EdTech – Focusing on teacher learning

The problem:

When we think about EdTech (educational technology) we tend to focus on student learning. That’s good, and normal, and important. One of the best ways to impact student learning, particularly by using technology, is by spending time on teacher learning as well. All the reasons for this can be generally stated by recognizing that time is a precious resource for teachers. There’s never enough time – teachers are already pulled in many different directions. I know a lot of teachers, personally and professionally, and they often spend their off-hours grading papers, planning lessons, and balancing additional duties (sometimes with a stipend, often without).

When we add technology resources to the classroom, I think the natural inclination of most people is to assume that teachers will just use it. I consider myself lucky enough to work in a district that provides resources for teachers to learn how to use the technology in their classrooms – not all districts work effectively this way. Too often we get caught up in the device, the app, or the solution that is the next big thing. Chromebooks vs. iPads vs. Android vs. whatever else is out there becomes the argument. The problem with the argument is that it totally and completely neglects to define the intended outcome.

Technology does not equal learning outcomes. Too many of us that are decision makers on the technology side get caught up in the battle for device supremacy. Too many on the curriculum side get caught up in the size of an app store. The focus needs to be on teachers, what works for delivering their lessons, and will work within the environment.

How do we get teachers to buy in?

One recommendation recently made to me was to redefine return on investment (ROI), as “return on individual” (thanks Eric Patnoudes, @NoApp4Pedagogy). This is something that many teachers will understand better than a return on the investment. In other words, for the investment of their time, how does it benefit their individual students? Another key component is that teachers are being taught by other teachers and not by vendors, “tech evangelists”, or IT staff.

Generally speaking, teachers do want to make a positive difference in students’ lives and their academic success. Some believe that they can do that without technology, or at least the tools we are currently implementing in classrooms. They may very well be right – a lot of teachers add to student learning through ways other than moving their lessons online or showing videos. Increasingly however, students are more comfortable using technology and are more engaged and interested when the tools are implemented correctly.

For the teachers that are open to implementing technology-enabled lessons, they often simply need help learning how to do so. I’m finding that our teacher learning sessions are not altogether that different from student learning in classrooms. Through survey results from our technology conference workshops this week, I’m able to better understand how teachers are learning, what their difficulties are, and how we are meeting (or failing to meet!) their needs. Teachers are responding with comments that range from “Great, no improvement needed!” to “need longer sessions” or “need to move at a slower pace for the beginners.” I think in many of our classrooms, schools, and districts across the country, you’d see many of the same results.

I hope to share these results with the teachers. It was enlightening to me to see just how similar that is to some of the struggles and difficulties experienced by students in similar situations. More importantly, I was impressed that some of those attending this week were the teachers most resistant to change in general and technology initiatives in particular.

Early Results

Our district is only two days into a four day conference. From the sessions I saw today, there are a lot of great things happening in these sessions. Teachers are engaged, many are excited, almost all have been able to identify specific ideas or technologies that they want to work into their classroom management or lesson plans. They get the chance to see actual examples of lesson plans that use the technology tools provided by the district. I think this removes a lot of the confusion or resistance around the ideas compared to when they are proposed by IT staff.

I can talk all day long about how to copy a file into Google Drive, but teachers need to see how it helps to eliminate the stacks of papers on their desk when they’re grading. They need to hear about the results when students get to collaborate, rather than simply imagining a group of students around one poor kid doing all of the work.

Perhaps most importantly, they get to see how these tools can facilitate instruction and help to better use their time. When this happens, technology becomes less mysterious or intimidating and can be seen as a tool.

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Women in Technology

The percentage of women working in technology is worrying. In an article published today at thestreet.com, Meg Garner cites some statistics about women in tech companies – specifically within Silicon Valley. It’s a great article and highlights some of the more prominent successes of women in technology – particularly at the executive level. According to Garner, women make up an average of only 30% of the staff at tech companies – and those are the companies making concerted efforts to recruit and retain women as part of their workforce.

My experience, in the education sector, reflects even lower numbers of women in technology fields: in two separate IT departments, I’ve seen a total of 2 women on the technical staff compared to 22 men between the two departments. In the same period of time, I have been part of resume review and interviewing. In three years, I’ve had one female applicant for a technician job. Not just one that was qualified and made it to interview, but one total applicant.

The problem is not that women enter the IT workforce and decide they don’t like it: I believe it’s much more systemic and happens at a much earlier age. When I was attending college a few years ago as a computer science major, I found that there were very few women in my programming and IT classes. I don’t believe that most classes even met the 30% figure that is reported by top technology firms.

I think it’s important to point out now that this is not a question of ability. The percentage of women in high-level math and physics classes that I attended were much higher. Many of these women were preparing for careers in engineering and science fields. For whatever reason, computer science, software engineering, information technology, and other similar degrees were not as sought after by women.

The lack of women seeking degrees in technology fields is certainly one factor in the shortage of women within those fields. I’m doing everything I can to help promote a workplace that anyone would feel comfortable in – men or women. Ensuring that the workplace is safe for all without fear of harassment, exclusion, or contempt is an important factor in helping women to enter the technology workforce. But how do we encourage girls to become interested in technology in the first place?

As a father with two daughters, this is an area of special interest to me. I have no desire to push them in any one direction professionally, but I do want them to feel comfortable, do something that will they enjoy, and that each can use to support themselves financially. My oldest daughter (age 10) spends several hours each day learning to program. My son piqued her interest in it, and they work together on several different projects.

A few weeks ago, I asked her if she had ever considered a career in IT or networking. I quickly realized that, despite her interest in computers, she still didn’t know what a network was. After a brief explanation of networks and the internet, she seemed more interested and told me she didn’t had not even considered that there was a job field for that: that’s a great way to humble an IT dad. She seems excited and continues to ask questions about how and why the internet works. My fear now is not that she will lose interest, but that she will somehow gain the impression that this work is better suited for men.

One of the best ways to keep her (and most other kids) interest is, I think, best summed up by Silvia Spiva @silviakspiva (read the entire interview at techacute.com):

The way to get girls into tech is not to use the word tech.  Same goes for boys. I’ve never met a girl or a boy who said: “I want to be an engineer when I grow up. I want to code all day long.”Girls and Boys want to be superheroes and rock stars.  They want to make impossible things happen.  They want to be rich and famous.  They want to change the world. In the business world we call this type of focus “Business Outcomes”.  We can have a conversation about outcomes with children, too.  Focus on the goal, and the skills necessary to reach that goal. A little girl who wants to change the world by bringing education to every remote village on Earth can do so by being CIO/CTO/CMO/CEO of a technology company.  Look for dreamers, because dreamers make things happen.  Don’t label girls or boys.

If we want this next generation to take an interest in technology, we have to start now. We have to show them why technology is important and how they, the individual, can impact the industry.

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