Editor's note: Although school leaders need not be technology gurus, a basic understanding of the value of educational technology
and its impact on instruction is increasingly important, especially given the fiscal investment now being made in technology. That's why we're delighted to
welcome a new columnist, Doug Johnson, who will share his insights about technology trends and tools relevant to school leaders.
Doug is director of media and technology at Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, Minnesota. His teaching experience has included work
in grades K–12. He is the author of the Blue Skunk Blog;
articles and chapters published in more than 40 books and periodicals; and six books, including The Classroom Teacher's Technology Survival
Educational technology does not increase student achievement. How's that for a statement to lead off the first technology column of the year?
Maybe I should qualify. What the judicious use of technology in schools does do is support, extend, and amplify identified best practices in
education that help students learn and grow. Education leaders—especially superintendents, curriculum directors, and principals—need to understand this
One best practice is giving students timely feedback on their work. Whether we are grading assignments and tests, writing comments on papers, or implementing real-time
formative assessments on projects, quick turnaround is crucial. What's the use of getting a suggestion for improvement on a task that's ancient history by the
time one gets it? Here are three promising roles technology can play in helping teachers provide timely feedback to students.
Electronic Submission and Review
Last winter, I watched as one of our science teachers hauled a plastic milk carton stuffed with science lab notebooks through the snow to his car. When I asked him why he
didn't just have the kids submit the work online, he replied that it hadn't occurred to him.
Students increasingly write, draw, create, design, record, film, graph, and compile school work using computers and other digital devices. Ironically, they often must then find
ways of making analog versions of their products to hand in to the teacher. Happily, submission of electronic projects is easier than ever.
Attaching a file to an e-mail message works, provided that a student has an e-mail address. A better alternative is for the teacher to create a class drop box to which students
can upload files. Traditionally these have been housed on local file servers, but a drop box feature is now a standard part of many course management systems, such as Moodle,
school webhosting sites, and even student information systems. With the addition of Drive to Google Apps for Education, students and teachers can share multiple file types, not
just Google Docs. Microsoft Office 365 and Skydrive offer file-sharing capabilities as well.
Both Google Docs and Microsoft Office applications have an "insert a comment" feature that teachers can use to add notes to student work before returning it
to the student. Digital products also lend themselves nicely to creating portfolios of work, which can follow students from grade to grade, from school to school, and into academia
and the workplace.
Sharing, Collaborating, and Peer Editing
Although the initial reason our district adopted Google Apps for Education was to provide no-cost tools to our students and staff, the ease with which these tools enable us to
share, collaborate on, and peer edit documents has proven to be the major benefit in terms of feedback.
Because all Google Docs tools (a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, survey tool, and graphics program) and files reside online, document owners can share a
single copy of a document for viewing, commenting, and editing instead of sending separate copies to everyone who should see the document. The owner simply indicates who can
access the document and what that person or group can do with it. This column, for example, is available as a Google Doc at http://goo.gl/vzMC1. You're welcome to add comments.
The ability for several individuals to all work on a single file eliminates the confusion often associated with multiple copies. Peer editing and teacher commenting can be done in
real time; users can watch on separate computer screens while changes are actually being made. Talk about instant feedback! The document owner can remove changes and
restore previous versions, which eliminates the fear of unwanted permanent changes.
Student and Parent Portals
When I was a classroom teacher, students often stopped by with a simple question: "How am I doing in your class?" They wanted to be reminded of any
missing assignments and of their grades on tests. I'd open my red grade book; flip to the correct class period; scan the list of names; and consult the row of numbers,
letter grades, and ticks while carefully hiding the scores of the other students in the class. How analog.
Today's student information systems have online portals that enable students and their parents to view student information by logging in using a web browser or special
apps for smartphones and tablets. Secured by unique passwords for each student, these systems enable individuals to view upcoming assignments, attendance and discipline
records, contact information, completion of graduation requirements, and grade point averages, as well as daily work and scores.
Rather than waiting for weeks or months for a report card or conference, students and parents can check progress in real time and address concerns immediately. Most of us
are now accustomed to viewing our bank balances online instead of waiting for the monthly statement. Classroom performance checks should be just as timely.
Keep the Purpose in Mind
School and district leaders can better help teachers use technology as a tool for feedback if they keep in mind some caveats:
- Teachers should establish and communicate reasonable response times. Just because a test can be graded and grades uploaded very quickly, doesn't mean
that these things will be done 15 minutes after the end of class.
- Anytime students are commenting on one another's work, teachers should teach students to use appropriate tone and language and remind them to always do
Those of us who are enchanted by the use of technology are prone to hold up the latest new gadget and ooh and ahh over the possibilities. That's fun, but the best use of technology in schools starts with a legitimate goal to meet, a real problem to solve, or an
exciting learning opportunity to explore. Supporting the philosophy of purpose before technology is an increasingly important role of the school
Making It Happen
What School Leaders Can Do
- Articulate a professional philosophy that stresses the use of technology to support best teaching practices.
- Clarify common schoolwide, or even districtwide, expectations of all staff for use of the student information system, including what will be available and when it will be
- Build your knowledge of the opportunities technology presents related to the submission and evaluation of student work, collaboration and peer review, and
communication with students and parents.
- Recognize the need for teachers to receive training in these technology uses, and provide regular opportunities for this training.
- Help establish realistic building norms related to timely response to student work and using technology to report on student progress.
Doug Johnson is director of media and technology at Mankato Area Public Schools, Mankato, Minnesota. He is the author of The Classroom Teacher's Technology Survival
Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and the Blue Skunk Blog.
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