Saturday, March 16, 2013

Rethinking the Technology "Special"

cc photo courtesy of Extra Ketchup
I attended a meeting yesterday with other district technology coordinators in our state (CO), and one of our neighboring metro area districts talked about their recent shift from having a librarian in their elementary schools to having a 21st century learning coach (some of whom are librarians).  I thought this was an intriguing idea because we've been wrestling with how to rethink staffing and technology, especially at the K-5 level.

We've been seeing librarian positions cut in our district at all levels, but we've also seen our elementary technology teachers cut, which has always struck me as backwards (only half of our K-5 schools currently have dedicated staffing for a librarian or a technology teacher).  Our need to help students gain critical information and technology literacy skills is more necessary than ever; yet, we're severing the positions for those folks who can be the greatest resources in this area.

But here's the thing.  I think part of our district's readiness to cut those positions at the K-5 level stems from the flawed perception that information literacy and "technology" is a "special."  It's in a rotation (if it exists at all), which means that it is often removed from the learning context.  But it also stems from lack of student access.  If you only have 25 computers or devices at a school, a rotation may be the only way to manage access.  That lack of student access goes back to district leadership: if it's seen as a special, its funding for both staffing and equipment is also "special," and special means vulnerable.

The other casualty in this "special" mindset is teacher competency in using technology tools effectively for learning.  If rotation time = planning time, the primary teacher often just drops the students off and is not part of whatever learning is happening during the special.  This means that collaboration and co-teaching isn't happening, and this is to the detriment of both students and teachers.

So how do we rethink this?  I have mixed feelings about the Common Core, but at least it's common.  Technology skills are now embedded into the standards - they aren't treated as special standards.   And in our state, part of our teacher evaluation is based on using technology effectively for learning.  Here are some things we could perhaps explore in our district:

  • re-allocate staffing for learning coaches that can provide job-embedded and peer-supported professional development for information literacy and technology skills
  • rethink the technology rotation: maybe the technology teacher can move away from basic skills that are now integrated into core curriculum and start exploring specialized learning opportunities (like programming or robotics or advanced digital media)
  • explore more mobile technology for classroom learning and dedicate "fixed" labs for specialized technologies
  • provide opportunities for librarians to co-teach in classrooms rather keeping information literacy instruction restricted to the library (maybe use para staffing for book check out and clerical duties)

Perhaps we're the only district struggling with this, and if so, I'd love to hear from those who have successfully shifted the thinking in the K-5 arena.  Having spent my career at the secondary level, I am out of my comfort zone here, but I feel pretty strongly that we must change our approach.  Our neighboring district shared that having a 21st century learning coach has had more impact on instruction and learning than anything else they've attempted.   Maybe getting ideas from others and hearing about their successes can help us rethink, re-imagine, and redesign.