Before I began teaching internationally, I worked at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy in Las Vegas. I was lucky to land the job right out of college, and from the first day of my first class, I was an elementary teacher who had to be a technology integrator, an ELL specialist, and a special education teacher. Public schools in the US are notoriously under funded and under staffed, especially in huge and diverse school districts like Clark County. My visionary principal, Katy Decker, made the decision to ‘cash in’ positions like assistant principal, technology integrationist, and ELL specialist in order to free up money for technology tools, innovative projects, and online subscriptions. It was the expectation that all the teachers taught in ways that met the needs of all their students. Because our students were mostly first generation Mexican-Americans, some with learning disabilities, and all were motivated by gaming, gardening, socializing, creativity, and ‘grown-up stuff’ (aka authentic learning tasks), it made sense that we taught in ways that met the students where they were. The campus included high speed wi-fi, 1:1 iPads, 1:2 PCs, science and art labs, Lego lab and maker space, gardens, and ‘Exploration’ classes built into the schedule. But spaces alone wouldn’t have been successful without the positive interdependence between the environment, the curriculum and the teaching styles – all three are necessary components.
It was also helpful that the majority of the team was fairly new, and hadn’t learned to teach in traditional settings. The culture of support, open doors, transparent practices, and excitement around learning, engineering, and innovation made it hard to fail, even as a new teacher.
Looking back, I realize this formula isn’t as easy to achieve as Ms.Decker made it seem. One of the key factors was that teachers welcomed change and felt comfortable being uncomfortable in their practices; ruts are what was feared most. Bob Lentz, in an Edutopia post on Blended Learning Strategies, explains how teachers are often responsible for stagnation:
The answer is ugly: teachers themselves slow down this evolution when they aren’t sufficiently trained to use technology or resist the idea of change altogether. According to a 2009 survey conducted through The National Center for Education Statistics, 99 percent of public school teachers have computer access throughout the day, while only 29 percent of them are using computers “often” during instruction. Such a wasted opportunity!
Creating the environment (including the campus, the classrooms, the curriculum, and the culture) that communicated the school’s beliefs and practices was also essential. I struggle with this every day in my new school as the technology integrationist. “Where does tech live?” is the question that I struggle to answer for those still on the fence; because, how do I tell them it’s much more complicated than typing instead of writing without them running for the hills. For technology integration to not be more work, it must be used to do new things in a new way. Adding in technology, but not changing your practices, is exactly what it sounds like – adding! – and no one has time to add to what their already doing.
Knowing from what I’ve experienced and from reading and studying the topic, real change – real technology integration – must begin in the environment. Although I feel that the environment includes the availability of tools and the teacher mentality, a school and technology integrationist must first tackle the school’s approach to learning within the curriculum. If the curriculum is taught in discrete subjects, rather than cross-curricular, inquiry and project based units, teachers will have a hard time finding the TPACK sweet spot between content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge that is “Underlying truly meaningful and deeply skilled teaching with technology.”
With that in mind, that is how I choose my starting point when I began my position last year as the technology integrationist. Although I’m sure some at my school wonder why I have spent much of my time learning, training and helping transform units into cross curricular, student-centered, project based learning, I know this is where my time will create the most payoff when persuading teachers to become the tech integrationist. If the outcomes and learning processes of these new units directly depend on technology tools and innovative strategies, then it won’t be a time consuming add-on; it will will be a natural part of the unit – a non-negotiable – embedded.