HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Best Practices for Technology Development

by Avi Greene Issue: iSchool

Technology is important because it has the potential to substantially impact and positively transform education. Technology can make the work of teachers, parents and administrators faster, easier, and more effective. In addition, employers and society-at-large expect students to have the skills and knowledge that are directly or peripherally related to the use of technology. While the implementation and application of technology to the classroom is time-consuming and resource-intensive there are best practices that schools can employ to maximize their assets.

Administrators at the most technologically advanced schools state that they are only prepared to implement technological change after 80% to 90% of the staff has already accepted the change.

I recently conducted a study focused on discovering which educational technology Modern Orthodox yeshiva high schools are providing to students to enhance the curriculum, as well as to understand what “best practices” make schools successful at implementing student-based educational technologies. Through evaluating surveys completed by the participating schools, observing technology use at three of the institutions, and analyzing the websites of the same three schools, seven areas emerged as noteworthy. Each of the seven areas relate to findings in the research regarding student achievement. The seven areas are: technology development, technology plan, instructional staff, decision-making process, administrative support, faculty training, and hardware and software systems.

The Spectrum of Technological Development

The first thing a school requires is an awareness of its place on the spectrum of technological development. Schools can be categorized according to a three-tier scale: early/developing tech, developing/advanced tech, and advanced/target tech. Schools in the early/developing tech category are often collecting hardware without putting significant resources into training or integration. Developing/advanced tech schools are characterized by the fact that they train tech savvy teachers and become experts in specific areas of technological use or pedagogy. Advanced/target tech schools are generally characterized by the ability to integrate technology into all subject areas and all aspects of the curriculum smoothly across the spectrum. Schools will develop fastest if they are self-aware of their abilities and limitations.

Technology Plan

Schools that have a technology plan and follow it are able to develop faster technologically. Technology plans advance technological development for three primary reasons. First, schools purchase hardware and software more intelligently, saving money and time. Second, teachers are more invested in the process because they believe that there is a clear plan and goal. Finally, schools with a technology plan are more prepared when equipment needs to be upgraded and replaced. Subsequently, these schools receive more grants and are able to invest in more resources. Pursuing the plan, updating it regularly, and making other stakeholders aware and invested in the plan increase its effectiveness.

Administrative Support

Most technologically advanced schools describe their administrators as being the driving force behind the push toward technology. These leaders are always interested in staying on the cutting edge of technology. Administrators show support through implementing policies that force the staff to use specific technologies. These mandates often include the use of e-mail for the distribution of announcements and schedules, the use of the student management system for grading, and the use of the school website or domain name for all formal communications with parents, students and the community. Supportive administrators give technology teachers time to implement new products and recognize that new software may take two or three years to be used optimally. These administrators also continue to fund programs that have the potential for success and to find funds for new technology. In one school a five percent pay cut was issued to all staff, but the school continued to invest in six new interactive white boards because the administrator felt that it was an important part of the school’s infrastructure.

While technology staff members generally lauded administrators for “forcing” certain issues, the administrators believed that they are successful because they are able to create a culture where technology use is “cool.” Administrators at the most technologically advanced schools admit that they implemented required technology changes but state that they are only prepared to do this after 80% to 90% of the staff has already accepted the change.

Decision-Making Process

The decision-making process regarding the purchase of hardware and software also seems to correlate with the developmental process. Schools in the early tech stage do not have an organized method of purchasing technology. This often leads to items being purchased as they are needed or acquired because they are free or impressive. This stage often correlates with the fact that there is no technology plan in place.

As schools develop their technology plan, the technology and education staff discuss the direction that the school should go. Following the development of the technology plan there is greater opportunity for the faculty to decide and implement what hardware and software should be purchased. This often transitions to a position where the faculty gives input regarding the technology that should be purchased but a small group makes the final decision. As trust builds and the technology staff realizes what items are successful and how the technology is being implemented, the technology staff is allowed to make nearly all technology decisions.

The most technologically developed schools have full-time technology staff members with clearly delineated positions. Two schools that were visited delineated positions so that one staff member focuses on hardware and another on software. The other school had one staff member dedicated to technology integration and the other staff member to systems.

Hardware and Software Systems

Schools, generally, acquire and implement technology that is familiar to teachers first. This includes: televisions, VCRs, DVD players, digital cameras, and computers. This may be because these items take the least amount of staff training and teachers are able to implement the technology quickly and easily. The majority of schools are not purchasing less familiar hardware such as mp3 players, text readers, and student response systems. These products are unfamiliar to teachers and schools and only the most technologically advanced teachers are prepared to change their lessons to implement these products.

The one notable exception to this is the acquisition of interactive white boards. The interactive white boards are being acquired in large numbers by day schools, and teachers are being trained in their use. This is driven partially by the potential they have for transforming instruction and partially by parents and donors judging the school’s attitude toward education and technology based upon the number of interactive white boards in the classroom. Schools may also be hesitant to purchase hardware for student use that can be broken or abused easily. Student hardware is also more expensive since a product must be purchased for each student as compared to the purchase of one item per teacher or per classroom.

Students are most often given access to software that supports the “business” of the school. Thus, word processing, e-mail, web browsing, spreadsheets and even multimedia are used regularly. However, schools are not investing in software or systems that focus on critical thinking skills such as simulations, data interpretation, accessing databases, and programming. Even the most advanced schools have not reached this stage. This may be because critical thinking has always been a difficult skill for schools to teach and measure. Additionally, it may be because schools focus so much on content matter that the concept of critical thinking has not been a priority. It may also be because many of these programs and devices require the greatest expertise and training. It is therefore not surprising that schools have been hesitant to venture into using technology in this arena.

Instructional Staff

Another important factor that emerges from the research is continuity among staff. Schools that change staff often need to train the new staff members in the available resources and have more difficulty reaching a critical mass of teachers who can master specific hardware or software. Another staff issue is that some older, more experienced, teachers are hesitant to use technology in part or at all. While some older teachers at the schools that were visited are uncomfortable or unwilling to use technology, none of the younger teachers who were visited are unwilling to use technology in the classroom.

In general, Judaic staff members seem to be more hesitant to use technology for instruction than the General Studies staff. This may be due to the fact that there are fewer existing resources for Judaic Studies classes. Almost all of the Judaic software produced is reference content, e.g., texts with translation (Soncino Talmud or Stone Chumash with Rashi), texts without translation (Bar Ilan database and Machon Mamre website), or entertainment material with Jewish content that has limited educational value above the preschool level (Who Stole Hanukkah and Torah Tots). Judaic studies teachers may also be more hesitant to implement technology in their classroom because they have often been taught to be subject matter specialists and lack the pedagogical training to implement new things in an effective manner.

Teachers are most effective in transitioning to the use and integration of technology when they are comfortable and experienced with their content material. Teachers are generally more comfortable reworking or recreating materials for courses they have taught several times than for new classes. In one example, a teacher was excited to stop purchasing the vocabulary book that she had used for many years because “I was also supplementing it anyway. Now I can put the whole thing on the web and save the school money.” The teacher felt that this was a way to “publish” her material, something that she had always wanted to do but never had an opportunity to do through a publishing house.

Faculty Training

Schools often begin to realize at the beginning of their “Developing Tech” stage that training smaller, more technologically savvy groups yields better results than trying to teach the entire faculty at once. “Advanced Tech” schools often teach a group of three to five early adopters how to use a new technology. These early adopters often find success and share this success with their colleagues, who in turn get the entire staff excited about the new technology. Many technology directors describe their method of “starting with success” as critical to getting the staff to accept new products.

When meeting with early adopters, the technologist in charge of integration found that the most successful method of training teachers is to give practical examples of how the technology can be used within a particular curriculum. Early adopters are able to see how the technologist envisions the use of the new technology and can ask questions. The early adopters have access to the original lesson for reference and have the opportunity to experiment and create their own lessons. Teacher training for early adopters will often take one to three days, depending on the complexity of the technology introduced. This is the same model of guided instruction followed by discovery learning that is found to be most effective for teaching students.

Conclusion

The good news is that as schools develop technologically there is a common pattern found in their technological progression. Schools that follow a technology plan, have administrators who prioritize the use of technology, allow technologists to make purchasing decisions, have continuity in their staff and administration, invest in hardware and software that develops students’ critical thinking skills, begin technology training with small groups that are technologically savvy, and train teachers and students using guided instruction followed by discovery learning will develop technologically faster than those that do not.

Rabbi Avi Greene is a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Gradate School and the pioneering Principal of Atid High School of Los Angeles, the only Modern Orthodox hybrid school in the country. He can be reached at avigreene@atidschool.org.

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iSchool

Schools need strategic leadership to select from the onslaught of new technological offerings and to keep the rudder always pointed toward effective education. This issue provides both perspectives that can inform leadership strategy and information about some of the directions and initiatives employing current technology to strengthen education.

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