Technology First: Background, Concept, and Results

by Jeffrey M. Welch

Part of my "Technology First" series.

For the 2015-2016 school year, a few teachers in my district were given dedicated sets of classroom Chromebooks to use with our students. While some school districts have already made the leap to a 1-to-1 technology deployment, we have not yet jumped in the deep end.
Creative Commons Licence: Source: Sadly, not my classroom!
My colleagues and I were tasked with charting the path forward for our district’s teachers. In discussions with a few collaborators we made a decision to go a little farther than integrating technology, we chose to abandon all that came before and choose Technology First. This post will explain a bit of the logic, results, and implications of that decision.

Here is what we told our students on day one:
  • This class is designed using a technology-first model.
  • The class will operate with minimal use of paper, either given to the students or received by the teacher.
  • Nearly all assignments and activities will be completed utilizing a classroom set of Chromebooks.
  • Students will utilize Google Apps for Education and other online services to complete most of their tasks.

Making this choice is by no means required, and we make no guarantees that it was even the right thing to do. Rather than arguing that everyone should do this, we took it as a personal challenge to see if we could do it. There has never been one right solution to every problem. In most any case, a number of solutions can be devised to solve any difficulty that arises. The field of education is no different. There are numerous successful and useful methods of teaching any particular topic or activity. Technology for its own sake isn’t the answer to everything. Yet, we made a decision to try to find a technological solution to every problem.

The challenge for students
Today’s students live in a world that is fundamentally different from even a decade ago. Seemingly everyone and everything is being connected through technology ways that are new. Education is the one place where this revolution has not yet fully taken root. Some schools are tech savvy, but huge numbers of schools teach like they are stuck in the early 1900s. This is a major disconnect for students who walk into a technology desert for the seven hours of their school day.

They will not leave their high school upon graduation and enter a world of pencils, books, and spiral-bound notebooks. That time is gone, but many schools are stuck in a bizarre time warp. How can a student be prepared for the worlds of work and higher education if they cannot use technology effectively and productively?

The challenge for teachers
There are many limitations placed on teachers. There may be inadequate or even non-existent devices or networks. There may be draconian limitations imposed by web-filtering software limiting which sites and connected tools can be used (i.e. Youtube and most social media). For tools that are available, many of the best are not free or possibly “freemium,” thus have limited usefulness. Classroom budgets are almost universally miniscule, if a tool that has significant costs, but is not embraced by administration, it will probably not be an option for teachers to use.

The challenge for administrators
Administrators must always look at the big picture. What is in the best interest of the school, the students, and their team? In managing teacher implementation of technology, administrators will likely have to cope with the two poles of classroom adoption. Some teachers cannot move fast enough at putting technology into use (my colleagues are in this boat). In other cases, there are those that have no interest or may even be terrified by the movement toward higher levels of technology integration.

Dealing with these two staff extremes is no easy feat. On the one hand, the early adopters must be both encouraged and occasionally restrained. On the other hand, the technologically gun shy must be moved forward without overly stressing them out. In both cases this balancing act is very tricky. Schools need to be moving forward with technology integration in a way that works for the school community, but also prepares students for the world that they will enter post high school. Administrators need to find and promote effective technology focused professional development to bring their teams along. Further, administrators need to engage with their teachers as a team to develop a broad plan and set of tools that will be utilized across the school. One tool or technique that is useful in many classes is always better than many tools used in a few classes.

What we have learned
Is technology always the best answer? No it isn’t, but we have confirmed much of what we expected when we began.

Some positives:
  • Technology makes things possible that were not possible before (see my post on SAMR and TPACK).
  • Technology, if used well, can lead to self-directed learning experiences.
  • Students have adapted quickly and become expert users much faster than we expected.
  • Students like using technology, so this can be a strong motivator.
  • Most everything that can be done with paper, pencil, and book can be done using technology, and results can be superior.

Some negatives:
  • Classroom management is every bit as important, and maybe more, when you introduce a device into the classroom.
  • Students can and will be off-task and this must be managed.
  • Students can and will use technology to bully others (though they don’t realize how much easier it is to document).
  • Edtech apps rarely talk to each other, so there is much legwork and “app feeding” to be done. You most likely need to transfer grades from apps to your gradebook, too little automation here.

Where do we go from here?
The complete change in our classrooms has been an excellent learning experience. We have found that we are definitely up to this challenge and that the pervasive use of technology has greatly expanded the scope of what is possible in our classrooms. We still have a lot to learn and much to improve. Our first revision of a Technology First approach has been successful, but we continue to tweak our methods and are confident that in year two and beyond the results will see consistent improvement.

Part of my "Technology First" series.