Schools throughout the United States now recognize the importance of using technology to enhance classroom teaching and learning. The rapid growth of educational standards and dedicated funding to support school technology make that apparent to most of us, including the state and federal governments.

But, successful technology integration is a goal many schools are ill-equipped to achieve. While they might have acquired sufficient hardware, software, and other resources, their teachers and students still lack the formalized training needed to use these resources effectively. To make matters more difficult, many schools lack the time and expertise to devote to appropriate training and other integration activities.

In Pennsylvania, the South Allegheny School District has responded to the call for action in a way that, for us, makes the most educational and economic sense. We collaborated with a trusted leader in school technology programs—Futurekids—to help us effectively use our existing technology equipment while staying within budgetary limits. By partnering with the outside organization, we were able to achieve much more than our own resources would allow.

Intensive training

The goals of the South Allegheny School District were simple. We wanted to provide the district’s three K-6 elementary schools with essential technology skills and abilities involving both teachers and students, curricula for teachers to enhance student achievement using technology, and thorough assessments to ensure meaningful progress.

We contracted with Futurekids for two trainers to help us develop a nine-month program of intensive technology training. Ensuring the most effective use of time, teachers and students were trained at the same time. First, teachers began training in basic computer literacy skills. Then, as they progressed into classroom integration strategies, students received similar literacy training.

Teachers received additional exposure and skill development by serving as the trainers’ assistants when teaching technology to students. In effect, teachers shared their new skills with students as they acquired them. Together, both groups were able to build skills that would enable them to meet the challenges of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

In total, 82 of the district’s teachers received 30 to 45 hours of training, while 995 students received 15 to 20 hours of training. Both groups were introduced to 10 basic areas of technology, including word-processing, spreadsheets, databases, and the internet. Their training was further enhanced by proven methodologies incorporating small groups and hands-on, project-oriented activities.

The 15-week training took place during the regular school semester and into the summer. The teachers volunteered their time two hours after school each week, one hour assisting the trainers with students each week, and one entire week during the summer. In return, each teacher who successfully completed the training program received a new multimedia computer for classroom use and eligibility for continuing education units from the Pennsylvania State University or graduate credits from Immaculata College and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

During training, teachers worked on collaborative, project-based activities that addressed professional and instructional levels of technology skill. They learned to keep grade books, develop lesson plans, and communicate with experts and colleagues online. They also learned to combine databases and letters for performing mail merges and to evaluate appropriate web sites for student use. These training activities helped teachers understand the use and value of technology, and to experience the learning strategies associated with each skill. Teachers then were trained to use those skills to complement their classroom instruction.

Ongoing mentoring and support

Recognizing that effective training and skill development is a never-ending process, the school district kept one Futurekids trainer for on-site, ongoing mentoring and support through the remainder of the school year. The trainer served to reinforce key concepts and classroom integration strategies that were taught during the formal training.

Teachers worked with the trainer on a weekly basis in small group sessions and individually to support their grade-specific needs. The trainer also remained available on-call and via eMail, encouraging teachers to collaborate in ongoing research, reflection, and collegial sharing as they continued to grow in the process of effective technology integration.

Student curriculum

Using a comprehensive technology curriculum, students were trained one hour each week in areas of basic computer operation, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, graphics, desktop publishing, multimedia, and the internet. The training was particularly meaningful, as it provided students with learning experiences enhanced by activities relevant throughout their academic studies.

For instance, students were taught to use word processors to write essays and reports; to use databases to synthesize and analyze historical facts; and to use the internet to access and retrieve scientific data. Consequently, the curriculum and training helped students master technology in ways relevant to their classroom experiences and beyond.

In one instance, students used their new technology skills to explore famous Americans in U.S. history. Using the internet, they retrieved information by “traveling” to and from museums and libraries around the country. They then shared their findings with other students using word processors and graphic presentations to create and share fun, engaging reports.

Teacher and student assessments

The quickly developing skills of teachers and students were assessed using pre- and post-training assessments. For teachers, these assessments included a six-hour performance-based diagnostic tool that required each teacher to create his or her own integrated classroom lesson. Teachers selected a theme that supported their specific academic content area, developed curriculum, and assembled the technology tools necessary to teach the lesson. The results proved whether teachers had gained basic technology skills and were ready to begin successful classroom integration.

Two methods were used to assess student progress. The first was embedded within each of the project-based curricular activities. Upon finishing a particular unit of study, students completed a final project demonstrating their skills in technology and academic content. Their performance allowed teachers to assess whether specific outcomes had been achieved. The second student assessment tool involved a checklist of specific learning objectives. Teachers used these to track and document student progress, noting where specific objectives had been met and where further skill development was needed.

Overall impact

Recognizing that today’s students must be capable technology users, information seekers, problem solvers, and effective communicators, the South Allegheny School District’s technology program created a learning environment absolutely critical for students to live, learn, and thrive in today’s technology-driven world. Using the Futurekids program, which is based on the National Education Technology Standards (NETS) established by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), South Allegheny students are being well prepared for their futures, strengthening their academic foundation through the development of essential technology skills.

This is what we set out to do from the beginning. Through the intensive training being implemented in the district, we are proud that this is what we are accomplishing.

Walt Neidziela is director of technology at the South Allegheny School District in Pennsylvania.