Why Are Public School Websites so Bad?

While Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon above is mocking university websites for deficiencies in design, the same could be said of many public school websites. A few years ago, my kids’ school website only worked in Internet Explorer. It was the most terrible design you can imagine, done in Front Page I think, with all the most important information buried or even out of date. The reason for that was that the media specialist, who had a full time job running the library, teaching classes that visited the library, and working with teachers, was also tasked with running the school website, and she didn’t have the time or the expertise to do so. The school now has a technology specialist who runs the website, and it is much better than it was. However, it’s still not close to being a slick-looking as some of the private school websites I’ve visited. I think several factors may influence a school’s website design, and the deck is stacked against public schools:

  • Private schools have to market themselves. They’re competing against every other private school in their area, and they have to allocate funds to attracting students. Part of their marketing is a good website. The first step in exploring a school is most often taking a look at their website, and if it’s bad, the family might never even move forward with an application. Information needs to be easy to find, and the site itself must be easy to navigate. It should look professional and give visitors a sense of what they might see in the school.
  • Private schools often hire outside web designers. Public schools tend to assign the task to employees or students, with mixed results. Sometimes you get someone really good who knows what they’re doing, but designing and running a website is a big job, and employees are often stretched too thin to do a good job. A variety of designers cater to private schools. Contrary to popular belief, private schools are not necessarily swimming in money, but they do need to spend money on good websites because of marketing.
  • Public schools seem to communicate more via email, telephone, signage, paper, and snail mail. They probably don’t have a real reason to duplicate all of that information on a website, although I would argue that they should if they want someone outside the community to find the site useful. For instance, we’re moving to Massachusetts this summer, and my husband complained that the public schools’ website in the area we’re moving to was quite difficult to navigate. I tried it out, and he’s right. The district website attaches a frame around the website for the one school I looked at, and navigation was impossible. I never could find a faculty directory.
  • Sometimes the appropriate staff (a technology director, specialist, etc.) floats among several schools or even a whole district. Because private schools are independent, they have to hire faculty and staff to cover these areas (or outsource some of it). Otherwise, they won’t have it. If they don’t have technology faculty, they run the risk of being behind the times and therefore losing potential students to schools that spend more on up-to-date technology.

Asking technology faculty to float is a horrible idea. Each school should have a dedicated member of the faculty who works with teachers to integrate technology. I don’t say that because it’s my job, and I need job security. I say it because I think it’s true. Otherwise, you’re going to have more difficulty getting faculty to integrate technology. You will always have the dedicated teachers who spend their own time learning how to use technology on their own, but if you are trying to make a real school-wide shift, it’s not going to happen if your faculty doesn’t have someone to help them. It’s no wonder public schools can’t dedicate more time to making their websites attractive and user-friendly. They don’t have the personnel, and the personnel they do have don’t have the time.  However, websites are an important communication tool, and in the year 2012, it is not asking too much to have a website that visitors can enjoy using to learn more about a school. Many free and cheap CMS’s exist to help schools (which doesn’t solve the time issue). A good website should be something to which schools dedicate time.

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Ten Technology Integration Apps

I regularly see blog posts sharing 10, 50, 100 apps for educators, and I haven’t written one before mainly because it seems to be well-trodden ground, but last night I decided perhaps it couldn’t hurt to share my list. After all, these other blog posts still regularly introduce me to apps I’ve never heard of, so perhaps a few of you haven’t heard of any of these apps either. I use all of these apps to help me with my role as a technology integration specialist working with colleagues both online and off and with students.

  1. Twitter. Seems like an obvious one perhaps, and I am probably not sharing anything you haven’t heard of, but I love to use Twitter to see what other folks are talking about, what apps they’ve found, and to bookmark links (more on that in a moment). I talk with other folks in my field and also keep up with what is going on in the world of books. I follow along with #engchat discussions on the Mondays when I have time and the topic at hand is something that intrigues me. I often also use the hashtag #edtech if I want something I tweet to catch the eye of educational technology folks, but as far as I know, they don’t have a regular chat set up.
  2. Diigo. I was an early adopter of Firefox, and early on it was kind of buggy and kept losing my bookmarks. I liked pretty much everything else about it, so I decided to search for bookmarking alternatives. Back then, the major player was Delicious. Then Diigo came along. It’s a wonderful service. Teachers can have added features for free. I can set up Diigo to automatically post my saved links to my blog either twice a day, daily, or weekly. I can also connect my Twitter account to Diigo so that any tweets I favorite will automatically be saved links in my Diigo account. This has become my preferred method of saving links because most of the good things I bookmark I find via Twitter. Diigo also has groups. You can share bookmarks with a class of students and give them access to share bookmarks, too, so that everyone is contributing to the pool of resources, and you can also create groups for colleagues. I regularly share Diigo bookmarks with folks on the English Companion Ning because we have a Diigo group. You can also tweet links as you save them. Also, Diigo has browser extensions you can use to easily save bookmarks. I can also have Diigo sync with my Delicious account so that I don’t have to add bookmarks in two places, and folks who subscribed to my Delicious bookmarks can still see my new bookmarks.
  3. LiveBinders. I have not begun to tap the potential of LiveBinders, but it’s a tool I’m excited about. LiveBinders is the digital equivalent of the three-ring notebook. You can save resources and organize them. Links you save will be a collection of pages instead of lists of links, which can give you a better idea of what is in the resource collections. You can use them to go paperless or create your own digital textbooks. You don’t need to know anything about coding to use them. You can also upload your own files like documents, presentations, and interactive whiteboard files. You can essentially create a collection of resources on virtually any topic. An added bonus: LiveBinders shares their favorite collections on Twitter, so if you follow them, you’ll regularly come across great collections of resources.
  4. Evernote. Evernote is one of those tools I wish had been around when I was in high school and college. Of course there wasn’t really such a thing as the Internet back then, but I digress. Evernote is a great note-taking tool. You can clip web pages and save them. You can create online notebooks that sync with your iPhone, iPad, or Android apps so you have your notebooks wherever you go. You can also use tags to make your notes easy to find and collect your notes in notebooks (different ones for each subject or topic). Evernote also connects with a series of other apps you can get in their “Trunk,” their version of an app store. The Trunk has so many cool apps that work with Evernote that it would be hard to begin to discuss them, and perhaps that is fodder for another blog post. You can use Evernote as a web app or download it on your Mac, PC, or mobile device and sync it across all your devices.
  5. Dropbox. I don’t carry around flash drives anymore because I can save everything in my Dropbox. Users have access to their Dropboxes via Mac, PC, the Dropbox website, and mobile apps. Like Evernote, Dropbox syncs across devices. The amount of storage space is generous, and you can obtain more space with referrals or you can purchase it. You can also associate Dropbox with other apps (similar to Evernote’s Trunk). One of my favorites is DropItTo.Me, which I use to collect student work digitally. They can upload their work to my Dropbox without having access to any of the other content. You can also easily share documents with others via Dropbox without having email them attachments. I shamelessly used my referral link here, but if you do sign up for an account using that link, both of us get extra space.
  6. Mac’s Dictionary app. Sorry PC folks, but you are missing out on a great app. Mac’s native Dictionary app has been in my dock since I have had my Mac, and as a matter of fact, just yesterday, I was teaching my students with Macs how to use this app. We are talking about word choice, and all of you English teachers have read an essay in which it was clear a student looked up a word in a thesaurus and used it without making sure they understood what the word meant, leading to unintended and often humorous consequences. I showed them that this app allows them to look up a word in the thesaurus, and all the synonyms are hyperlinked, which allows you to click on the synonyms and see the dictionary definition so you can be sure you know what the word means. On a related note, I was pleased to discover that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary app is now free for iPhone/iPad with ads. You can get a premium version with no ads for $3.99. Ads don’t bother me much. A few of the students in my class whipped out their phones and downloaded that app yesterday when I brought that up in class. The Merriam-Webster app has a hyperlinked list of synonyms after the word definitions. Dictionary apps like these should be seamless parts of our workflow now because they add the hyperlink functionality to the traditional dictionary.
  7. iCal and Google Calendar. I group these apps together because I use them together. I sync my Google Calendars with my iCal app, which also syncs with my iPhone’s calendar. I find that copying and pasting events is much easier in iCal, so I created my teaching schedule (we have a weird rotating schedule at my school) using iCal, but I add appointment slots to my calendar using Google Calendar. Folks can sign up for time to meet with me, which ensures they have my full attention for one-on-one training. I wouldn’t know where I was supposed to be at any given time without these two apps working in sync with one another. Google Calendars can also be shared so that folks can collaborate.
  8. Things. Things is not free, but I like it. It’s a good to-do app that I used all through grad school to keep track of due dates. Most recently, I set up a project using Things to keep track of all the things I need to do as part of my relocation to Massachusetts. As I think of more things, I add them to my to-do list. Things also has an iPhone/iPad app that syncs over wireless with Things on my Mac. Everyone probably has their favorite to-do app, and different apps work for different folks, but Things works for my own particular workflow. Things makes sure I do what I need to do when I need to do it, and it feels great to check items off that list.
  9. Wix. Wix is a great website builder that has flash and HTML 5 templates, many of them free. I think it would be great for creating student portfolios. It has a drag-and-drop user interface. You can use it for free, but premium accounts allow you to use Wix on your own domain, eliminate ads, and also come with unlimited bandwidth, extra storage, Google Analytics site stats, and other goodies (depending on the premium level you choose).
  10. WordPress. I have been using WordPress for years after trying other platforms such as Movable Type and Blogger. WordPress is great. You can install it in a flash, and you can add plugins that give you more options. For instance, I have plugins that automatically post my blog posts to Twitter so my Twitter followers know when I’ve updated, and I also have a plugin that helps me find great Creative Commons-licensed images on Flickr to use in my posts. The sky is the limit with WordPress. In fact, I recently learned from Wes Fryer via Twitter that WordPress powers nearly 15% of the world’s top million websites. In fact, 22% of new active domains are using WordPress. Students and faculty can both use it to blog or manage content on their websites.

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History and Twitter

I’ve heard many people say they think the subject with which is hardest to integrate technology is history. Nothing could be further from the truth if you have a little imagination! The folks at The History Press proved that yesterday with their live Twitter commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. Followers could read events live from the viewpoints of passengers, Captain Smith, officers, crew members, and nearby ships in real time as the ship approached its doom. This kind of idea would be great for commemorating any historical event. Students could do the research necessary to plan such a Twitter event and select a date (an anniversary would be great, if possible) to hold the event, then drum up interest and build excitement as the event approaches.

A project like this has a built-in authentic audience. Students need to think about the audience who will read their tweets and draft the tweets in advance. They would need to find out, if they can, the exact timeline for the historical event. Students can feel experience history “live.” I know that as an audience member, I felt like a part of the event, almost like I was watching it happen. I was glued to the Twitter feed. Creating a Twitter commemoration would give students intimate knowledge of the historical event and even allow them to take on roles as major players in the event. I can’t think of a better way to learn about history. After all, isn’t that what made Oregon Trail so much fun?

Obviously, this kind of project has other implications. A book’s events could be reenacted for a reading/English class, for instance. More ideas for integrating technology in history to come. Exciting stuff!

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What Makes a Good Technology Integration Specialist?

Sarah Horrigan asked in a recent post on her blog, “What makes a good learning technologist?” I love this question, and it strikes me that I’ve never even really reflected here on what makes a good English teacher (that’s a separate post for another day, though). This year was my first year as a technology integration specialist at my school, and while I am kind of green as far as the role goes, I have some definite ideas about what a good technology integration specialist looks like.

Curious

Sarah and I agree here. I don’t know how to do everything, and since I only have one year’s experience, there is much I haven’t tried. However, one thing I do have is curiosity. I want to learn how to do things, and I’m willing to try, even if I don’t know how. I also want to learn more about how others are integrating technology and keep up with news and trends. I actually like learning in general a great deal, and sometimes, even when I’m frustrated by a problem, I like the challenge of learning how to solve it myself. The other day, for instance, my MacBook’s fan was going nuts, and it looked like Spotlight was the culprit, but I couldn’t figure out what on earth it was trying to index that was taking so long. I tried various solutions until I discovered a command I could input into Terminal to find out what it was indexing, and it turns out my computer was just unhappy that I had not moved the entire Audacity folder into Applications instead of just the application itself after a recent software update (which the installation instructions did, after all, tell me to do). Once I moved the folder, the fans immediately settled down. I was really frustrated by the problem, but I felt great that I figured out how to resolve it (with the help of Google).

Helpful and Approachable

One of the things some old school IT guys get zinged for is how aggravated they get whenever someone wants help. They grab the mouse when someone they are working with doesn’t move fast enough or click the right spot. They sigh and roll their eyes. They don’t listen. As a result, folks just stop asking them for help unless they are forced to do so, and can you blame them? Who wants to feel like they are putting someone out just because they need help learning how to do something? I don’t ever want to be that person. I want teachers to feel they have learned something after working with me, and I want to support them in their learning. Sometimes it is frustrating to work with someone who has very minimal technology skills, but we only perpetuate the problem if we roll our eyes, sigh, grab the mouse and do it ourselves. I have found a little bit of patience goes a long way. I use the same skills I learned working with students when I work with teachers. I haven’t found them to be that different after all (unless perhaps more set in their ways and less willing to try things, but even that varies). If I am approachable and willing to help, people are more likely to seek my help when they want to try a project in class.

Enterprising

Good technology integration specialists seek out opportunities and approach teachers and students with their ideas. It doesn’t do to wait for classroom teachers to come up with their own ideas for using technology, although they do come up with some great ideas. A technology integration specialist, however, is a leader in this area, and teachers and students look to the technology integration specialist to generate ideas. The technology integration specialist shouldn’t feel afraid to approach even reluctant teachers with ideas for integrating technology. Obviously, teachers may resist and even turn you down flat. However, if they can be convinced that your idea is either going to 1) save them time or make something they do easier, or 2) be more engaging for them and for their students than something they already do, then usually you can convince them. When you can’t, you should just keep gently trying. Teachers don’t give up on their students and just decide that it’s not important to teach their students, say, how to solve quadratic equations or how to write a good argumentative essay. We keep plugging away, sometimes feeling frustrated. We hope the students will understand the importance and relevance of what we teach, and we understand it’s our responsibility to sell students on the importance and relevance of learning. Technology integration specialists are no different. They need to help teachers and students they work with understand the importance and relevance of using technology. Why? Because Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is right when she says, “The truth is that technology will never replace teachers; however, teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.” It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers learn this important truth and to give teachers they support they need to learn to integrate technology. It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers understand technology is not a fad or an add-on, but an important part of how people today learn and work, and students need to be able to learn how to use it effectively for both work and play.

Connected

Sarah mentioned this trait also. I feel it is critical for technology integration specialists to be active participants in a variety of networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Ning communities, and professional organizations like ISTE. I also think they should be active online. If they don’t have their own blogs, they should be using Facebook or Ning blogs to reflect regularly and think out loud about technology integration. I realize I have a bias toward blogging because it was blogging that introduced me to technology integration in the first place. I was never what I would call a tech savvy teacher until I started blogging, and I taught myself most of what I know now, which leads me to my next point.

Autodidactic

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with asking for or expecting professional development on tools you plan to integrate, especially if you are a regular classroom teacher and technology is not where you live. However, if it is where you live, I think you need to be willing to teach yourself lots of things. You need to have a willingness to try out a new tool. I taught myself HTML using a variety of online resources (of which, Lissa Explains it All, a website designed by a young girl to teach HTML to kids, was by far the best). I had to do some light coding for a website I used to have, and before long, I was designing my own templates. Next up: I want to learn Java and Photoshop and, well, actually a lot of other stuff, too. I could take classes, but I like the idea of trying to learn these things myself, too, and truthfully, I think figuring out how to do things on your own, finding your own resources (whether those resources are books, people, websites, videos, or other tutorials) is the best way to learn.

Passionate

Sarah mentioned this one also, and at the risk of simply cribbing her entire post, I had to include it. If I am not passionate about the possibilities of technology in education, I probably should be doing something else. If I’m not passionate about technology, I’m not going to seek out opportunities to help teachers learn about it and use it in their classes. I’m not going to continue learning about it myself. I will slog to work every day and not make a difference in the lives of the teachers and students I work with. Passion ties everything else together. It is perhaps the most important quality a technology integration specialist, or any teacher for that matter, should have.

What qualities do you think a good technology integration specialist should have?

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Cool Tools: YoruFukurou, The Tweeted Times

Lately Twitter has been my main go-to tool for learning and connecting. It’s not a new tool by any means, but I don’t think I’ve ever made as much use of it as I have lately; even when I haven’t tweeted much, I have followed lots of interesting folks and learned a great deal.

I wanted to share two tools that make using Twitter easier for me. The first is a Mac app called YoruFukurou that I first heard about from Audrey Watters on Twitter. “YoruFukurou” is Japanese for “NightOwl.” Ever since Nambu pretty much gave up the ghost, I had been looking for an app that was as clean as Nambu and also gave me an unread messages count for my lists as well as my main Twitter feed. The unread messages aspect was crucial, and other clients just don’t have it (for some reason). YoruFukurou actually has Nambu beat. As far as I know, the creators still have no plans to develop YoruFukurou for Windows, but if you have a Mac, and you’ve been looking for a good Twitter client, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The other tool, much newer to me, I found via Danah Boyd on Twitter. Boyd linked to a post on the First Five Tumblr in which she shared the first five websites she visits each day. I had toyed with the idea of creating a Twitter paper before, but I wasn’t sure about it. On a lark, I tried out The Tweeted Times, since it was on Boyd’s list, and I love it. I can set it up to tweet my top stories daily at a time of my choosing. Also, I can set it to tweet my top story whenever it changes. It figures out what my top stories are based on what the people I follow—my “friends”—tweet, and what my “friends of friends” tweet. On one hand, this might be kind of risky because it relies a bit on the wisdom of the crowd, but if you follow smart people, it seems to work. The advantage of having a Tweeted Times is that I don’t miss some stories I previously might have missed. I can also tweet links from the stories within the paper itself. I can subscribe to others’ papers, too. I suppose that Paper.li works much the same way. Can anyone who has used both give me a comparison of features? I’m trying to decide if it’s worthwhile to go ahead and sign up for both (but I don’t want to annoy Twitter followers either).

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Technology Integration for Preservice Teachers

Bethany Smith asked a great question on Twitter this morning:

I don’t remember learning much about technology integration when I was a preservice teacher, but then that was 1996-1997. We thought we were advanced for using email to communicate with each other. I’m not sure what has changed in the intervening years, if much of anything. I have found, contrary to popular belief, that young teachers do not necessarily know as much about technology as older teachers think they do, nor do younger teachers necessarily naturally integrate technology. (For that matter, I don’t think kids know as much about technology as teachers think they do, at least not using it for school or work, but that’s a separate blog post.)

The key word in instituting technology integration as part of a preservice teaching program is integration. Technology shouldn’t be an add-on, or else preservice teachers will only come to think of it as such in their classrooms. Asking preservice teachers to create lesson plans and assignments for their college courses that integrate technology and then reflect on how that technology might be used in their classrooms might be effective. An e-portfolio would be a great start. preservice teachers could share it with prospective employers. It can be hard sometimes to find a job with no experience, and a great portfolio can encourage administrators to take a chance on first-year teachers if the portfolios show the young teacher to be thoughtful, engaging, organized, and involved in their field. That portfolio should include a blog. When I was a preservice teacher, my classmates and I had to write weekly “think pieces” about an issue we were concerned about. We passed these around in class so that our classmates could be exposed to our ideas, and of course, they were graded by our professors, too. A blog would be a natural forum for such thinking aloud.

Other artifacts that might be included in such a portfolio:

  • Evidence of understanding good presentation practices. I have seen some horrible PowerPoints in my day (often created by teachers and administrators), and teachers cannot be expected to teach students how to create good presentations if they themselves don’t know how. Presentation skills are a key part of any preservice teacher’s education.
  • Evidence of having created an online PLN through Twitter or through a group such as the English Companion Ning (or equivalent for subject matter). A link to the Twitter account or biography page should be sufficient.
  • Evidence of having created a wiki, perhaps as part of a group assignment for the course or perhaps as a repository for lesson plans.
  • As more teachers are flipping the classroom, I think an important piece of the portfolio should include a lesson delivered via audio, and a lesson delivered via video (could be a screencast). The topics should be well chosen in that they should be topics easily taught and learned via this method.
  • A link to the preservice teacher’s Diigo profile. I think social shared bookmarking has been one of the most fantastic tools to come along in my fourteen years as a teacher. It’s a quick, useful way to share great resources that can be integrated with both a blog and a Twitter account as well as your browser (depending on which one you use). I happen to prefer Diigo to other bookmarking systems myself, but it’s not the only game in town. Any professors teaching preservice teachers could make that call.

One of the most important things a teacher needs to learn when integrating technology is flexibility. Sometimes things go awry when you’re trying to integrate technology, and it’s important that teachers are able to change course if the technology fails. The Internet sometimes goes down. Sometimes the projector bulb burns out. Lots of things can happen, and it’s important that teachers include, as part of any lesson plan integrating technology, their backup plan for what they will do if the technology fails.

As part of their preservice teaching program, teachers should also learn how to search. Using boolean search strings will save them time and help them find resources they’re looking for quickly. Learning how to use the everyday tools of teaching, including projectors, the Internet, videos, and the like should be an essential part of a preservice teacher’s education.

To steal an idea from Melissa Scott, time to share tools, perhaps a weekly session, would be great. The way I would probably set this up is to ask preservice teachers to sign up for time if they have found a cool tool and then present and demonstrate that tool to their fellow preservice teachers. Before long, teachers would have quite a toolkit to take with them to their first job. Any tools that could more easily be shared via a Diigo group created for the preservice teachers would not necessarily need to be shared via presentation, and there should be an expectation that the preservice teachers will make use of Diigo, contributing shared links and also saving links.

It’s also key that preservice teachers understand the importance of rehearsing technology. Teachers who fiddle with tools they aren’t sure how to use in front of a group of students are wasting time and hurting their credibility. Try out the tools and figure out how they are used before asking students to use them or before using them in front of students. Don’t rely on students to be your tech support when you get stuck, which leads me to my final recommendation: learn basic troubleshooting. Most of the troubleshooting I do for other teachers, they could do themselves if they tried searching for the problem online. That’s the first thing I usually do anyway. I’m happy to help teachers. I don’t mind troubleshooting. However, they could save a lot of time if they learned how to do it themselves. It isn’t the best use of the IT department’s time to restart your computer if it freezes up when that is something teachers themselves could have done much more quickly on their own.

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Why Technology?

A question I have been asked quite a few times lately is why I moved into technology integration after having been a successful English teacher for over a decade. It’s a complicated answer because it was not a planned move. I like teaching English. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I didn’t like teaching English anymore and was looking for a change in career. When I started down the technology integration path, I didn’t know where it would lead, and I never imagined for a moment that exploring technology integration and teaching English were mutually exclusive (hint: they’re not).

When I began teaching English in 1997, my first classroom was a small room with old desks and a chalkboard. I didn’t have a classroom desktop computer. I had a laptop, but only because it had been given to me as a graduation gift. I can’t really say I did anything to integrate technology. We didn’t have any of the tools one might typically use to integrate technology. We had precious few computers in the school. We did watch VHS tapes of movies. We had one student in my student teaching cohort at UGA who I might have described as tech savvy, and that was because she could answer our questions about how to work email. I never imagined that years later I would be like her. I couldn’t imagine I would ever have any sort of aptitude for technology.

Back when GeoCities was still around, I experimented with creating cheap, garish-looking websites. I liked the creative process of bringing the websites to life, and I gradually taught myself HTML. I decided to start blogging about education in 2005. One thing I noticed was that many of the other education bloggers at that time were educational technologists, and for good reason: they were the “techies” who felt most comfortable with the tools of blogging. They became my models. I began reading about what they were doing. Then I attended EduBloggerCon before ISTE in 2007. Here is what a newbie I was to the whole notion of technology education: I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as an ISTE Conference (back then, it was called NECC). All I knew is the education bloggers were all planning to meet up in Atlanta, where I lived, and I decided to go. Once I got to the conference center, of course, I realized it must be part of some larger conference I knew nothing about.

What? You mean a whole conference devoted to technology in education? I desperately wanted to go, but I found out about it too late to ask my employer to help me pay for it. I enjoyed the time I spent with the other edubloggers. I met Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who introduced me to someone as “a great writer.” I still relive that moment. I met Megan Golding, who recognized me by my blog when I introduced myself. I met Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay. I met Tom Woodward. When I wrote about the experience that evening on my blog, Chris Lehmann left a comment chiding me for not saying “hi.” I had forgotten this, but I was standing right next to Dave Warlick in the big photo someone took.

I’m going to look like a huge geek, but I’ll just say it anyway: I was in awe of these folks. I thought they were so cool, and I really wanted to be in their club. It really wasn’t long after EduBloggerCon 2007 that I began pursuing my instructional technology master’s. In fact, I enrolled at Virginia Tech in August of 2008, so it must have only been a matter of months between going to EduBloggerCon and deciding to get my master’s in instructional technology.

I had already started using technology in my English classroom before I went to EduBloggerCon. I considered a master’s in English, but I admit it didn’t appeal to me much. I had also thought a few times about a degree in library science. At one point in my career, I thought I wanted to be a media specialist. I don’t think that I had a notion there was such a thing as an instructional technology degree.

Around the same time as I attended the first EduBloggerCon, I also started presenting at conferences. I discovered that I liked working with teachers and helping them learn about ways they could use technology in their classes. I also enjoyed sharing ideas face-to-face in addition to on this blog.

My interest in technology integration and working with teachers grew organically into helping teachers integrate technology. Before long, I was the teacher in my building who answered the “techie” questions and helped colleagues.

If you had asked me ten years ago if I would be doing what I’m doing now, I would have called you crazy. In fact, ten years ago, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to teach anymore. After the 2000-2001 school year, I was determined to quit teaching. I wound up teaching pre-K for a year and decided perhaps I didn’t want to quit teaching after all. It is amazing how your life can change trajectory and open up possibilities you never dreamed existed. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I begin a new phase of my life as a technology integration specialist at a new school. But more about that to come later.

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You (Yes, You!) Need to be on Twitter

I recently encountered this article via Twitter (interestingly enough). The sentence that jumps out me is this one: “One assistant principal who refused to speak on the record said he believed any school personnel using social media were ‘exercising poor judgment.’”

I find that statement to be dangerously short sighted. Are there teachers who use social media in a way that exhibits poor judgment? Sure. Does it then follow that any educator using social media is exercising poor judgment because a few people make bad choices? I really hope this administrator was taken out of context (which happens when folks are interviewed). I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s important for educators to be on Twitter and to use social media in order to learn, connect to other educators, and share resources. If you haven’t found social media useful for these purposes, then you’re not using it right or you’re not following the right people.

The latest issue of NCTE’s publication Council Chronicle has a great article about how teachers are harnessing social media to develop professional learning communities and quotes the likes of Donalyn Miller, Franki Sibberson, Ryan Goble, and Jim Burke. They and the other teachers quoted in the article all attest to the power social media has had to help them connect with and learn from other teachers. One important aspect of Twitter that the article (surprisingly) left out is the weekly Twitter chat #engchat, led by Meenoo Rami. If you are an English teacher and participate in #engchat, I defy you not to learn something. English teachers are not alone. Other disciplines have scheduled chats, too. Jerry Blumengarten has a great collection of education chat links on his website.

Twitter is my favorite technology tool at the moment. I find that you only really get out of it what you put into it. The more I interact with others on Twitter and the more I share ideas, the more I learn from others. I recently reached the conclusion that educators should be on Twitter, especially administrators. Twitter is a great vehicle for administrators in particular to share the exciting things going on in their schools and be transparent about their thinking. Some great examples of administrators on Twitter whom I admire a great deal are Chris Lehmann and Eric Sheninger. One of the things I like about both Chris and Eric is that Twitter is not just about work for them either. Their personalities shine through in their tweets. I know, for instance, that Chris is an avid sports fan and has really cute sons in addition to being a passionate leader and educator.

I will freely admit that before I joined Twitter and began using it regularly, I didn’t understand the point. At first, I think it’s OK to lurk, but I don’t think you’ll get it, not really, until you start tweeting yourself. At least, I didn’t get it. And here I am, about four years after I wrote that first post about not understanding Twitter, trying to convince you to join Twitter, too.

Another good reason to be on Twitter is to model its effective use for our students. Twitter is a fairly public space. Students look to their teachers to be role models and mentors in the classroom, but we can also do that through social media like Twitter. I recently had a discussion about this issue with a student. On the one hand, he argued that he didn’t feel it was fair to “get in trouble” for things written in online forums like Twitter, but I explained that if he didn’t feel what he said on sites like Twitter couldn’t also be broadcast over the school intercom or plastered on a billboard, then he shouldn’t say it. I know several of my current students are on Twitter, and I admit I don’t follow them. I do follow some former students, and I think they are being very smart about using Twitter to think out loud and share their projects. Think about how effective a teaching tool it would be if your school’s principal or headmaster was a presence on Twitter and that students and parents followed the school’s administration. A smart administrator modeling effective use of Twitter could be a powerful teaching tool.

So what do you think? Should educators be on Twitter? Why? Why not?

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Reluctance and Technology Integration

One of the questions I am often asked in interviews for technology positions is how I would approach dealing with faculty members who are reluctant to embrace or integrate technology in their lessons.

First, I think it’s an excellent question, and my answer to it says a lot about how well I would be able to work with faculty. It is a question to which any good technology integration specialist should have a good answer at the ready. Before I tell you what I think, however, it bears saying that I think a healthy skepticism of technology is not a bad thing. I have seen tools adopted simply because they will add technology to a lesson. If the only reason you’re using technology is to say you’re using technology, then you’re not truly integrating technology. Your faculty and students will see through it. I have been teaching fourteen years, which is long enough to see a few trends come and go. Technology has to be more than just flash. It needs to add something to the lesson (or whatever you are doing with it), and if it doesn’t, perhaps you don’t need to use it.

I personally feel technology has two propositions to answer before it should be adopted for integration in a lesson/class/school/activity:

  1. Will it make it easier to do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Will using it increase engagement?

Having said that, sometimes a learning curve is wrongly interpreted as making something more difficult to do. We need to be willing to invest the time into learning how to use the tools properly sometimes, but just because they are not immediately intuitive does not mean they are making everything more difficult and need to be chucked. One case in point is the evolution of sharing handouts with students. I actually have used one of those blue ditto machines. We still had one at one of my schools, and we had to use it if we did not turn in our photocopying with enough notice for the secretary who did our photocopying (a practice that is looking more and more attractive to me for reasons folks who work with me will understand completely). The ditto machine produced handouts that were serviceable, but damp and blurry. I only used it as a last resort. The photocopier produced nice handouts, but required me to hand in assignments early to the secretary, or, in other schools where I have worked, provide my own paper and assemble the packets and hole-punch and staple them, not to mention the time spent making the copies. Now sharing documents is as easy as creating and sharing a Google Doc or uploading a document to a content management system. The students have the freedom to print or even edit the document as needed, but they can also store it on their device using their personal file management system. Obviously, there is a learning curve involved in switching to Google Docs over a more familiar word processor (not much of one, but still), and users need to learn how to share the documents with others. Learning how to upload documents to a content management system also involves a small learning curve. Initially, learners who have a little more difficulty learning how to use new tools might balk at being asked to use Google Docs or a content management system, but once they learn how to use the tools and have been convinced that the tools are making their jobs easier, they will not be reluctant to adopt the technology and may even be your biggest evangelists.

On the other hand, sometimes using technology is not necessarily going to make our jobs easier, but will increase engagement. A good example of a project that fits this criteria is a recent lesson I did with our social studies department on how to use PowerPoint. I am told that the students were reluctant to come to my lesson because they didn’t think they would learn anything. They had, after all used PowerPoint before. I, like you, have seen many ineffective PowerPoints over the years, and I have actively sought presentation mentors who have taught me about creating more effective PowerPoints. I shared these lessons with the students. In essence, I taught the students:

  • You are essential to the presentation. If you make yourself inessential because you put all of your presentation text on your slides, you have no reason to be standing in front of the room.
  • Your slides are visual aids for your presentation and should therefore be light on text and heavy on images.
  • Go beyond the default fonts and prepackaged themes.
  • Give credit for using images and try to find images licensed under Creative Commons.
  • Practice your presentation in front of your mirror, your dog, your parents. If your teacher lets you, put cues on index cards, but you shouldn’t read from the cards any more than you should read from PowerPoint slides.

The lessons went very well. The students asked great questions. I was impressed by what I saw them creating in class. They shared at the beginning of the lesson when I asked how they feel when they see a PowerPoint on the screen that they associated PowerPoints with boredom.

Creating good PowerPoints definitely does not make your job easier. In fact, it is easier to create a bad PowerPoint with all your speech on the prepacked theme slides and few images (or perhaps the odd clip art image). But these PowerPoints are not engaging for your audience. In order to make your presentation more engaging, you will need to do some work. Most people who have seen a great presentation will say that it was worth the extra work to increase audience engagement.

I was thrilled when I received this feedback from one of the social studies teachers about the students’ presentations:

Just wanted to give thanks to Dana Huff for helping with a very successful technology integration project for 9th grade CP2.  Dana helped to teach my students how to utilize MS Power Point to create a dynamic and interesting visual accompaniment to a presentation.  My students took Dana’s lesson to heart and have come up with some compelling visual aids.

Dana spent two class periods with my students teaching them how to use the Power Point software itself and also reviewing best practices for using Power Point in the context of a 10-15 minute presentation.

Thank you to Dana for all of your help!  The students greatly benefited from the time they spent with you!

Another project that required more work but definitely increased engagement was a QR Code project I helped our art teacher with. Creating and editing student videos was certainly more work for the art teacher, and uploading the videos and creating QR Codes that linked with them was also time-consuming. Hanging up the art and calling it a day would have been easier, but putting the QR Codes next to the art work so that the art displays could be more interactive made the art show more engaging for the participants.

I think the best way to approach a teacher who is reluctant to integrate technology is to share a specific idea and be willing to do some convincing that the idea will either make their jobs easier or make what they do more engaging (for them, their students, whoever). After that, you must be willing to support that teacher’s learning with professional development. The worst thing you can do is give a teacher a tool and tell them to figure out how to use it. It won’t be used because it is much easier to just keep doing things the same way. Which is essentially what Tom Whitby said on Twitter the other day that prompted me to retweet:

So in the interest of learning more about what others thought, I tweeted the question “What do you do at your school to encourage teachers who are reluctant to embrace & integrate technology?” and added the hashtag #edtech in the hopes of attracting answers from folks who don’t follow me, but keep track of that hashtag. Here are some of the responses I received:Gary Anderson

Allison BerryhillAbbey WilsonAbbey WilsonDeej LucasShervette MillerSome definite themes emerge in the responses:

  • Offer extensive professional development.
  • Demonstrate using the technology is really going to make their teaching better.
  • Model technology integration (or provide models).
  • Provide resources and choices.

I would argue that there are simply cases when mandating is required, such as when a school-wide grade reporting system or content management system is rolled out. Inconsistency can cause a lot of headaches for a school, but the important thing is to allow faculty to be part of the decision about which tools to use so that they are more likely to buy into their use.

The worst thing a school can do is mandate use of some new form of technology without any professional development.

Leadership in technology integration comes from the top down, as I have said before, and if administrators are not prepared to support their teachers’ use of technology, their teachers will not use the technology. It’s not because teachers are not willing to change or to do the right thing for their students. It’s because teachers, like everyone else, want to see the relevance behind what they are learning, and they want to know why and how they will use it. In integrating technology, like everything else, you need to begin with the end in mind and determine where you want teachers and students to be, what you want them to learn, and what you want them to be able to do. Then you need to determine how you will get them to that place.

Some additional resources I found as I was thinking about and writing this post (via Twitter):

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Technology Goals

In the spirit of setting goals and writing them down somewhere so I will attend to them, I’m sharing some of the career/technology goals I have. My timeline for completion is a little up in the air as I search for a new position.

  1. Become a Google Certified Teacher. Some of my friends have this certification, and as I have become the go-to person for Google Apps at my school, I would like to learn even more about them (even though I am moving on, I think a lot of schools I have spoken with are doing amazing things with Google Apps). I also want to become a Google Apps for Education Certified Trainer. Without knowing where I will be next year, I have elected not to start the application process until things are more settled.
  2. Become an Apple Distinguished Educator. Most of the schools I have spoken to are 1-to-1 Mac schools. I wouldn’t have been able to justify pursuing this program on my current school’s dime, as we are officially a PC school with no 1-to-1 program at the moment, but I can see that in a 1-to-1 Mac environment, this program would prove useful, especially as I would have more opportunities to use what I learn.
  3. Obtain OS X certifications, Certified Mac Technician Certification, and  iWork Certification. Depending on the needs of my future school, I’m willing to pursue Final Cut Pro Certification, but I don’t currently have or know how to use that software. I think most schools use iMovie for their purposes.
  4. Pursue additional SMARTBoard training. Many of the schools I’ve looked at have SMARTBoards, and I haven’t had as much training as I’d like, but there are several self-paced online courses I can take in addition to the ones I’ve already taken.
  5. Participate more often in Twitter chats like #engchat and #edchat. I have always got a lot out of these chat sessions, and my experiences in leading #engchat in the past have been positive, too (and are something I would like to do again). For the record, if you were not able to participate, I moderated chat sessions on integrating technology in English and on authentic assessment.
  6. Become more involved in my field through conference attendance. I’ve been able to attend English conferences, but I have wanted to go to ISTE for about five years and have not been able to do so. I sometimes feel out of the loop, even though I connect with several innovative tech leaders and teachers on Twitter and elsewhere.

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