Overcoming the technology fear factor

11/19/2010  |  BOB KIRBY

(This is part one of a series.)

In a nation-wide survey on technology integration at the high school level, high school students, faculty and IT staff noted that technology should be better integrated into classroom activities. The CDW-G 21st Century Classroom Report found that 71 percent of faculty members are not getting, or are getting but not incorporating, guidance from their departments on providing tech-rich assignments for students.

The report found that while many faculty members use technology in their private lives, they still have a certain level of discomfort using technology as a teaching tool. Herein lies the opportunity. Through educational technology, teachers can engage students, augment the curriculum and help students develop valuable 21st century skills.

To accomplish those goals, the most successful districts are integrating technology into the culture. The commitment to technology integration is shared with the community and includes faculty, staff, students and parents. The Park Hill School District in Missouri used this collaborative environment to focus on technology skills and foster an interactive learning environment.

Park Hill School District Profile

The Park Hill School District is located just north of Kansas City, Mo., and has more than 10,500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The district’s 1,500 staff members support students in 16 schools. In the last decade, student enrollment has increased 17 percent, and the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch grew from 11 to 22 percent.

As Park Hill grew, the district also expanded its technology programs in response to student needs. Today, the district supports 4,000 computing devices — roughly one for every three student and faculty users. From elementary to high school, students are not only taught how to use current technology, but also how to approach and adapt to technologies as they change.

Digital Citizenship: Talk it Out

Park Hill’s technology program starts with a proactive and curricular approach that educates students about smart and safe technology use and the Internet. The district understands that the Internet is another way to foster student interaction with peers, teachers and the community. At Park Hill, standards of acceptable conduct remain the same, whether these interactions are personal or online. Students and faculty understand that the district’s policies on bullying, for example, also apply online.

Beginning early in elementary school, student technology curriculum is designed to incorporate digital citizenship on safe Internet usage — the digital age’s equivalent of “don’t talk to strangers.” As students progress throughout grade levels, additional digital citizenship lessons are incorporated, such as digital literacy and digital security. Park Hill is careful to cover a wide range of activities that encompass what it means to live and interact online.

Brad Sandt, director of technology at Park Hill, notes that it is critical that parents are involved in this process. The district engages parents through events such as “Internet Safety Nights,” direct communication through newsletters and safety alerts through the district’s “First Hand” e-mail alerts. These interactions with parents provide information regarding best practices for talking with their kids about privacy and safety, both in the physical and online worlds.

Events like the Internet Safety Nights also facilitate candid discussion with parents on the district’s technology initiatives. It was these discussions, Sandt says, that encouraged the district to begin working more with elementary students on safe and proper technology use.

Social Media: Fear Not

Although many teachers use social media at home, most districts are still reluctant to bring those tools into the classroom. The 21st Century Classroom Report found that only 12 percent of teachers use blogs for educational use, while 26 percent blog for personal use. Blogs are more popular with students, with 30 percent blogging for personal use and 16 percent blogging for educational purposes.

With growing student and faculty interest, districts have the opportunity to embrace social media and provide appropriate end-user education at the same time. Education gives students and faculty an understanding of how to safely use these tools and effectively incorporate them into the learning experience.

At Park Hill, teachers use blogs and Twitter to connect students with lessons, as well as fellow students. Maintaining blogs help students improve their writing skills, with a special focus on helping them develop the more formal writing style necessary for assignments and papers. While Park Hill teachers’ lesson topics are varied, they all accomplish the goal of getting students to write more often, Sandt notes. Additionally, Twitter allows teachers to post class updates and enables students to ask questions of one another almost instantaneously.

When planning for social media and advanced Internet use, districts should use an auditing system, which is critical to identifying threats so that schools can proactively stop an attack on the network. Likewise, the district’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) needs to be a living document, revised at least once each year to cover the district’s new technology capabilities. The AUP should cover all aspects of technology threats, and include proper use of social media.

Next Steps: Move Forward

Technology is always evolving, and district technology plans must follow suit. Innovative technology leaders are constantly searching for the next “big” thing, while ensuring faculty and students are included in the search. Districts should consider asking students, faculty and staff what technologies they should incorporate. For this, districts can either create their own survey or use the 21st Century Classroom Report Assessment Tool, which is available at http://cdwg.com/21stCenturyClassroomReport, to get an accurate picture of what students and teachers want and need, technology-wise. Odds are, you will be surprised at what students ask for.

Technology integration is an easy phrase for a complex process. It requires infrastructure investment and a firm commitment from the district. Park Hill School District understands that — and has generated impressive results with its customized plan. By bringing all of these elements together, Park Hill has overcome the technology fear factor: Classroom engagement has increased and students are more prepared for technology use in their futures than ever before.

Brad Sandt believes that the district is simply moving in the same direction as its students. “A big focus for us is collaboration, and technology is a natural bridge to foster increased communication between students and their teachers,” Sandt says. “One of the best benefits is that technology is engaging, which enables lessons to continue outside of the classroom.”

Bob Kirby is vice president, K-12 education at CDW-G.

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