered. Although it would be interesting to provide faculty members with an opportunity for comparison to our current LMS; it does not make sense to introduce this type of tool that they wouldn’t be able to utilize in their own classroom, and there are so many other areas for exploration. It would also be another place that faculty would have to go online, that they may forget about or visit infrequently. Unless there was a plan to adopt a new LMS in the near future this option would not examined in any further detail.

In further examination of the ‘online’ portion of the PLC to develop the community feeling, one option would be to send a brief email related to the PLC at a designated time each week (i.e. Tech Tip Tuesday). This would allow participants to anticipate its arrival and make sure that communication was focused and deliberate. I feel that this option uses the affordances of the email system, without adding a burden to participants email load. The content of these emails would also be linked to the content shared at the previous face-to-face meeting. Members of the PLC would also be encouraged to add content to each weekly message – perhaps a tool they have discovered and used, or a strategy that worked well to continue to build ownership of the PLC experience.

As the members of the PLC may come from diverse backgrounds, it is important that they are able to personalize their learning based on their background, content area, and annual learning goals. With the use of technology, members can design systems to ‘pull’ information to them to keep them up to date on areas of interest. This allows them to have some new strategies to independently develop their own capacity.

As part of the initial training session, at periodic meetings and through weekly emails the the following tools could be shared:

YouTube: setting up personal channels by subscribing to channels of interest (i.e. IBO, CAIS) and setting up playlists for course material. YouTube can also be used to distribute short (2-minute) tutorials for technological skills that participants are interested in improving.
• Twitter: developing Personal Learning Network (PLN) through following individuals and organizations that are personally relevant
Diigo: social bookmarking tool, set up a ‘group’ to share resources between members of the PLC, or for a course each member is teaching
Feedly (RSS tool): encourage members to follow a few blogs or organizations based on personal interest
Google Forms: formative assessment tool for ‘pulling’ information from your students

These tools will help to develop participants technological knowledge and understanding in a more personalized way, as they can really tailor the stream of information to fit their needs.

Through using this format of hybrid professional learning there will be a balance of instruction, exploration, support and celebration. Members will have a stronger collegial network from which to draw from and adjust their classroom teaching practices and integrate technology more effectively. The PLC will model effective strategies for integrating technology, and utilize the affordances of various tools to strengthen communication channels. The importance of professional learning in educational technology will be established and there will be an increased awareness of the growth potential associated with having a permanent technology integration specialist.

Next: Project Evaluation

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