As educational technology moves steadily into the 21st century, we’re seeing positive shifts occurring in how Vermont teachers and school leaders think about technology and learning. Educators have become more tech savvy and more cognizant of the ways technology best helps instruction, and offering more mobile access to technology has become a growing trend in our schools. Along with this "mobility influx," there has been a concerted effort at both the state and local levels to tie specific content areas and technology together more closely. Vermont’s VTcite and the 21st Century Classrooms project have helped spur this effort.
For many years, Vermont’s ed-tech initiatives have tried to involve more classroom teachers. Not just the "tech-savvy" ones, but also those who might have an interest in technology tools, but who haven’t found a connection to their particular content area. This has been a challenging problem. Teachers are limited in the amount of time they have to spend outside of the classroom, so any professional development directed at them must be relevant and provide an immediate impact on their instructional practices. Time and again, the same faces were attending our integration-focused conferences, taking advantage of opportunities that focused on technology. Vermont needed a way to involve more teachers who represented multiple core content areas.
The path that led to the present incarnation of the VTcite/21st Century Classrooms initiative was not smooth, but over time, the mission of the project has become fine-tuned. The path we’ve laid out in the last year has the potential to make a significant impact in many of our core instructional areas and boost statewide efforts at school-wide technology integration.
In 2006, some conversations among a small group of state leaders led to the development and formation of the Vermont Commons for Information Technology Educators, or VTcite. Funded with Title II, Part D competitive dollars and driven by language in the 2004-07 state technology plan, which called for a "clearinghouse of resources," this "commons" initially was intended for technology integration specialists who work with teachers to find and share exemplary units and lessons that integrate technology. It has since morphed into a rich forum for many discussions and opportunities to share content and Web 2.0 tools, as well as ways students can be more fruitfully engaged in learning and professional development that touches a range of best practices for all teachers.
The first "cohort" of this program was drawn together in the summer of 2006. This group of 30 educators from around the state set the basis for developing lessons with exemplary ed-tech integration, as well as forums, resources, and a simple system for evaluating and rating items posted for educators. That first summer, with the use of Drupal, an open-source online content management system, vtcite.org was developed and housed at the University of Vermont.
An online course very successfully brought this cohort group to some common understandings around ed-tech leadership, best practices, and assessment tools. At that point, though, there were some questions in the minds of the participants: Who was this work ultimately for? Who did we want accessing, and contributing to, this content–teachers, or just technology leaders?
To make a significant impact, we decided the effort should reach teachers in math, social studies, science, art, language arts, and so on. During the 2007-08 school year, some of the founders of the original project met again and explored ways to foster technology within these various content areas. One of the keys was drawing in state-level support and leadership in the content areas. Another important key was to drive the work with a variety of best practices that could touch upon all academic areas. These included student-centered learning, differentiated instruction (DI), "understanding by design" (UBD) principles, and the inclusion of Web 2.0 tools.
To draw in content-area specialists, we tapped the Standards and Assessments team of the Vermont Department of Education. The inclusion of this group provided content leadership models for the teams who would lead the initiative. Finally, the provision of a variety of technology tools as incentives really solidified the buy-in and commitment that individuals would need to make the program a success.
Ed Barry, technology coordinator for the Milton Public Schools in northwest Vermont, and Sandy Lathem, a leader in the University of Vermont’s Education Technology program, came together to develop and lead this initiative under the guise of Vermont’s ISTE affiliate, Vita-Learn. Paul Irish, director of technology for the Burlington Public Schools (and Vita-Learn board president), brought the resources of his district to help organize the initiative. In the spring of 2008, plans were laid, and the first meetings of a new group of educators from around the state commenced.
The difference this time was twofold; teams from schools were required to participate, and each team had to include a science educator, a social studies educator, and–to support the group–a technology integrationist. The integrationist did not have to be officially titled in this position; in some cases, it was an educator who was simply more comfortable with the integration of technology. These individuals might have had some formal ed-tech training, but often they were simply risk takers, willing to try something new and to support others in doing the same.
These teams of three were given a plethora of tools and resources they could use to learn about many of the Web 2.0 tools available for their classroom use. iPod touches, Flip cameras, and handheld portable recording devices for doing podcasts were some of the tools made available to participants. A small library of relevant books included Carol Ann Tomlinson’s and Jay McTighe’s Integrating DI and UBD and the ISTE book, Reinventing Project-Based Learning. Beyond that, graduate credit and free room and board at Champlain College in Burlington (the summer institute site) were included. To top it off, a stipend of $500 covered participants’ incidentals.
Instruction at the summer institute was intensive and lauded by the participants. Differentiated instruction was a day-long focus, UBD principles were woven throughout, project-based learning was encouraged and fostered, and 21st-century skills were the basis for all the final work that participants contributed.
Teachers were tasked with creating lessons, units of study, presenting uses of Web 2.0 tools to their peers, and developing a strong content-focused unit that integrated technology. The final products are available to all Vermont teachers via vtcite.org and the Vermont Riverdeep Learning Village, an online portal for state educators. The first group of teams embarked on this experience in the summer of 2008. The experience was intense and challenging. But when they returned to their schools in the fall, they started applying what they had learned.
"I’ve been collaborating with teachers on wikis, podcasts, videos, and digital stories," one participant said. "I’m way behind with anything that has to do with books or paper in my library, as well as everything in my personal life, but I am leaving work each day with a huge smile on my face when I think of our school’s baby steps toward a ‘virtual’ revolution in teaching practice."
Although what we’ve attempted in Vermont is not earth-shattering in terms of technology integration, it did bring about a shift in thinking. Whereas before we focused on ways to bring teachers to technology integration workshops, often where a range of content areas and grade levels were represented, this idea focuses on specific content areas and allows for the added benefit of teachers being involved in cohorts with like-minded teachers from their content areas.
The other tremendous benefit of this approach is that it has enhanced the connection between the Vermont Department of Education and the field. Content specialists are working with and understanding how technology can change practices in the classroom. These changes have had a significant impact and have led to a second and third round of this program. The overall goal is to populate Vermont regions (and ultimately schools) with content experts who are well-versed in best practices for using technology to support learning in their content areas. The engagement of students, the advent of student-centered learning concepts, the inclusion of Web 2.0 tools, and the excitement generated by the teachers all indicate the early success of this growing movement.
All of this work is taking place in conjunction with a statewide focus on shifting the culture of education. Our "Transformation of Education" initiative is looking at ways to foster system-wide changes in our thinking about learning and teaching. A shift toward education that takes into account the way students ultimately learn best is at the root of the work. Student-centered learning, flexible learning environments, and engaging community partners are just some of the components of this shift. The work involved in the VTcite/21st Century Classrooms project has a solid foundation in the area of student-centered learning. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this change is to end with a quote from a VTcite instructor:
"It’s exciting to be a part of a project in which teachers, state-level content specialists, and the course instructors are so closely working together to design learning environments aligned with the needs of students in the 21st century. This blend of best practices, with a focus on student-centered learning and assessment and supported by Web 2.0 tools and 21st-century thinking, brings out the best in all of us."
Peter Drescher is the educational technology coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education.