What is the Real Value of Educational Technology?


I’ve come to depend on the folks I follow on Twitter to keep me informed and thinking. One of my favorite contributors is Instructional Technology Coordinator, Ben Grey. This morning I followed his tweet to the post “Why Technology?” he did at the TL Advisor Blog.  Ben raised an important question, 

“Something has been happening lately in education, and the implications are a bit unsettling.  People are beginning to ask a cogent question, but I fear it’s being framed for the wrong reason.  I’m hearing more and more important decision makers asking, “Why are we using technology?”

… If tomorrow you had to stand in front of your Board of Education and respond to the question, “why should we continue to use and pursue technology in our district,” what would you say?”  more

I invite you to join Ben’s conversation. I posted a response to his question at the TL blog. But I want to reprint it here to share with my readers. 

My response:

It’s a great question and one that I’ve had to answer as an assistant superintendent for instruction. Here’s a few elements of what I’d say to the school board.

As more information is digitized, we move from a top-down broadcast model of communications to one that fosters creativity and collaboration. The digital age devalues lower-order thinking skills but provides tools that allow us to analyze, evaluate and create. 

New technologies can put our students in charge of the information they access, store, analyze and share.  Many of our students only have access to those tools in our schools. They have the right to participate in the digital age.

Investing in technology should not be a thoughtless response. New technology does not necessarily improve the quality of instruction  (We have all sat through dull PowerPoint presentations that were as “mind-numbing” as an old filmstrip.)

We should continue to look for a ROI on our technology investments, but it may not be tracked in test scores that simply measure lower order recall of information. A better metric would ask if a technology helped us to create learning experiences that provoke student reflection in a new, more engaging and collaborative way. Such as…

  • Wordle, a free Web 2.0 offering allows students to visualize and interpret text. 
  • Google docs allows students to share their thinking in a way that is difficult to replicate on paper. 
  • Web access and social networking allows students to collaborate beyond the confines of the classroom and school day. 

Here’s an example of all three put to use in a collaboration by a self-directed international group of teachers (It was mainly coordinated / promoted via Twitter.) “Build Literacy Skills with Wordle”  

Shouldn’t our students have access to the technologies that allow them to create, collaborate and share their thinking on subjects that matter to them?

Image source: Flickr / Money ~ by PT Money
Money – Feel free to use this image on your blog, website or other publication. Please give attribution (i.e. link) to ‘PT Money’ ptmoney.com

Engaging Teachers in Planning Relevant Staff Development

I recently posted "A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer." I thought I'd follow up with an example of how those recommendations were followed in a recent professional development project.

This example comes from my recent work with the Edison School of Engineering & Manufacturing, a Rochester (NY)  City School District high school. We began the project by using one of the weekly early releases to do some agenda setting. I was introduced to the faculty and I spent about 40 minutes giving an outline of the types of PD subjects I could offer. I use a TurningPoint audience response system that gathered data to help us target our future PD.

We then utilized two more early release sessions to provide the requested training. I think it is critical to model the learning strategies in the session. That's especially true with PD is offered at the end of the school day. Feedback from teachers noted that they felt as if they were part of a learning environment that gave them a feeling for how the strategies would be perceived by the students.

Professional development need to move from the abstract setting of a training session into a real world classroom. So we next turned to Focus Classroom Walk-Throughs to develop a shared understanding of what the strategies look like when you are working with your students. I came back to the school on three additional days to conduct the walkthroughs.

Teachers were divided into teams of about six teachers and each team was led on a half-day walkthrough experience. Each session began with an orientation regarding goals and protocols. Our group of six was split into two smaller groups and visited classroom in teams of 2-3. We spent about 20 minutes per visit and regrouped all six teachers after visiting a few classes. 

All school faculty were aware of our walks and could elect to host a visit or opt out. We were not evaluating, nor passing judgement. Our goal was to hone our skills at identifying what we saw in the classroom. For example, could we look at classroom activity and agree on what level of Bloom we would assign to it?

After the classroom visits, I led each group in a debriefing with a focus on developing a shared understanding of what the strategies look like in the classroom. A “March Madness” analogy would be a group of observers discussing the defensive strategies they see being used in a basketball game. They share a common vocabulary and they are in full agreement about how to label what they observe.

Armed with a shared understanding of what how we would define our instructional strategies, we then turned to agenda setting for future PD. I led each walkthrough group in brainstorming session on how they would recommend we focus their future PD. I compiled input from all six brainstorming session into a report to the school based planning team. They then met to design their  09-10 professional development program.

Here's a Wordle of the top 50 comments from our brainstorm sessions.


President Obama’s Address to Congress 2/24/09 – Education in the Word Cloud Top 25!

Note: For full web version of President Barack Obama's speech to Congress Feb 24, 2009 click here.  

I think Wordle.net is a great tool that helps teachers and students to analyze text. Read my post to see some ideas for how you can use Wordle to foster literacy and critical thinking in your classroom. 

I used Wordle to make the "word cloud" below out of the text from President Obama's speech to Congress. I chose a setting to display the 25 most frequently used words in his speech. Glad to see that education made the top 25 of his verbal agenda!

You can make your own Wordle version of  his speech. Here's a text file Obama-2-25-09 of his words taken from the NY Times transcript. (I deleted the applause breaks.) Copy and paste it to the Wordle "Create" page and make your own word cloud. For more on Wordle font and layout setting click here

Build Literacy Skills with Wordle

I've always been interested in quantitative displays of information. I've been having lots of fun with Wordle – a free website that creates "word clouds" (or "tag clouds") for text analysis. Simply copy/paste text and in seconds Wordle gives you a visual representation of word frequency. The example below was created by analyzing all the words used in my blog in 2008. Click the screen shots below to enlarge.
Picture 1

While you can directly type into the Wordle text box, I would recommend you copy and past text into it. That allows you to get text directly from online sources or your own text document. Student can either work on their individual Wordles or collaborate together on one. In the later case, it's probably most efficient to gather all their writing into one text document before copy/pasting it into a Wordle. Use tilde sign to create phrases. Example: learning~strategies. Another tip: After you create a Wordle, right click a term to remove it from the Wordle results. 

Picture 2
The site allows you to modify the color scheme, font, alignment and even set the maximum number of words to include in the analysis (example top 100 words, top 50 words, etc) For inspiration on layout see these Wordle samples at Flickr

Wordle output – If you PDF generating software, you can "print" a Wordle to a PDF file. Or you can do a screen capture of the Wordle. Do live Wordles on your smartboard. For a how-to on screenshots click here.

So how could your students use Wordle?
Defining  skills – Before the dictionary comes out, give your students a new vocabulary word and ask them to brainstorm all the word they associate with it. Gather up all the brainstormed words for a Wordle. After the term has been formally defined, repeat the process and compare to the "pre-dictionary" Wordle.

Summarizing skills – As a pre-reading exercise – copy/paste text of reading into  a Wordle and ask students to predict what the main ideas of the reading will be. Another pre-reading option – give them a Wordle of a non-fiction reading and ask them to use the Wordle to generate a title or headline before they see the real article. Post reading – ask them to reflect on the reading based on a prompt (examples – main idea, what you've learned, funniest element, etc). Then collect all their reflections into a Wordle.

Comparison skills – Give them two different accounts / essays on the same theme / event – let them compare the Wordles generated by each. Or you could generate Wordles for two different reading – then let student see if they can match the Wordle to it's corresponding reading.

I've been collaborating with fellow educators on a Google Doc guide to using Wordle in the classroom

Good Teachers Don’t Have To Be Cool

As a 21-year-old rookie teacher I was pleased to find out I could finally be the most popular guy in class. I read all the books and crafted the "know-it-all" lecture that informed and entertained. It took me a few years to realize that my goal wasn't to be the smartest person in the room, but to create learning environments that helped my students discover their knowledge and skills.

I was reminded of my teaching transition as I read a recent essay by Mark Edmundson,  "Geek Lessons – Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable." It's from the New York Times Magazine's college teaching issue (9/21/08), but educators of all levels may enjoy. Edmundson writes:

Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present. The biologist sees a natural world that’s not calmly picturesque but a jostling, striving, evolving contest of creatures in quest of reproduction and survival.
….Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.
….Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness. It’s the feeling encouraged by TV and movies and the Internet that you’re on top of things and in charge. You’re hip and always know what’s up.
….Good teachers, by contrast, are constantly fighting against knowingness by asking questions, creating difficulties, raising perplexities. More

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