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Technology Integration- Challenges and Possibilities

October 7, 2013

Yesterday I was one of many fortunate Rhode Island educators who attended the Innovation Powered by Technology Conference at the Rhode Island Convention Center.  Even though I was not able to stay for the entire conference, I felt that the sessions I attended were well worth my time- engaging, interesting and thought-provoking.  One panel discussion that was particularly interesting to me was the session on RIDE Wireless Classroom Initiative.  The presenters did an excellent job explaining the legislative underpinnings of the initiative, as well as some of the major challenges and possibilities.  I will attempt to briefly summarize the significant points brought forth by the panel, and then I will offer my humble arguments for how we, as public school educators, can truly take advantage of this opportunity.

In case you are unaware, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a $20 million bond in June of 2012 to provide wireless access for every classroom in Rhode Island.  Since this monumental decision, RIDE has been overseeing the planning, procurement and implementation phases of the initiative.  They are charged with the task of reviewing over 1300 proposals from 355 public schools throughout the state, providing guidance and support through the process, accepting and reviewing vendor proposals, reviewing school and district plans and guiding implementation at the district level.  Considering all this, it is not surprising that they are concerned about making sure the $20 million investment is used wisely.  Having said that, the expected payoff is potentially staggering: wireless connectivity for every student, in every classroom in every school.  It is no wonder that policy-makers and politicians jumped at the opportunity.

As I was listening to the panel discuss the implications of the initiative, I found myself thinking deeply about the concept of technology integration- that is, the seamless connection between technology and learning, where technology is not merely a tool, but rather an integral part of the learning process.  This is what I am primarily interested in: true technology integration, where technology is not merely used sporadically- “today we are going to the computer lab”- but rather serves as an indispensable resource that complements and enhances learning.  For this to occur, three essential characteristics must be established: 1) a district-level commitment to supporting technology infrastructure and support, 2) school and district leaders willing to model technology use, and 3) a learning environment committed to constructivist teaching strategies.

My esteemed colleague Eric Butash, our technology director in North Smithfield, is known for posing the question- “when will districts consider paying the technology bill the same way they pay the electric bill?”  His point is obvious and correct.  Until school districts understand that technology integration is an integral part of their overall mission, that it is indispensable to the learning process for today’s students, we will never truly achieve our goals.  Despite this, our technology budget in North Smithfield, like so many others, is woefully underfunded.  While the wireless initiative will go a long way in improving this, districts will still need to invest significantly in human capital to coach, support, and manage the ever-expanding technology needs that will be flowing into schools.

The importance of leadership in the cultivation of a healthy and vibrant learning environment is well-documented.  District and school leaders must model and communicate the use of technology in their daily practice.  Leaders must accept the fact that it is their responsibility to embrace technology as an essential tool to optimize their performance and efficiency.  Furthermore, they must model its use and promote and encourage teachers and students to use technology to further their learning.  Perhaps the best way to do this is to create a professional learning network on twitter.  A PLN is a simple way to collaborate with other educators around topics of interest.  It is also a way to “tap into” the collective knowledge of a group in an easy, efficient way.  Drawing on personal experience, twitter has allowed me to gain perspective and guidance from other educators who are dealing with many of the same issues I am, and who share resources and ideas that I would otherwise not be aware of.

The adoption of school-wide constructivist teaching practices are essential to the successful integration of technology into the learning environment.  Constructivist teaching is rooted in the belief that all learning is based on prior experience, and that authentic learning occurs when individuals connect new knowledge and skills to prior learning experiences.  In this model, learning functions as an ever-expanding spiral of questioning, collaborating, performing and reflecting.  It is in such an environment that technology integration flourishes.  Teachers who regularly integrate technology-based tools such as blogging, social media, skype, google docs and wikis typically do so in service of their goal to foster student skill-development through open exchange of information and inquiry-based instruction.  Teachers who effectively use technology function more as a facilitator of knowledge, with students directing their own learning rather than recording and reciting facts provided by the teacher.  Perhaps the most poignant example of this was provided by a high school history teacher, who challenged her students to study three of America’s most influential wars- the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II, as part of a singular inquiry into the common elements that led to commencing of each, and to argue the underpinnings of military combat as fluid and consistent, rather than isolated.  It is this type of approach that technology integration is most likely to take root.  It must begin with the learning environment.

To truly integrate technology into our learning environment we must first look at the necessity of technology in meeting the goals for our students: that they must demonstrate the ability to think independently, synthesize information from a variety of sources and construct reasoned arguments based on relevant facts and careful analysis.  Until we truly adopt this approach, technology will continue to serve as something we “do” rather than something we “own”.  We must break the pattern of focusing on devices alone of the benchmarks of technology integration.  We must strive to truly marry technology with learning in a culture of inquiry, collaboration and authenticity.  I will leave you with some interesting links to constructivist teaching practices.  Have a great week, everyone!

-Rob

Excerpts taken from: Konig, Johannes (Ed.) Teachers’ Pedagogical Beliefs; Waxmann 2012

http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/constructivism/

http://www.niu.edu/facdev/programs/handouts/constructivism.pdf

http://imaginationsoup.net/2011/01/what-is-a-constructivist-classroom/

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