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On the East Coast, budget cuts force many school districts to eliminate technology facilitators that teachers rely on.
Now teachers take on that role for their classroom. And they're not always prepared for it, said Gregg Festa, the director of the ADP Center for Teacher Preparation and Learning Technologies under the Center of Pedagogy at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Through four education technology projects, the university equips educators to overcome challenges as they coordinate technology and learning in their classrooms.
In the spring, the center started a certificate program to prepare teachers for their new role as personal technology facilitators.
Almost every day, new technology tools come out. But instead of training educators on specific technology tools, the program teaches in-service and pre-service teachers to pedagogically evalute new technology.
"The technology is the classroom in many ways right now, and you need to be a master of it," Festa said. "Part of that is being able to know what is going to work and what is not going to work within the context of your curriculum and the instruction that you're planning."
But many young teachers don't know how to mesh technology with curriculum and instruction.
"As savvy as the younger teachers are at using technology for their own personal life, they don't really get the context of it with respect to pedagogy," Festa said. "And so we really need to reframe the technology as a teaching and learning tool."
Through the certificate program, they're learning how to evaluate and integrate these learning tools within their classrooms. On Wednesday, the second group of educators wrapped up their program. In the first two semesters, 35 educators participated.
While teachers may access top-level classrooms and technology tools at their university, they often land in schools that don't provide the same resources. For the past five or six years, the center has addressed this challenge by providing select teachers with grant-funded digital backpacks.
These backpacks include tools such as laptops, flip cameras and portable wireless access points, among other things. But because of the closed nature of school networks, they struggle to get devices on the networks, Festa said. As much as possible, the center works with 28 districts in its professional development network to address this issue.
While the IT administrators he's talked to like the idea of the mobile bag, they worry about breakage, security and mobility between nodes on the network. As a former school technology director, Festa understands their concerns. The last thing they need is a virus on the network that halts school business.
Newark Public Schools District in New Jersey partners with the center to image teacher laptops in advance. That way, they automatically connect to the district when school starts. And that's the kind of stuff the center needs to make this program work.
Along with the backpack, teachers participate in training and embedded professional development. In their classrooms, center staff members help pre-service teachers to consider how to engage students with the tools in meaningful ways.
The tools by themselves don't spike student engagement beyond the initial "wow" factor, said Barry Bachenheimer, who finished his doctoral research a few months ago on the Dgital Backpack project. He found that tools combined with good teaching practice did improve student engagement.
Professional development should concentrate on good instructional practices, said Bachenheimer, the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Pascack Valley Regional High School District in Montvale. Teachers can figure out the tools on their own.
"All professional development just has to come down to effective instruction and be less about the tech tools and more about just good teaching."
With the Digital Scholars project, teachers learn how to conduct action research and practice it for a year in their classroom. They receive a digital backpack and professional development. And in their research, they describe how they used the tools and produce data that shows whether they're making an impact.
Last year, the center selected six technology pioneering teachers from its school district network. Before January, the teachers will turn in the results of their research.
By starting these three projects, the center hopes to enhance student learning with technology, Festa said. While the initial projects study the technology's impact on the classroom, Festa would prefer to do a more holistic approach.
And that's what the center's trying to do with the Digital Scholars project. The holistic approach would take into account lighting systems, audio systems, ergonomics of chairs, different types of seating arrangements, teachers and technology. In the three classrooms of the future that the center designed on campus, they considered these things.
For the past five or six years, the center hosts a teacher-centered professional development conference. Two years ago, staff members asked middle school and high school students to deliver the keynote on how they're using technology outside of class to learn.
The students blew away the audience. So last year, the center asked more students to lead workshops. Some of them worked with their teachers to present.
"They're teaching the teachers, which is kind of an interesting twist on a professional development conference," Festa said.
For the past seven or eight years, Bachenheimer has participated in Montclair State professional development, first at his former district and this year at Pascack Valley. His former district didn't have the resources to provide technology tools and high bandwidth to everyone. But by having Montclair staff work with teachers at schools, they learned to become experts within their district.
His current district provides laptops for every student and teacher. By giving these tools to students and teachers, this district eliminates many of the problems his former district experienced. And he's seen more teachers try new things with technology tools without fear.
"Now we're seeing them willing to take that instructional risk and willing to take that leap forward and do some neat stuff in the classroom," Bachenheimer said. "And with a lot more risk, you have a lot more benefit."
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