An Oregon school district incorporates technology into its curriculum. It overcomes many obstacles along the way while keeping a tight focus on using technology for curricular goals.
While the Tigard-Tualatin School District is highly committed to technology, it has never lost its focus on using technology to support curricular goals. Over the last five years, the large urban district has built technology into its curriculum, and now has about 5,000 pieces of equipment serving 11,000 students in 15 buildings. Pam Leland, the district's Instructional Technology Specialist for K-5, has been with the program from the start and shares her perspective on the challenges of building the program, how they were overcome, and how a curricular focus was maintained throughout.
The district's technology infrastructure is quite extensive, Leland says. Every classroom and school library is networked to the Internet. Over 25 servers handle Web, File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and mail services, and every student in the district has access to e-mail accounts. All computers are networked both within each building and to computers in other buildings. A new 100MB connection between buildings provides fast networking capabilities for digital video and videoconferencing. The district's computers include both Intel® processor-based PCs and Macintoshes*. "We've never been very platform religious," Leland says. "We use whatever will do the job."
The district is also well-staffed. Nine people handle the technology program: a technology director who manages the network, a Webmaster, two technology specialists who work with teachers (one for grades K-5 and one for 6-12), one machine maintenance technician, and several administrative staff.
A top priority for the district has been to stay focused on curricular goals, using technology as a tool rather than simply purchasing equipment because the funds are available. When the Tigard-Tualatin district started the process almost six years ago, Leland and others wrote a document called Future Paths*, which laid out the technology skills expectations for students at each grade level, and specified activities teachers could use to support existing curricular goals.
In Kindergarten, for example, the district expects children to know their letters and numbers. To support that curricular goal, the Future Paths technology expectation is that children will be able to recognize letters and numbers on a keyboard. In third grade, the curriculum focuses on the writing process, with concepts such as rough drafts, final copies, and editing. The technology expectation at that level includes word processing and editing skills. "There's a real nice mesh between what we are teaching in their writing and the word processing we are teaching them with the computer," Leland said.
In fifth grade, students choose a state, do research, and produce a project about the state. Previously, these projects were researched using books from the library, and resulted in final products such as posters. With technology, the research possibilities expanded. Students have researched their state on the Internet, connected with schools in that state using e-mail, and created Web pages about the state as the final project. "It means we have to teach a little differently, because now instead of just asking kids to gather basic facts, we're asking them to begin thinking at higher levels and make some qualitative decisions, such as what kinds of things are unique in the southeast region?" said Leland. "Kids can't just be asked what's the state bird of Maryland anymore." A lot of districts get money, go out and buy a lot of equipment and then say, now what do we do?" Leland said. "In this district we don't just teach technology we teach all of the other curricular areas with technology as a tool to accomplish that."
A question many parents ask is why the district should bother with the expense of technology. "We live in a technology-driven information world," Leland said. "Yes, some kids will get technology at home, but we have several impoverished schools in our district where only a small percentage of kids have computers at home. If we don't teach these skills to kids across the board, they're missing a life skill that is going to be critical to their success."
The road to building the Tigard-Tualatin technology program was paved with challenges that required teacher and parent dedication and hard work. Funding for schools is an issue in every state. In Oregon, a ballot measure was passed in 1991 that resulted in funding cuts in many school districts. Tigard-Tualatin suddenly had much less money coming in.
The bond process provided a solution. In 1995, a significant bond measure was passed that provided $3.4 million for technology for the district. The bond's focus was to set up networks both inside the buildings and between buildings, and also to put a computer in every classroom. In 1996, a second bond measure provided $2.6 Smillion for computer labs, resulting in a ratio of one computer for every five students.
Leland attributes the bond measures' success to tremendous and almost universal public support and strong community involvement. She adds that the key to the passage of the bond was to keep the focus on the curriculum when explaining how new technology would be used. "I think we did a really good job talking about how we don't want to just go out and buy all this equipment, but we had a plan about what we want to accomplish with the kids," she said. "People saw gosh, they don't just have pie in the sky." Both bond measures passed on the first try.
Getting money for equipment is one thing. Preparing a teaching staff to use technology in their classrooms is another. "While we have increasingly techno-literate kids, there were a lot of techno-phobic staff who were not sure a computer was going to be a friend," Leland said. "Getting the teachers comfortable enough that they feel like technology can be an ally in their instructional programs and produce positive results with their students has been a big challenge."
The district overcame the challenge by committing substantial resources toward educating the educators. Two full-time staffpersons are dedicated to supporting the teaching staff with a variety of strategies. Leland is one of the staffpersons. "We spend our days designing resources, doing trainings, hand-holding, team teaching, model teaching," she said. "We run after-school services, training in the summertime, curriculum development with and for them""whatever it takes."
After a district has resources in place and teachers trained, the task remains of how to maintain and replace equipment, continue teacher training, and otherwise keep the program moving forward. "Continuing this program is our biggest challenge at this point," Leland said. "This comes back to the initial challenge of funding." According to Leland, even with so many dedicated staff, the technology program is reaching the breaking point in terms of program operation. The teacher training involves working with over 600 teachers, many of the teachers have requested more support and training. "It's a wonderful thing that we've got so many teachers who want so many things," Leland said. "Teachers are beginning to understand the place technology has in their structure. For us, that's our goal. We've created the snowball that is rolling down the hill. Now we need some help staying in front of it."
The district is seeking another local bond measure to meet this challenge, this one is for operating funds to hire additional staff to upgrade older computers.
An interesting aspect the program is creating is that students themselves are beginning to drive the demand for solutions. "We're creating a vacuum effect by sending a group of very techno-literate kids up through the ranks who have specific expectations about how they will use technology in their curriculum," Leland said. "Right now, they get technology in elementary school, and they get it if they go to the right middle school. But at the high school level, nothing. And the students say: not acceptable." A video production program in place in two of the elementary schools illustrates the vacuum effect. The students produce digital video news programs that are transmitted through the network to classroom computers. "Kids get to the middle school and depending on what middle school they go to, one middle school has video production so they can continue, at the other they don't have that program," said Leland. "One of the toughest challenges is that the high school curriculum is so focused and set." The students now in high school are starting to protest, and Leland says it's having an impact on their teachers, who in turn are asking for more resources. Student demand is driving the creation of a district digital television studio, where students from any school can continue honing their technology skills.
One might think that only a computer whiz could work in a school technology program, but that's not necessarily the case. Leland, is a certified secondary school teacher with no computer background. She spent a brief time in the classroom before leaving to stay home to raise children. While volunteering at her son's school in 1988, she was asked by the principal if she could help set up a computer lab. "My question to him was what makes you think I can do this?" said Leland. "He said, 'I just have a feeling you can.' I foolishly said okay. It just evolved into setting up e-mail, then networking the building. I learned on the job, and I love it." According to Leland, her teaching background, as well as the teaching background of her boss, help explain the district's abundancy of curriculum and technology. "Technical people tend to have one focus," she said. "My focus has always been the educational stuff with the technology piece added on rather than the other way around. I think that makes a big difference."
||Tigard-Tualatin School District's Curriculum Materials*