Thoughts on Technology in School

We spoke with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology, and Lauren Mayer, Middle School English teacher who uses technology in her classroom, to learn more about the School's approach to the use of technology. 

A conversation with Mike Taverna, Director of Instructional Technology

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Q: We are fond of saying that technology at MTS is intentional, not ubiquitous. Could you talk about this? What does that mean in practice?

MT: One of the reasons I like the approach toward technology at MTS is that we focus on what the main goal is: what are we are trying to teach- that comes first. What tool can help me do that? - that comes second. If it’s the other way around, with technology first, not second, then you’re developing a program that needs to be justified. I’ve seen this kind of approach at other schools I’ve worked in the past. Here at MTS, we have technology options available for use, but it’s not considered the end-all, be-all. The school values more personal, hands-on approaches when applicable such as reading books, talking in a circle, and the value of human interaction in social emotional learning tools.

I’m an advocate for technology given my role, so it’s possible I may come across as a “pusher.” My job is to find ways to help teachers utilize tools that are available to improve their lessons. “What is the end goal of the lesson? What do you want the students to learn? What tools might be available that could help you with that?”

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Teachers sometimes have fears and anxieties around using technology. They need training. I try to ask the questions to guide teachers in how and where technology might be useful by asking certain questions – “Where’s your most problematic unit? When are your students tuning out? Where are you using up too much time?” I then ask “What’s the lesson supposed to do? What are you trying to teach? What do you want the students to think about?”

In general, I like to think of using technology in a way that fits into one of these categories: Efficiency, Engagement, and Enhancement. In other words, is it efficient? - making lesson plans quick to put together and also making good use of class time; is it engaging? - making sure we keep the students interested; and does it enhance or improve the lessons to make our teaching more effective? If you decide to use a digital learning tool, it needs to fall into one of those categories. At MTS, we want to develop a culture around the idea that technology is available to help by giving teachers the opportunity to attend workshops, so they can see and understand the options that are available. It’s really all about balance.

We also need to understand the curriculum development and the progression that students are making with regard to the kinds of digital tools they should know how to use. How can we best prepare them for high school and beyond in terms of the real world application of technology? What technological skills will they be expected to have in high school, college, and the work force? It’s important that we help students develop the basic skills and productivity tools that will ensure them future success. 

Q: What are the concerns around using technology in school?

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MT: Is it reliable? Teachers worry about this. They decide to take a risk, plan a lesson using technology, and then it’s not working the day of the lesson. Maybe the internet is down or the application isn't functioning correctly. These types of issues discourage teachers from adopting and planning around it.

Another concern is distraction and classroom management. If the students are on devices, will they get distracted and off-task? Do they have easy access to the internet? This can be difficult to monitor.

For some teachers, the use of technology is counter to their philosophy. And then there are some subjects that you simply don’t want to use a technology solution. It feels like it's at the other end of what you're trying to do. For example, in social emotional learning, you don’t want to replicate human interaction with a piece of equipment. Not every teacher needs to be using it, not every class, and not every lesson. There's a real need for balance.

It's become such an integral part of our culture that it's important to teach what’s acceptable, using common sense, and keeping in mind that we're responsible for creating a healthy environment. Our job is to be sure that balance is achieved somehow. If we’re putting a laptop in every kids' hands, is it too much screen time? We all have to work on it, parents, teachers, and students alike. And in order to ensure that we're intentional, as teachers we have to know that part of teaching is showing how and when to use the tool by describing how and when it should be used and taking ownership of it.

Q: What’s your role at MTS?

MT: When I started, and an ongoing part of my role, is focused around systems and infrastructure. I make sure all the school's systems are working as they're meant to. The other fundamental part of my role, and the area I'm most excited about is laying the foundation and helping shape the culture at the School around technology. I'll be reviewing the students' curriculum from K-8 to see where we might implement specific workshops and programs that can help the faculty understand where and how they can use technology.


A conversation with Lauren Mayer, English

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Q: How do you use technology in your English classes?

LM: In 7th and 8th grade English, we primarily use technology to support and facilitate the writing process. Google Classroom is a great platform for many reasons–as a teacher, I can easily send out assignments to students, post upcoming due dates on a class calendar, track student progress, and provide timely feedback on essays. Classroom makes it easy for students to submit drafts, read teacher comments, and revise their work, as well as have a digital copy of their assignments. When students sign up, the platform automatically creates a folder in their drive that stores all their work and keeps it organized.

It’s efficient for both students and teachers as both can access it anywhere with internet, and it allows for and tracks the natural back and forth process of writing and going through multiple drafts. I can give faster feedback for writing, because I can just type it instead of writing it down on paper, and then it’s all captured digitally and can be accessed later at any time through the process, making it easier to track a student’s progress. The platform even has an audio record option, so I can dictate feedback, and the students can listen to it later.

As the teacher, I can easily pull up global summaries of who has turned in assignments or I can organize summaries according to each student. I can post announcements, and upcoming assignments, or I can pose questions with the  discussion/comments feature. I can post questions to all the students as a group in a forum-like fashion, or I can ask “closed” questions to get feedback from students where only I can see the answers. I can see previous assignments and can repost old assignments to a new class without having to re-do everything from scratch. I don’t use it for everything. For some lessons like grammar and vocabulary we still use a pen and paper, but the digital platform definitely has its place.

Q: How has this proven successful? Have you encountered any challenges?

LM: I think students really enjoy using Classroom. They can access assignments at home, collaborate with classmates for peer editing, and have immediate access to a digital “portfolio” of their major assignments. Classroom links directly with Google Drive and other Google Apps, which helps students organize their work and easily review prior teacher feedback. We occasionally run into glitches, but overall it’s been very helpful.

Q: How do you see the use of technology as beneficial to the students? Do they like it? Does it improve the lessons you’re trying to teach?

LM: I think the greatest benefit of Google Classroom is the ability for students to readily access their assignments, organize their work in a centralized location, and receive timely and specific feedback from teachers.

Q: How long have you been using this teaching method for your English classes? Did you use this in previous teaching positions?

LM: I have been using versions of G-Suite for about five years, and it’s been exciting to see how Google has updated their program to directly influence classroom learning. The platform is constantly evolving and improving, making it better and better to use. It’s more and more student and teacher “friendly.”