Look Before You Launch: 6 questions to ask before you add more tech to your school

IStock_000041712190_LargeOver many years of guiding schools and districts on integrating technology and instruction, the costliest mistake I see is the rush to purchase hardware and software without first identifying a 
clear purpose and plan for the new technology. This kind of oversight can lead to misuse or neglect of expensive equipment and systems, resulting in little of the intended impact on student learning outcomes.

Before you add new technologies to your school or district, here are six vital questions—and a few related ones—I recommend you ask first to help you look before you launch.

Why are we doing this?

Number 1This may sound obvious, but, too often, schools launch new technology initiatives before clearly defining the intent. Are you preparing for online assessments? Is the new technology meant to make teacher tasks more efficient? Are you trying to increase student engagement or creativity? All of these reasons have merit and you might even say, “Yes, all of those and more!” As a first step, it is imperative to define your goals clearly, and long before you make any major purchases.

How will we know if we are successful?

Number 2Once you’ve identified your intended goals, define the measureable targets, both quantitative and qualitative, that you will use to track and report on progress. For example, if you’re adding tech to classrooms to increase student engagement, start by defining what you mean by engagement and how you’ll measure change over time. Will you look for evidence of fewer discipline referrals and higher attendance rates? Do you expect to see students working in a wider variety of grouping strategies? What leading and lagging indicators will you expect and monitor? How will you collect, disaggregate, and report your data?

Are our teachers ready for this?

Number 3Conduct a survey of staff readiness for your proposed changes, reviewing their tech skills and their instructional practices. For example, if you’re considering a one-to-one or a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program, first assess how your teachers typically group students for instruction and identify the more appropriate strategy for tech integration.

One district I worked with was considering providing laptops for all high school students to encourage collaborative learning, but, in auditing their program, we found that a significant majority of instruction occurred in whole-group settings. Teachers had very little professional development in cooperative and collaborative learning strategies. We realized that moving staff from traditional lecture-style instruction to a one-to-one environment in a short amount of time would be a very heavy lift, causing more problems than it might solve. The district made the wise decision to modify its plan and begin the laptop program at the middle level, where students were already working collaboratively more frequently.

Is our facility ready for this?

Number 4Adding new tech to a building requires a certain level of supportive infrastructure. If students will be taking online assessments, creating videos and animations, or using 3D printers, ensure you’re providing sufficient bandwidth for all of the computers, especially those performing more network intensive tasks. Are you going to need to add local data storage space or use a cloud service? Consider not just the network inside the building, but also the pipeline from the school to the district to the Internet service provider (ISP). Is the entire system robust enough to accommodate increased data use from multiple schools?

For one-to-one and BYOD programs, verify that you have enough electrical outlets available in classrooms. Regardless of manufacturer claims, devices will need charging during the school day, especially as the batteries age. Can your building’s electrical system handle a simultaneous re-charging of all devices or charging carts over the lunch period? 

How will you support your staff in this change initiative?

Number 5Look again at your identified goal: What professional development (PD) have teachers experienced in the past three years that directly relates to that goal? If your initiative is focused on technology integration in the classroom, was the PD teachers received focused on pedagogy or on the mechanics of using the hardware or software? Be sure you have a plan and budget that gives staff the adequate and appropriate PD that maximizes their use of the new tech and increases the odds of achieving your goals.

What is your sustainability plan?

Number 6Technology has a much shorter useful lifespan than other fixtures and equipment in a building. In most cases, you should plan to renew hardware and software at least every five years. If you’re using grant money to purchase technology today, determine where the renewal funding will come from five years from now. Form a plan for repair and maintenance—whether in-house or through the manufacturer—and  know what the manufacturer’s extended warranty covers. Finally, establish a protocol for loaner technologies while the devices are being repaired.

As with hardware, staff PD training and resources should also be forecasted over time. You’ll have new staff who will need to be trained on the technology, and your current staff will need continued support.

Look before you launch

Launching into a new tech initiative without taking the time to ask and answer these six questions can easily lead to squandered financial capital and lost educational opportunities. With some planning, you can save yourself some stress and pain.


A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's executive director of digital solutions.  He is co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.)and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation softwareHe can be reached at hpitler@mcrel.org  or followed on Twitter at @hpitler.


How to make excitement for learning contagious

Teacher reading laughing_000014533534_LargeWhen you think about the teachers who made a difference in your life, do you wonder why they made such an impression on you? Was it because they taught you clever strategies for comma usage, or posted the learning objectives and referred to them often? Perhaps, it was the way they kept everyone quiet during tests. Sound improbable? More likely, you remember how they respected and valued what you had to say, or that they cared about you as a person. You might also recall how passionate and excited they were to teach their favorite subjects.

As a teacher, it’s important for you to consider the type of personality and energy you bring to the classroom each day. You, like everyone, have troubles inside and outside of the classroom. However, when working with students, you have to check your problems at the classroom door—to a degree. Your students come to you because you are focused, supportive, and provide encouraging words.  Your guidance helps them improve in school and learn many of life’s lessons.

Sometimes, though, students do need to know that you have a life outside of the classroom and will better connect with you when you reveal some personal details. You, too, might have had a pet who passed away, or may have been disappointed with yourself or been let down by others. When you reveal your struggles and challenges, it helps your students see you as real, understanding, and approachable. Students don’t need to know every detail, of course—just enough to see you, the teacher, as similar to them. In The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Hubbell advise that meaningful interactions with students “are critical to student academic success” (p. 79), leading to positive classroom interactions and better behavioral and achievement outcomes.

Showing enthusiasm and humor helps. University of Virginia researchers Hamre and Pianta suggest that classrooms sprinkled with “pleasant conversations, spontaneous laughter, and exclamations of excitement” (p. 957) generally support higher levels of learning. British teacher research coordinator Helena Marsh states that students want teachers who aren’t so serious that they can’t feel “confident enough to do silly and memorable things to help [students] to understand something” (p. 162). In other words, students appreciate teachers who seize on opportunities to inject a little humor. Don’t take it too far; be purposeful with your instruction, but incorporate humor into your classroom and share a laugh with your students every now and again. Kids will certainly remember when you danced the Charlie Brown or the Macarena during break time. They won’t forget their teacher jumping in a 90-degree, 180-degree or a 360-degree pattern during math, either. And, in the end, the lessons will stick better.

When you model your enthusiasm for learning, your students will really want to grasp the information and do something with it. Excitement for learning is contagious!

Note: McREL is offering a 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching professional development workshop this summer in Denver. For more information, visit the registration page.

AblaCheryl_6851_webCheryl Abla is an education consultant and product manager for McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org


Mobile devices: “If you can’t beat them, teach them”

Mobile tech distraction_000020297594_LargeAs you start reading this, stop and take note—how far away is your smartphone? When did you last check it? Did you check it just now?

You’re not alone. In just a few short years, many of us have become addicted to our mobile devices. They’re nearly always within arm’s reach, and many of us cannot help ourselves from checking them (or fixating on them) regularly, no matter where we are, what we’re doing, or who we’re with.

What does that mean for students and learning? Bryan Goodwin, president and CEO of McREL, takes a look at what the research says in his latest column for Educational Leadership. What he finds is that, while we know some educators are doing great things with mobile device technology in the classroom, such approaches are too new to have been subjected to rigorous study.

What the limited research so far tells us is cautionary: 1) laptop use in classrooms may actually diminish attention and focus; 2) interruptions caused by texting decrease attention and comprehension, and 3) mobile devices and the Internet may be habit-forming. Further, researchers are concerned that our ability to concentrate, in general, is decreasing and that mobile devices may cause students to think they are multitasking successfully—which they’re not.

However, as Goodwin notes, whether we like it or not, mobile devices are a “fixture of modern life.” So he suggests teaching students how to live and learn with them. For example, research supports two key ways students can fend off technology distractions: by focusing learning in short sprints, followed by brief breaks, and taking hand-written notes.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.


Sometimes the best technology is no technology


In 1989, I became the principal of a technology magnet school. Nine years later, I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator. As the lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd Ed. (2012), I remain an active proponent of technology-infused learning. Technology enables learners to do or create things that might not otherwise be possible. Knowing all of this, you might ask why I, of all people, would ever advise educators to restrict technology in the classroom.

In one of the episodes* of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, Leonard reminds his roommate and fellow scientist, Sheldon, of a situation in which Sheldon learned to swim—on the floor—using the Internet. Sheldon defensively asserts, “The skills are transferable. I just have no interest in going in the water.” Clearly, there are times in the learning process when students learn best by actually “going in the water.” Take driver’s education, for example.

Do you remember the learning sequence in your experience? You likely started in the classroom, learning the declarative knowledge necessary to drive a car, such as the rules of the road, standard traffic laws, and other basics. You might have also spent time in a simulator, practicing evasive maneuvers that would be dangerous for a novice to attempt on the road. Still, you and your teacher clearly understood that the textbook and the simulator were no replacement for actually sitting behind the wheel. An app would not have cut it; simulated experiences wouldn’t be an adequate substitute for gaining real, experiential knowledge.

In math classrooms, many teachers are now augmenting—and sometimes replacing—direct instruction with apps or video instruction provided by third-party sources, such as Khan Academy. While these apps and websites do offer a way for many learners to reinforce their understanding of basic skills and processes, many elements of student discourse and reflection are lacking.

Recently, when I visited a middle school algebra class, I watched as students worked independently on their laptops, completing Khan Academy lessons related to the day’s learning objectives. Following that 10-minute exercise, students closed their laptops and were grouped into triads based on where they were in the Khan Academy progression. Each triad worked on a small number of algebra problems, discussing different ways to solve the problems. Some worked on interactive white boards while others worked on paper. They engaged in deep thinking and true problem solving, opening up a dialogue about math. Students helped each other, challenged each other’s thinking, and, ultimately, learned from each other.

At the end of the class, I asked a few students what they liked about the way the teacher structured the lesson. Yes, they liked being able to work at their own pace online, but every one of the students I talked to expressed that what they really liked about the class was the time they spent talking to each other about the learning. Uniformly, students agreed the conversations were the best part of the learning experience; the feedback they received from others deepened their understanding of the concepts.

Could the teacher have accomplished a similar objective by putting students in a variety of TodaysMeet rooms or Google hangouts and have them share their thinking in that way? Maybe. But the real question is, Why do that? Good educators plan their instruction intentionally. They think about what they want their students to understand and master, and then adapt their strategies to accomplish that goal.

The real art in teaching lies in knowing when and how to use technology to enhance learning. Sometimes, it’s better to use a textbook or a whiteboard. Other times, engaging students in online simulations and computer-assisted learning will be appropriate strategies. And, sometimes, it is best to just unplug and engage with other humans, face-to face, in real time.

*Season 2, Episode 13. Great show.


2014-PitlerHoward_7046_webA former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's executive director of digital solutions. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.) and Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation software. He can be reached at hpitler@mcrel.org  or followed on Twitter at @hpitler.


Emotional intelligence: The leader’s key to great communication

IStock_000021215908_LargeWhen it comes to communication, teachers are like everyone else: When they listen to or interact with their leader, they want to feel inspired. Many school leaders are good at inspiring an audience with articulate, rousing speeches, but research shows that what’s more important are the small, everyday interactions that are driven less by rhetorical talent and more by emotional intelligence.

In their latest Research Says column for Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein look at what emotional intelligence is and how it bolsters leadership at any organization. Defined by Salovey and Mayer as the ability to monitor one’s own emotions and the emotions of others and use this information to guide interactions with others (1990), emotional intelligence appears to distinguish good leaders from great ones.

For instance, when writer/psychologist Daniel Goleman conducted an analysis of the competency models of 188 large companies, he found that, among the important ingredients of excellence performance—technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence—emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels. Further, the higher an employee’s level in a company, the more important it became. As Goleman noted: “Without [emotional intelligence], a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.” 

To read more about the links between the emotional intelligence of school leaders and school performance, get the entire article here.

Posted by McREL International.