Review of the Literature

Before designing my action research project, I read what others had done in order to  learn more about the fields of technology and teacher development. This information has helped guide my actions throughout the course of the project. 

Preparing students for the world in which they live is paramount.  Teachers often bear the brunt of the responsibility in preparing students to meet standards and learn curriculum. Along with content that needs to be covered, teachers cannot overlook the importance of technology in the 21st century. Many schools nationwide are implementing and updating technology in order to keep up with today’s global economy.  Due to this shift, teachers are increasingly expected integrate technology into the curriculum. Keeping up with new, ever-evolving technology tools and using them effectively is a challenge. It takes time for educators to learn how to first use the technology, then to figure out how best to integrate it into their personal, value-laden pedagogy so that students can not only learn the curriculum to meet expectations, but also to learn how to use technology and use it effectively. Strehle, Whatley, Kurz, and Hausfather (2002) describe technology and student participation as a slow dance; effective use of technology in the classroom does not happen overnight. Technology integration and adjustments to instruction take time, thought, trial and error.

Today’s Learners

The way students learn has changed over time due to changes and advances in technology. No longer are students limited to simply assimilating a single “validated” source of knowledge such as a textbook or class lecture or memorizing information. Effective learning involves seeking, analyzing, and synthesizing several sources of information. The Internet offers access to a plethora of multi-media resources at your fingertips. The ways of accessing and gathering information on the Internet is different than in previous years. The read/write web of today encourages learners to co-design learning experiences in order to personalize the experience to suit his or her needs and preferences.

Because many students have access to and use tools like smart phones, tablet computers, social media, one could make the assumption that they are well prepared for the classroom.  While some students may be familiar with current technologies, these skills do not always readily transfer to other technological applications that might be used in education (Rosen & Nelson, 2008). It is important to recognize that students today are not necessarily a homogenous group of digitally enhanced students. This idea presents a challenge to teachers in using technology with students. 

Technology in Education

“Technology continues to profoundly affect the way we work, collaborate, communicate and succeed…technology skills are also critical to success in almost every arena and those who are more facile with technology will advance while those without access or skills will not.” (Johnson, Adams, & Haywood, 2011, p.4).

In addition to being a necessary skill, technology in the education setting can allow students and teachers to do things that could not be done previously.

The limits of classroom walls start to vanish when technology is used to connect students with the world outside the physical classroom as geography is no longer a fully limiting factor in connecting with experts and others (Dede, 2004).

Technology can provide learning situations and virtual environments that students would otherwise not be able to experience. In addition, using technology has the potential to transform schools along with providing disabled students with improved opportunities for participating in mainstream curriculum. Technology use also creates new prospects for educators to build communities where they can share best practices (November, 2010).

The organization of the Internet itself may further support learning and using technology in education.  Dede explains that Web representations of information are usually non-linear, which closely mirrors a human’s long-term memory structure.  Long-term memory works by associating and linking ideas with one another. In contrast to web representations of information, traditional sources of information that are common in schools, such as textbooks and auditory and video presentations, which are often organized in a linear manner. Dede suggests that using the Internet can potentially result in a more effective learning experience because the organization of the Web is similar to the organization of the human brain.

Current Technology Integration in Education

Technology integration in schools can positively influence student learning.

However, when United States teachers have been surveyed in the areas of technology use and integration, the findings have not always been ideal.  In 2001, a report that surveyed public school teachers and their use of technology in the United States indicated that approximately only half of the public school teachers who had computers or Internet available in their schools used them for classroom teaching. The report also found that just one-third of teachers reported feeling well prepared or very well prepared to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction (Smerdon, Cronen, Lanahan, Anderson, Iannotti, & Angeles, 2001).

A decade later, The New Media Consortium’s (NMC) Horizon Report analyzed and examined educational technology in K-12 education in the United States. This report found critical challenges when it came to technology integration in education. As digital media literacy is increasingly being recognized as an important skill, the authors of the report identified this as a challenge because they found that digital literacy skills and techniques are rare in teacher education and school district professional development programs. To remedy this lack of formal training, professional development and informal learning are being promoted, but Johnson, Adams, and Haywood (2011) believe we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm among educators.

These findings suggest that there is a need to reach out to teachers to encourage, support, and promote technology use in education.  Strategies to increase digital media literacy among teachers are needed, so that they can better work with students and integrate technology into their teaching.  “Improving professional learning for educators is a crucial step in transforming schools and improving academic achievement” (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009, p. ii).

Models for Professional Learning

Professional development uses a variety of models to educate teachers.  Educational research explores the types of professional development that work best in the school context with the goal of discovering which models of professional development offer the most benefit to educators.

Professional development seems to be most effective when not approached in isolation, as can be seen in stand-alone workshop model.  Instead of isolated workshops that do not directly connect to the teacher’s work, there should be a seamless integration of teacher professional development. (Elmore & Burney, 1997; Cohen & Hill, 2001; Garet et
al, 2001; Penuel, Fishman, Yamaguchi, & Gallagher, 2007; Supovitz, Mayer & Kahle, 2000 as in Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).  Darling-Hammond and her colleagues recommend that professional learning is a product of both externally provided and job-embedded activities that increase teachers’ knowledge and change their instructional practice in ways that support student learning.  Thus, formal professional development is just a subset of the range of experiences that may result in professional learning.  Therefore, professional development does not necessarily lead to professional learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).

Whatever the learning opportunity may be, the setting should be an environment in which teachers feel comfortable.  Magestro and Stanford-Blair, who coach teachers, have found that teachers are more likely to try, reflect on, evaluate and integrate new information into their classrooms if new strategies are presented in a user-friendly, risk-free, hands-on manner.  The teacher, when in the role of a learner, should be actively involved in order to construct his/her own meaning (Magestro & Stanford-Blair, 2000).

In reviewing successful professional development programs in middle schools, Killion discovered that when teachers participate in professional learning with colleagues from their school site, they become “engaged in a powerful form of staff development that allows them to grapple with “real” issues related to the new content and instructional processes,” (Killion, 1999, quoted in Darling- Hammond et al. 2009, p.180).  This idea of teachers collaborating with each other is emerging and can be seen in the structure of learning communities.

Learning Communities are another type of professional learning model that can increase teacher knowledge.  Historically, in the educational world, we see teachers working in isolation.  Researchers, policy-makers, and teachers themselves are starting to see that working together can lead to positive results and significant gains.  Smith (1998) described learning as a social activity.  He says we learn from the groups with which we identify.  We identify with the group and this identification creates the possibility for learning (Smith, 1998).  This work suggests that bringing teachers together can result in productive learning experiences.

Learning communities are comprised of groups of people who share a learning objective.  A practice-based learning community forms around improving a specific work-related set of practices (Riel & Polin, 2004).  A practice-based learning community, or community of practice, is a structure that can promote teacher reflection as a means to improve the practice, while gathering ideas and feedback from colleagues. Reflection is an important part of the learning process, as Dewey (2008) suggests people learn by reflecting on experiences, not simply by having experiences. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder describe a community of practice as “groups of people who share a concern, set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis,” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p 4).

Fulton and Britton reported that some experts took note that even in poorly- executed learning communities, participants still felt there was significant value in breaking the teacher’s isolation by providing opportunities to collaborate and share about math and science lessons (Fulton & Britton, 2011).

As professional learning communities become a more prevalent practice in the world of education, Anderson and Herr caution against using a pre-designed program of externally and commercially produced products. Predesigned programs could stifle the connections between people and prevent organic growth of ideas and connections. A structure to build a learning community can be put into place, but one cannot force a community to grow. Predesigned programs could also prevent teachers from addressing specific students needs. Going by the book could prevent or deter teachers from addressing the real needs of their students.

These templates and prescribed procedures can undermine the authentic quality intrinsic to professional learning communities. “Authentic inquiry implies that we do not know all of the answers ahead of time…Transforming professional learning communities into tools for implementation, rather than spaces of inquiry and critical questioning, short-circuits the potential contributions of teachers to educational reform,” (Anderson & Herr, 2011, p. 287).

Many benefits of professional learning communities have been documented in the education field. Fulton and Britton analyzed two large studies that support professional learning communities for teachers. They were able to conclude that “STEM [Science, technology, engineering, and math] teaching is more effective and student achievement increases when teachers join forces to develop strong professional learning communities in their schools” (Fulton & Britton 2011, p. 4). In addition, they stated that teacher collaboration supports student learning and reported that teachers who worked in strong learning communities tended to be more satisfied with their careers.  This career satisfaction leads to the increased prospect of teachers continuing in the teaching field long enough so that they become accomplished and experienced educators (Fulton & Britton, 2011) which can further benefit student learning.

Teacher Collaboration Supporting Technology Integration

In small-scale study, Strehle, Whatley, Kurz, and Hausfather found that a system of collaboration among teachers, along with self-reflection on the process of implementing technology, assisted in the process of implementing new technologies into their teaching practice.  The teachers who were new to using technology faced several challenges. Some of the students they taught were more computer literate than the teachers and some students were resistant to using new technologies in and outside of class. The teachers also faced the problem of having technology equipment that was reliable only some of the time. Weekly collaboration time allowed teachers to work with each other to figure out new instructional approaches and to later experiment with those ideas while participating in a supportive, non-threatening environment.  Most importantly, the educators supported each other as they each developed their own beliefs about the limitations and possibilities of integrating technology into teaching, rather than unquestioningly accepting a specified way of doing things (Strehle, Whatley, Kurz, & Hausfather, 2001, p. 44).  There were no specific demands on how teachers were supposed to integrate technology, instead they were able to explore different ideas and try new things.

Stephens (2011) observed teachers in a 1-to-1 school computing setting, where each student was equipped with laptop. The school district in which these teachers taught had a support program, which included face-to-face meetings and an online teacher learning community.  Stephens reported that, “the professional development teachers received was important in establishing a teacher community of practice to share resources, strategies, and expertise,” (Stephens, 2011, p.75).

Communities of practice are not limited to face-to-face gatherings. Fulton and Britton reported that online tools are increasingly being used to support STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] professional learning communities. These online tools can aid in extending research and the resources of the learning community.  Geography is no longer a barrier in forming a learning organization (Fulton & Britton, 2011).  These online tools allow for collaboration across time zones, etc.

Conclusion

Technology is part of the social fabric of daily lives and links us together in an ever-expanding global network.  If the goal of education is to prepare students for tomorrow, technology must be an integral part of education today.

With these suggestions for professional learning, plans can be created and implemented to aid teachers in integrating technology into their teaching to help students meet the demands of the world today and of the future.  In addition, using technology has the potential to improve the learning experience and in turn benefit student knowledge.  Supporting educators is a vital component of successful technology integration.  Working in isolation can stifle teachers’ opportunities to build knowledge and improve practice.  Bringing teachers together to collaborate can improve teacher expertise and practice.  As teachers learn new technology skills and work to incorporate technology tools into their teaching, a continued focus on bringing teachers together can support and encourage the practice.  A popular Chinese proverb stresses the importance of collaboration, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  Providing teachers with learning opportunities that actively engage them, rather than preach to them, can best support teachers in the artful and sometimes arduous process of implementing technology into instruction.


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