Clickers: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Posted by Michael Simkins on July 31, 2008

Thumb doodle drawn by Mark Turner.

Next to interactive white boards, clickers seem to be today’s technology of choice for many classrooms. Buy a batch of these little gadgets, hand them out to your students, and the world will be a better place. Or at least that’s what those who hawk this expensive technology want us to think. A recent experience did nothing to convince me.

I was in a seminar with 200 or so other educators from around the world. Every table was supplied with a set of clickers. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the moderators posed a series of questions and asked us to reply by means of our clickers. After each question, we could see the collective results on the Big Screen. Ooooo. Ahhhhh. Until the trouble began.

First, one of the participants said, “How do you want me to answer that question? Two of the choices are true for me, but this only allows me to choose one or the other.” The question was, “What time zone do you live in?” The response options were: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, and Not in U.S. “I live in Canada,” said the frustrated fellow, “not the U.S., but I’m in Central time zone.”

Clearly, having a set of clickers instead of a pile of Scantron forms does nothing to change the fact that constructing sound closed-end questions is a challenging task. But the next clicker faux pas was even more embarrassing. Mysteriously, when we would view the collective results for questions that had “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D” as the response options, the results display kept showing us that a significant number of people had chosen “E.” At that point, the moderator wisely decided it was time to put the clickers away and hear what the first panelist had to say.

Back in Paleolithic times, when I learned to teach, we didn’t have clickers, but we did have a variety of student response systems. Ice cream sticks, each marked with a different letter, were one example. Individual student slates were another, and they worked really well for open-ended questions. And of course, there was the simplest solution of all: thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no, and—if you wanted to get sophisticated—thumbs sideways for “not sure.” True, these methods would not have been useful in a room packed with 200 students, but then neither were the clickers on this occasion.

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Glimpsing Ed Tech in Southeast Arkansas

Posted by Michael Simkins on April 30, 2008

Lake Chicot AR taken by Stuart Seeker; used with permission.Have you ever been to Southeast Arkansas? Chances are, not. I’ve been coming to Arkansas for six years and yesterday was the first time I set foot in the place. I’m sorry I waited so long; it was a treat!

First was getting there. I left Little Rock yesterday morning and, within minutes, urban life was behind me and I was cruising along Interstate 530 cushioned on each side by verdant woodland alive with the bright new leaves of spring. Once I left the Interstate, my route transitioned from woodland to a rural landscape dotted with tilled fields, horses, goats, churches and screened porches. Two hours after leaving Arkansas’s capital city, I arrived in Monticello, a city of 9,000+ inhabitants and the self-proclaimed “economic, educational and cultural center of Southeast Arkansas.”

Tommy Tyler, assistant superintendent of Monticello School District (and a TICAL cadre member!) welcomed me and took me on a tour of Monticello High School. The highlight there was my visit to Keturah West’s EAST Lab where senior Will Hunter was making some final edits to video podcasts produced by other students.

Later in the day, I visited the Southeast Arkansas Education Service Cooperative. Karen Eoff, assistant director (and a TICAL cadre member and Tommy’s twin sister!), gave me a tour of their facility. I learned about everything from the Hippy program to how the cooperative helps districts do Medicaid direct-services billing in support of their Special Education programs. From an educational technology perspective, the most fascinating stop on the tour was the Early College High School Program. Serving 1500 students across Arkansas, it’s a wonderful example of how technology can increase educational opportunities for all students, regardless of where they may live.

This morning, I got to spend quality time at Monticello Middle School where I saw two excellent teachers using technology as a tool of teaching. In my job I get to see technology used in a lot of classrooms, and too often, it seems to drive instruction, instead of the other way around. The class is not doing math, it’s doing “podcasts.” Kids are not writing essays in English class, they’re “doing PowerPoints.”

In both the classes I observed at Monticello Middle School, the technology was subservient to the instructional goals. The students in Lisa Brown’s science class had been studying Newton’s Laws of Motion. For review, Lisa showed clips from a MythBusters episode and called on students to identify laws exemplified in the clips. Math teacher Monica Sims had traded her chalk and blackboard for an Interwrite pad and board and was using both effortlessly to develop the concept of symmetry. In addition, she had the students using “old” technology such as MIRAs™, mirrors and rulers.

Southeast Arkansas may not be on Fodor’s Hot List, but if you want to visit a beautiful, welcoming place and see some state-of-the-art technology integration at the same time, you can’t go wrong here.

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Getting Teachers to Use the Stuff

Posted by Michael Simkins on April 12, 2008

At our Leadership 3.0 Symposium yesterday, a great panel of educators shared their thoughts and experiences on the topic, “Getting Teachers to Use the Stuff: Supporting Technology Integration in the Classroom.” Panel members were:

  • Lisa Gonzales, Principal, Palo Alto Unified School District
  • Jim Scoolis, Principal, San Luis Coastal Unified School District
  • John White, Principal, Los Angeles Unified School District
  • Becci Gillespie, Superintendent-Principal, Pleasant Grove Joint Union School District

Much to our surprise, this was a jam-packed session. Fifty or more people crammed themselves into a meeting room set for 30. Some sat on the floor, some brought chairs from other rooms, and some just stood peering in from the door.

Discussion focused on four questions. Yours truly moderated the panel and took some notes which are shared below.

1. An assumption here is that our teachers have forms of technology available to them that they might integrate into their everyday practice. What are some examples of technologies that your teachers do have available to them but which they are just not using, or not using to advantage?

  • Internet applications such as Google Docs, video streaming resources, Moodle, online classroom tools, Turnitin, Hotmath. Do use desktop applications e.g. Microsoft Office suite, Accelerated Reader, E-mail, Rosetta Stone. Vantage MyAccess.
  • John bought 3 year license for MyAccess for $45,000, plus three Mac laptop carts that could be shared. Less than 20% of teachers are using these tools. There has been ample training, but still hesitancy. (Though some teachers who do use it are sold on it.).
  • Is it realistic to expect teachers to buy into “anytime tools” and work 24/7?

2. Most teachers are devoted to doing everything they can to help their students learn. Why do many well-intentioned teachers shy away from using technology?

  • Dead time: the technology fails. No one right there to save you. When that happens a couple times, you decide not to touch the stuff in the future.
  • Lack of time and flexibility in use of time; you don’t have the time to search for and learn to use resources.
  • Some teachers don’t see the technology as the answer to their problem.
  • If it is not monitored, “it’s optional.” One reason not used is if the expectation from the top is just not there, especially if the leader is not looking for the use, praising its effective use, making it a clear priority.
  • With a group of teachers who are comfortable with technology, as principal, let me come in and watch you use some of the stuff; you pick the subject; AND I will not penalize you in anyway if the technology fails on you; reward the risk-taking.
  • Lack of familiarity
  • Feeling pressured by mandated tests, pacing plans
  • When students collaborate on projects, much time is wasted.
  • Difficulty in envisioning an effective way of dealing with all the CA state standards ands till have students work in some are in depth.
  • Even when it works, if it is hassle to use, it won’t get used.
  • Proximity–i.e. often the technology is “away.” It’s in a lab down the hall. It needs to be right here where and when you need to use it.
  • Home access issues–teachers worry that not all their students have the equipment at home to follow through with technology related assignments.
  • Passwords! The intricacies of logging into various sites, tools, etc. Sharing passwords to make it easier and then encountering the problems of people/kids knowing passwords they should not, virtual vandalism, etc.
  • The various security procedures that just make it so cumbersome to do things.
  • Fear of loss or damage (teacher who did not use laptop for a year waiting for a lockdown device).
  • Communication–or lack thereof–can be a problem here as everywhere. “My printer won’t work” (and whom did you tell so we could fix it?).
  • Need to see how the technology does something better for them, helps them reach student outcomes more effectively than doing without the technology.
  • Using technology in large group settings can waste the teacher as a skilled resource; why pay for the highly trained teacher to watch kids work at computers?

3. What is one example of an approach or method you’ve used that has increased the number of your teachers who are integrating technology effectively?

  • Bringing the wireless lab to the faculty meeting and using it there.
  • Bring in one or two parents who are comfortable with the technology and can be a kind of support, get equipment ready, etc.
  • Have teachers collaborate on a project, help one another.
  • Teach teachers how to plug the stuff in. In other words, help them know some of the basic of technology so small things don’t overwhelm them.
  • Summer Institutes for teachers, and attendance required in order to use the new equipment.
  • Revise teacher use policies so that there is more realistic expectations regarding loss or damage to equipment checked out to individual staff.
  • Adopt an effective model of change and change management (e.g. CBAM).
  • Context is critical. What works here may not work there.
  • “Put teachers first.” If they are not comfortable with the technology, have access to it, how will they use it with the students?
  • Practice “enticement.” Take the technology out of the lab and put it in the teachers’ hands and give them training in its use. In this example, the equipment became “theirs.” They could experiment with it at home. Started with volunteers, probably the early adopters. They generated excitement. And a coaching model grew out of this in which the early adopters had some release time to work with colleagues. Use of subs to release teachers to work together on how they would use the technology. Capacity building within the staff. Included discussions of what it feels like to go through this sort of change. And, “Do you realize you are asking your students to stretch like this every day?” In fact, you are modeling this.
  • Banking minutes every week to make professional growth time available one day a week. Technology may be a topic at that time, or may simply be a tool used in the process of working on something else.
  • Teachers over the summer have created PowerPoint presentations or other materials or technology-supports for lessons–support this and then facilitate the sharing of what gets created.
  • Simple, searchable databases of standards-based resources (e.g. CLRN)
  • Remove obstacles! Do everything you can to make it easier to use the stuff.
  • Model it! The leader must use the stuff themselves, “walk the talk” in this as all things.
  • Help them with it yourself (climb under the table and plug it in, if need be!)
  • Using technology in classroom observations.
  • Set an expectation and then monitor performance. May even want to build this into the evaluation process.
  • Go with early adopters. Go with “the willing.” Create a critical mass of people. Get these people into summer workshops and other professional development experiences. Once other teachers see those early adopters having success with their students because of the technology, they will venture forth and give it a try.
  • Introduce video and audio recording equipment and software–things that help teachers engage students.
  • Use a variety of approaches to fit different teacher and personality styles. Don’t use ‘one-size fits all” professional development.
  • Have someone there when they run into trouble, especially someone non-judgmental.
  • Gather a core group and focus a whole day on technology. Started with getting their own laptops (not one that must be shared). As day progressed, identified people who were experts at one program or another, or at least had some good knowledge, and had them present mini-lessons to the software or tool during the latter part of the day. Also, pairing teachers with complementary skills/knowledge. Slowly but surely. Also getting parents’ buy in (and financial support, in this case). Also, sometimes “surprise” — example, providing a LCD projector for each teachers with a pre-trained parent to offer some support.
  • Teachers must be comfortable, regular users if they are going to use it with their kids.
  • There is an emotional component to all of this. It has to have an element of fun.
  • Emphasize the “work smarter, no harder” mantra.
  • If you expect teachers to use the stuff well, it is going to take time outside of school.
  • Computer purchase assistance plans such as low or no-interest loans for purchase of personal computers.

4. If you could change just one of the “givens” you currently face that would make it much easier to get more teachers to integrate technology effectively, what would it be?

  • Teachers would buy their own computers and consider them an essential tool of the trade.
  • Professional ethics would pervail. Teachers would see technology as critical to being effective in pedagogy as well as classroom management, and simply invest the time to master the necessary technology tools and skills.
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