Thursday, June 28, 2007

A rose by any other name

I recently was asked to talk to some teachers in my district about Action Research. I must say I felt some trepidation. I did an Action Research project some years ago, but I am not an expert by any means. The event was coordinated by University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and I was going to have a UMBC professor as a partner for the session. My role would be to give the viewpoint from the trenches (i.e., a teacher who had actually been through the process). This made me feel better about not being an expert, but I it also made me realize I had another concern.

I was not convinced that Action Research was worth the effort required. I didn’t know if I wanted to “advocate” for something that I doubted myself. It turned out that all of the other teachers who might have served in my place were not available. Thus, I agreed to participate and do my best.

Well, I pulled out some books and looked at some websites as I prepared my presentation. I wanted my audience to understand that Action Research is not as intimidating as it sounds. Actually, reflective teachers do a less structured variation of it all the time which I prefer to call “teacher inquiry”. I realized that “teacher inquiry” was something that I do firmly believe in and have been doing and promoting for some time. I even was a finalist in Dell’s competition on “data-driven decision making” – another name for “teacher inquiry”. I had to look at my preconceptions to reconcile this contradiction.

When you call it “Action Research”, the connotation includes publishing a definitive conclusion for a larger audience, using the scientific method, and perhaps “randomized groups”. However, this connotation comes from the word “research” and those characteristics apply to “basic research” – not “action research”. The word “action” means that you act within your classroom. With “action research”:
· Publishing your results is optional
· The process is expected to be iterative – not a linear like the scientific method
· You don’t need to use randomized groups.

In other words, I had a problem with the name not the concept. My action research project had been time-intensive, but action research is still valuable on a smaller and less formal scale. I needed to examine what I valued about action research. First, the basis is inquiry. As a life long learner, asking my own questions about my practice is fundamental. I need to question in order to improve and should question in order to be a model for my students. Questioning without follow-up is worthless. Action in order to answer these questions is vital. Next, it follows that if you are going to spend effort on some action, it makes sense to evaluate if the action had the intended effect. The Question-Action-Evaluate triad just makes sense and really is what action research is all about.

This triad was something I could advocate. I needed my audience comprehend this understanding of “What is action research?” Not only that, but I wanted them to be empowered by what this meant. If practice could be improved by personal examination, then the individual could be a source of school improvement innovation. Each teacher did not need to wait to be told the best course of action by the district or “basic research”. These sources were tools in the process of improved practice, but one’s own “action research” was also a valid tool as well!

Note: After this line of reasoning, I was ready for my co-presentation. It went well and the audience went from saying that they never did action research to realizing that they have been doing action research all along.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Safari Montage was the biggest success

When a teacher wants to jazz up a lesson to help students understand a concept, a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth .... ? This year our county (Baltimore County Publish Schools) provided a video on demand service (Safari Montage) for all schools.

Safari is very easy to use and because the videos are not streamed, the performance is excellent regardless of Internet bandwidth. The greatest feature of Safari is that you can search by topic, or content standard. Then you can zero in on the just the minute or two of video that supports your specific instructional objective. Our teachers have used video clips to help students learn about behavior of mosquitoes, the life cycle of a frog, what a seed needs to grow, healthy eating habits, and many other topics. The videos were high quality and each had metadata that decribed the appropriate grade level(s) for viewing the video.

In addition to the technical capabilities provided by the Safari Montage vendor, the county utilized a well-thought out rollout strategy. The rollout included on-site setup, system-wide professional development, technical support coordinated with the department of technology and follow-up via the library information services web portal, including an e-community of best practices.

I have introduced a lot of different technologies to my teachers, but this one took off the fastest. I wonder what made this innovation more successful than others. I'm sure the ease of use was an important factor, but I also feel it fit easily into the classroom teachers’ educational philosophy. In other words, it supported them as communicators of new knowledge. Basically, they already know how to apply videos in the "lecture" instructional model. I believe another positive factor was that for teachers with a large TV connected to their computer, they could use it directly in their classroom with minimal set up. Thus, the innovation was an efficient use of instructional time.

I hope as more technology integration approaches become available they will be adopted as quickly and broadly as Safari Montage. What innovations have been successful at your school?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Adopt or Avoid?

Why do some teachers jump right in when a new technology is introduced? There are tons of reasons to postpone adopting a new technology, such as …

The professional development:

  • Hasn’t happened

  • Was at an inconvenient time or place

  • Wasn’t targeted to my situation

  • Didn’t provide enough information on how to apply it to teaching.

The technology:

  • Takes too much preparation time to use

  • Is not reliable

  • Is too slow on the equipment I have

  • Requires that I sign-out equipment elsewhere in the building, so it is too inconvenient to setup

  • Is too restrictive (not enough flexibility, agility, or creativity).

The intended use:

  • Is not developmentally appropriate for my students

  • Is too abstract/basic for my students

  • Is not part of the curriculum

  • Would inhibit human-interaction between the teacher and the student or between students

  • Is just another fad. This too will pass.

I usually respond that if you could just as effectively deliver the lesson without the technology, then you should! However, there are times when technology integration truly enhances the instruction (i.e., it has a high ratio of instructional benefit to effort required – a high value ratio.) There are too many examples of innovative practices with high value ratios to list here. Yet, a high value ratio is necessary but not sufficient to induce adoption. What makes one innovation take hold while another one flounders?

See also: Sugar, W., Crawley, F., & Fine, B. (2004). Examining teachers’ decisions to adopt new technology. Educational Technology and Society, 7 (4), 201-213.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Cutting Edge or Bleeding Edge?

You might call me an Educational Technologist (although I prefer the title technology integration coach). I enjoy trying out new innovative techniques and teaching them to myself.

However, yesterday I became acutely aware that many of my classroom teachers feel just the opposite. Change is scary. This cohort of teachers craves order and autonomy. They carefully plan and prepare to increase the probability that their lessons will work. This is admirable and it makes them great teachers.

Yesterday, one of these teachers was about to try the Interwrite software with a projector and laptop. I was overcommitted and couldn't provide the coaching time I had hoped. When I needed to leave to fulfill another obligation, she was terribly distraught. I felt miserable as well; because I felt like I was abandoning her in a time of great need.

In the future, I need to be sensitive to the emotional side of attempting something new and risky. I need to do a better job of managing teacher expectations. Most of all, I need to become more comfortable about saying no, when the demands of my job won't let me fulfill a teacher's request. If I had said, "I can't help you until next Tuesday.", then her hopes wouldn't have been dashed. She would have planned today's lesson without the new technology. Then on Tuesday, she could have employed it more successfully.

In a similar vein, if a technology is still new to me or not working reliably - then I need to be assertive and say it is not yet available. My classroom teachers expect me to have mastered the techniques which they want to try. When they ask for more than I can deliver, they don't know any better. I need to remove my pride from the situation and admit my limitations. It is better to be slightly embarrassed ahead of time rather fall on my face at the last minute. Whew! What a tough lesson to learn!