Saturday, September 15, 2012

Confessions and Learnings of an EdTech Enabler

Photo Used Under a Creative Commons License

Some Typical EdTech Scenarios

Ms. Jones calls in a panic - her students are trying to get to the documents she shared with them on the school server and no one can find them. "The folder was just there," she says, "and now it's gone!" Knowing her history of "organizing" things, I run down to her classroom and in two shakes I move the folder students need access to out of the other folder where she's stored it. I want to explain that students only have access to this folder in this location, and when she moves it, they can't see it any more, but she's already lost valuable instructional time, so I quickly exit as she thanks me profusely and declares me to once again be the most amazing technology guru she's ever met. I vow to myself to follow up later, especially since she keeps doing this, but a day full of similar "emergencies" pushes the latest incident right out of my head...
Mr. Scott snags me in the hall as I am trying to get to the restroom. "I'm trying to use the clickers with my students and my computer screen and projector have gone black!" He pulls me in the door and I see the expectant faces of students, clickers at the ready. I go wiggle the power cable for the powered VGA splitter, and presto, we have visuals again! "Oh, thank you thank you thank you!" he says as he signals the students to applaud me. I really want to show him quickly how simple the fix was, but I've turned red at the attention and Mr. S. has already segued into, "OK, students, let's get started!" I slink out of the room, finally make it to the bathroom, and head back to my computer to send a tech tip to the campus about wiggling their projector connections (this is the third time I've helped someone this week) when the phone rings and caller ID says it's my principal...
It is one of those rare years when the campus is getting new computers (this happens every five or six years if you are lucky), and I've been asked to consult on the standard software image I want on the computers. OK, here's the software list. Now, which shortcut icons do I want on the desktop? Let's make sure the teachers and students can get to their most-used programs, network, and Internet resources without a lot of effort. I could show them how to make shortcuts themselves, but they're already so busy. (Ironically, I'm forgetting at this moment how often teachers tell me they "don't have a program on their computer" because they don't see a shortcut on the desktop...)

These stories are probably very familiar sounding if you are a technology specialist or even a tech savvy instructor on your campus. To many of the folks on your campus, you are the smartest person ever when it comes to technology. Magical even, because you know how to make things work and you make things easy for them. It can be ego-boosting to be thought of this way, but it can also be a burden, getting in the way of making progress with incorporating new technology tools and approaches because you are busy maintaining the status quo.

Learnings From My Experiences

The stories above are based very closely on my personal experiences. I stayed in that guru role as a campus technology specialist for six years, not so much out of the ego boost it sometimes gave, but out of the mistaken assumption that by making technology as easy and hassle-free as possible for my teachers, I was furthering instructional technology integration and student learning on my campus. I didn't see the connection then between what I was doing and my frustration over not being able to do more new things with my teachers or the fact that they seemed to advance little, if at all, in their skill and comfort with technology.

After those six years, I moved up to a district-level position and I watched how the person who took my previous campus position held teachers' hands a little less than I did - and how their tech skills and expertise improved. It was exciting for me to watch, and humbling at the same time. I fretted a bit over opportunities I might have lost for growing my colleagues, and vowed to do better as I moved forward.

This year, all of this helping really hit home. Due to budget cuts, the instructional technology staff in our district has been reduced to 1/3 of what it was just two years ago. I can see now that I wasn't the only campus specialist who was massively "supporting" teachers in instructional technology. For the first time in 11 years, there isn't a dedicated technology facilitator on each campus. I can see how much of a loss many of our staff members are at by the types of questions that are coming through our electronic help desk. And now, I'm making video tutorials on how to create a short-cut on your desktop.

What have I learned from all of this? First of all, teachers need technology support. They really ARE busy and have more demands on them than ever when it comes to instruction - differentiating for the multiple learning styles and special needs in their classrooms, analyzing testing data to push children to meet state and federal standards, supporting kids who may have little support outside of school for various reasons, not to mention trying to integrate technology into teaching and learning - the list is endless.

The biggest lesson I've learned, though, is there is a difference between enabling and empowering. An enabling approach is the one I used to have - do whatever I can to help the teachers survive the day (and then wonder why I'm helping with the same things over and over and over again...). An empowering approach prioritizes educating teachers in how to do the "little" things, like making desktop shortcuts or wiggling power cables. And it acknowledges that there is no time like the present to do this. 

As a Result of My Learning...

Even if the students are waiting expectantly with clickers in hand, I can call the teacher over and briefly say, "I know you want to move on, but let me show you this quickly, so when it happens again, you don't have to wait on me to fix it." Am I impacting instructional time at that moment? Yes. But how much more future instructional time am I saving by taking that moment to teach that brief lesson?

If the principal is calling while I'm creating/sending an important tech reminder, chances are they can leave a message and wait five minutes for me to get back to them. In the interest of impacting staff with important and helpful info, it's a good trade-off. I'll also add here that it's also worth my time to make a quality tutorial (print, video, etc) and post it where it can be accessed over and over again. As opposed to dashing off quick instructions that will only exist in someone's email and will get lost and therefore cost the teacher precious time they have to ask the same question again. It will also save me time when I can send a quick link to someone the next time the question is asked instead of having to dig out or retype the instructions.

Will these empowering techniques work every time? No, I might answer the same question again, but much like with teaching kids, over time, reinforcement will win out and I'll have empowered a teacher to move on on their own and perhaps, if I'm lucky, also emboldened them to try something new because of the confidence their technology learning is building in them.

Have you had similar experiences, frustrations, and learnings regarding support of educational technology? Please add to the conversation by adding to the comments below!