Introducing digital tools to teachers

Scott McLeod—the brains behind Dangerously Irrelevant—wrote an interesting post recently titled Ed Tech Quarantine.  In it, Scott argues that educational technology groupies often chase new teachers away from technology with our digital giddiness.

He writes:

One of the most common refrains heard from teachers or administrators who listen to us talk or blog about all of these new cool tools is “Why do I care about this as an educator?” In our eagerness to share our nearly-palpable glee and excitement, we often struggle to adequately answer the “So what?” question in ways that are substantive and meaningful to the average teacher or administrator.

Scott goes on to propose a plan that he believes might make introducing educational technology to teachers easier that includes extensive piloting and perfection of classroom applications of new tools before advocacy with others begins.  He writes:

I believe that an emphasis on pilot testing, experimentation, and identification of both mainstream educator use(s) and optimal training mechanisms before introduction to other educators often would help us quite a bit. Instead of turning off the very educators that we want using many of these tools, some time spent in the ed tech quarantine might go a long way toward facilitating our overall goal of greater technology adoption in K-12 classrooms.

Scott’s ideas definitely ring true to me, primarily because I live on the digital edge and I’ve seen time and again how my acceptance of new digital tools actually chases my peers away!  They truly believe that I’m an odd bird who knows things about technology that they couldn’t possibly know—so the tools that I embrace must automatically be beyond their own comfort and ability level.

In that sense, I’m not particularly influential when it comes to pushing new uses for instructional technologies because I just don’t look like the average teacher!

Now, I’m also savvy enough to recognize the impact that I’m having on my peers—and I realized long ago that to be influential, I was going to have to do a bit of work on the digital dark-side.  So when pushing instructional technologies, I seek out progressive teachers that are seen as the electronic equals of their peers and work to introduce them to new applications for tools that can help to facilitate collaborative work with colleagues.

Yup.  You read that right.  In my early conversations with teachers, I actually try to AVOID classroom uses of new tools!  While my ultimate goal is to see instruction change in classrooms because of digital tools, I’m also a full-time classroom teacher.  I know full well that changing instruction is an incredibly time-consuming process—and time is the resource that teachers just plain don’t have enough of in our schools.

Instead, my singular focus is to show teachers how to use new digital tools to save time or add value to their professional lives.  I start with things like shared bookmarking between members of a learning team to reduce cross-team email and to make resource sharing fluent and easy.  I also introduce tools like Google Docs to create shared lesson plans and team documents.

Here’s the handout that I use when putting the sell-job on faculties.  It lists several possible “first-steps” that teachers can take to begin exploring digital tools:

Download Handout_Choices_Web.doc

Notice how the tasks listed across the top of the web (where teachers are likely to look first) are all oriented towards facilitating collaboration and professional learning?  These are tasks that teachers are already responsible for and consumed by.

If I can show teachers how to use digital tools to make this work easier, I’m sure to find an ally or two, aren’t I?

Sometimes I feel guilty about my approach because it doesn’t immediately result in more student-centered instructional practices. Teachers continue teaching in the same way they’ve always taught.

But the way I see it, teachers’ number one concern is always time—so if they can see value in digital tools as professional time savers, they’ll be more likely to embed those tools completely into their own lives.  And once those tools become a natural part of their daily work and learning patterns, they’re more likely to incorporate them into their instruction.

Here’s an example:

I’ve got a buddy who tells me about twice a week that he couldn’t live without the feed reader I helped him to set up because it helps him to find current event titles that he uses in daily instruction.  He’s also jazzed because he’s stumbled upon a collection of blogs by librarians that are pushing his professional growth and knowledge of his content area.

Now, he’s yet to try to introduce RSS feeds to students at all—and he’s not using blogs in class either. His instruction has remained largely unchanged.  But I believe that with time, he’s likely to start to show his students how RSS feeds can change their own learning too—simply because it’s so important to his own growth.

Does this make sense to you?

I guess what I’m wrestling with is should we even focus on the instructional applications of digital tools when working with peers who’ve yet to dive into the digital waters?

Can we trust that a person who has their own learning and work patterns changed by digital tools will naturally translate those new patterns into their classrooms?

Is the trickle-down theory of digital professional development that I’ve been pushing productive?

Bill, who is saddened by the destruction of a digital generation.