Technology Immerison

New tools in the hands of well-trained staff transform teaching and learning by Dennis L. Peterson

Imagine walking into a classroom where the teacher uses his finger on a giant touch screen to maneuver website data or diagram a sentence. Imagine every student in the class—even the one who hasn’t spoken all semester—holding a response device to give the teacher instant feedback on which concepts are clear and which are confusing. Imagine a science student seeing a moving organism through her microscope and everyone in the class being able to view it at the same time. Finally, imagine that every student is fully engaged in whatever lesson the teacher is presenting.

All of that used to exist only in our imaginations, but it is becoming reality in the Minnetonka, Minn., School District.

When I arrived in 2001, Minnetonka, like many other school districts, had a limited vision for the role of technology in teaching and learning. A failed technology referendum three months into my tenure suggested our community viewed additional technology as unnecessary. Our post-referendum research confirmed that: 86 percent of the “no” voters saw no compelling need for the funding and 50 percent felt technology was not a priority. Rumors of computers sitting in classrooms unused, staff untrained in the use of technology and a systemwide inability to connect technology to student achievement permeated the school district.

Of course, the rumors had some basis in fact. In our elementary schools, students went to “technology class” to learn how to use the computers that many had known how to use since they were 3 years old. High school students were learning keyboarding and word processing. Many teachers could see little value to their instruction in additional technology. In short, the district and the community lacked a vision for technology’s ability to have an impact on student learning. Things have changed a great deal since then.

Planting Seeds
Among my first tasks as superintendent was to plant the seeds for our staff and community to comprehend the power of technology as an accelerator of learning. The school board and I articulated a vision for enhancing classroom instruction with appropriate technology and made the case for additional technology funding with our community. The following year, a districtwide grassroots effort passed a technology levy referendum that would yield more than $30 million.

A key referendum campaign strategy was our technology immersion classroom. An internal competitive grant process allocated funds for specific classroom technology use, and teachers who received new technologies in their classrooms agreed to undertake intensive staff development and evaluation of the immersion projects. We showed voters exactly how their tax dollars would be spent in the showcase classrooms demonstrating the instructional possibilities of more technology.

The results of those projects and the impact of our vision for technology have propelled the district to a new level of technology integration. Today our immersion model, which we now call the “Interactive Classroom of the Future,” sets our standard for technology in our classrooms. Nearly 100 immersion teachers and 10 media specialists are helping our students and teachers make the most of leading-edge educational technology. Teachers believe that technology has greatly improved student achievement, aided differentiation of instruction and enhanced their own instructional techniques.

So what exactly is technology immersion in Minnetonka? We started by going to where the students are—logically, the classroom. Our district’s vision is to improve student learning and expand how we deliver curriculum through improved teacher tools that are readily available for the teachable moment. Many of these tools are interactive.

Each immersion classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and a projection unit; a computer display; a sound system that supports voice distribution; a VCR/DVD player; and remote management tools. Remote tools allow our technical support staff to view or control a user’s computer desktop in order to troubleshoot without sending a technician to the site.

The interactive whiteboard, or SMART Board, is a key component. A language arts classroom is a good place to witness the interactive whiteboard’s potential and power. Teachers and students can literally pick up words and move them to new locations within the sentence as they learn about sentence structure. They can physically pair words with definitions or categories. Creative writing students are able to mix and match paragraphs as they work out new drafts. Teachers manipulate story maps and use graphic organizers to group and regroup words and ideas. Teachers are discovering the possibilities are endless.

To enhance home-school communication, teachers write class notes directly on the SMART Board, save the notes to a computer and then post them to the Web. The SMART Board is like a giant touch screen computer that students and teachers touch to operate, using a finger or a pen as a mouse. Users can access any application they could access on a desktop computer, including word processing, spreadsheets and charts, the Internet, CD-ROMs and DVDs. They also can write over anything that is seen on the computer screen and then save their work for future study and review.

All of our students in grades 3, 4 and 5, all middle school language arts and math students and all secondary science students have daily interaction with these whiteboards. In addition, all elementary art and media specialists use the SMART Boards, coupled with flex cams and voice distribution surround-sound systems.

Enagagement Tools
Even if they aren’t yet equipped with all of the newest tools, most secondary classrooms have a projector hooked up to their computers to allow teachers to display the Internet and streamed video. Students no longer have to crowd around a computer while the teacher discusses a concept from the Internet, and the teacher can make better use of time previously spent printing out and copying Web pages or teaching units. Allowing the entire class to watch streamed video from their desks opens up a video library that encompasses the entire World Wide Web.

Our middle school students also regularly use wireless solutions, such as portable carts carrying 16 wireless laptops. These units give students access to the district’s network anytime from anywhere in or around their school. Two of our secondary schools are fully wireless, which expands mobility for students and staff. All of our elementary schools will be completely wireless by the 2006-07 school year.

Our science students now can conduct virtual experiments in order to open a new range of possibilities in the classroom. Scientific probes allow physics students to collect lab data in less than one classroom period, which is a task that used to take three days. They are able to use that extra time to analyze data or manipulate variables for further experimentation and learning. In high school biology, new heart-rate monitors connect directly to student computers. This allows students to learn more about their own bodies.

In a 6th grade math class, the teacher uses Quizdom, an interactive presentation system with hand-held student response units. These units allow the teacher to ensure that every student participates in class. Students can no longer be invisible in a group. Everyone participates; however, only the teacher sees the students’ responses, which provide instant feedback on all students’ comprehension of every question. Teachers can provide immediate help to students who are struggling.

In short, thanks to this system, every student is engaged in answering all questions during the presentation of a new concept and teachers can identify real understanding. The system has been so successful that it will be expanded to middle-level science in the coming year.

Another engagement tool is a flexible digital camera, which allows students to see a large projected image of their teacher’s desktop work area. This is especially useful in art and math classrooms. For instance, an art teacher can give students a close-up look at exactly what her hands are creating without the chaos of an entire class trying to squeeze around a demonstration table. The flex cam, which also takes digital still and moving pictures, can instantly capture a student’s artistic or handwritten work without asking students to copy their questions onto the chalkboard for the class to discuss. Several middle and elementary school classrooms are utilizing these cameras.

This year’s implementation of Blackboard, a Web content-management system, improves parent and teacher access and interaction. Our strategic goal is for all teachers to maintain weekly up-to-date information for parents on the Web. They can individualize instruction, provide immediate feedback for online quizzes, provide integrated calendars for all courses, give students remote access to school work and facilitate student discussion boards. We have truly reached the end of the era when teachers sent information for parents home with the student and hoped it would be delivered.

Academic Impact
Both qualitative and quantitative data have shown a significant impact of our technology usage on student learning. Our technology immersion teachers cite countless instances in which their students gained a deeper and quicker grasp of concepts thanks to the new tools. Teachers report being able to reach all learners with more efficient instruction and seeing more engaged and motivated students as they interact with technology.

Surveying biology students, 88 percent found the SMART Board to be helpful or very helpful for learning compared to a traditional classroom, and 85 percent favored Web access to notes, answer keys and class materials. “I can’t imagine learning microbiology without the animated visuals on the SMART Board,” stated one student. “It makes things much easier to understand. I can see what is going on.” Another said, “Access to online supplements and practice tests was integral.”

Teachers believe being part of the immersion program has moved their lessons and assignments from feeling “artificial” to becoming more relevant to the real world. Their students are using more higher-order thinking skills than they did previously. One teacher said using the interactive whiteboard has had a bigger impact on student learning than anything else she has experienced in her 15 years in the classroom.

One of our high school physics teachers administered pre- and post-tests from the Force Motion Concept Evaluation, a national physics test. Classes she tested prior to using the immersion classroom had knowledge gains of approximately 10 percent, which is typical for a traditional classroom. Students she tested in the technology immersion classroom showed an average knowledge gain of 48 percent. The teacher credits the interactive instruction, which engages students and encourages participation, for these strong gains. Video and computer animations allow students to visualize physics concepts, analyze digital video, then adjust the variables and analyze the impact of the adjustments. The students gain a deeper understanding of the concept in a shorter time period.

In one 5th-grade class, a teacher regularly uses discussion boards to engage students. Preparing for a history test, a student posted a question about Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. On-line, the teacher noticed many questions about the content the evening before a test. He adjusted his lessons to re-examine the content the following day. Later that evening (after the teacher logged off), another student posted a link to a website that effectively explained Paine’s Common Sense to the other students. To the teacher’s surprise the next morning, the class demonstrated a strong understanding of the concept and was ready to proceed.

We encourage our staff to try out technology tools they have observed at conferences or on site visits. A large part of our technology budget goes to equipment that has proven successful in enhancing learning and has become the district standard. We reserve about 10 percent of our technology funds for creative endeavors that allow teachers to discover a new tool that could become part of our students’ daily learning.

In addition to producing results in the classroom, the new technology allows teachers to be much more efficient in their communication with parents. Many teachers report a significant decrease in the amount of time they spend on the phone with parents needing updates on their child’s progress. Instead, parents can now directly access their child’s assignments, test scores, daily grades, attendance and other data, which keep the teacher from being inundated by parent phone calls.

Technology tools also have increased teacher collaboration. Just a few years ago, a teacher would present a lesson on an overhead transparency, wipe the overhead clean and move on. No colleagues would have had access to that lesson plan. With the new technology, teachers can save their lessons to a common folder. Colleagues can then modify lessons to fit their students’ needs and preserve those lesson plans to share.

One of our new (and welcome) challenges is managing server space to make room for all of this collaboration. The silos between classrooms are disappearing and innovative lessons are no longer lost or unintentionally kept secret. We are moving toward a system that allows teachers to make the most of their colleagues’ creative ideas.

Integrated Training
One reason we have been able to make such great strides in technology immersion is the great support of our community. In addition to passing the $30 million referendum, we have community volunteers who readily offer advice in their field of expertise. The Technology Advisory Council is composed of district residents and parents employed in the technology industry. Its role is to counsel the school district on leading-edge issues. Because of the diversity of their talents, the group helps the district make informed decisions about everything from purchases to training options.

With the passage of our technology referendum and the wonderful opportunities available to our students and staff, we needed to guard against the potential pitfalls of having new hardware introduced without a focused plan for staff training and curriculum integration. We ensure all new technology proposals include a staff development plan. A curriculum and technology integration specialist works closely with the Office of Teaching and Learning, staff development and technology departments to coordinate technology training.

During the past year, more than 350 teachers have spent in excess of 3,600 hours in training and learning how to use new technology. Immersion classroom teachers are committed to at least 32 hours of staff development throughout their first year in the program. This includes orientation to the new equipment, training in best practices in technology integration, securing information on literacy, as well as changes in pedagogy, grouping practices and differentiation.

We want our teachers to understand how to integrate the new technology into their daily teaching, not just consider it a fancy add-on to a lesson. We stress this is a gradual learning process and not something they can grasp and integrate overnight. In addition to district-run training, 27 teachers have participated in the National School Boards Association’s technology site visits to broaden their knowledge of technology integration.

Our school district’s vision states: “Technology brings immediacy to knowledge acquisition and puts a higher value on critical thinking and evaluation.” Helping students develop those critical thinking skills is one of the most important roles a school can play. Minnetonka students leave our schools ready for the real world, and our technology immersion plays a huge role in getting them there. Our vision also says, “Technological fluency, once considered optional, will be required of every student, teacher and staff member in the Minnetonka School District.” The result is engaged, excited students, teachers who make the most of each other’s creativity and a community willing to share its expertise.

Dennis Peterson is superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools, 5621 County Road 101, Minnetonka, MN 55345. E-mail: dennis.peterson@minnetonka.k12.mn.us