The Gloversville Enlarged school District is a high poverty district on the edge of the Southern Adirondack Mountain Park in upstate New York. The district is comprised of four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. The average size of each class is 225.
In the spring of 2011 we were fortunate enough to furnish each of our students and teachers in seventh grade with hand-held mobile learning devices. Before the highly anticipated date of deployment, teachers were provided with professional development in both the logistic use of the devices, and what little pedagogy exists for the optimal use of mobile learning devices in seventh grade. The multiyear plan was to grow the availability of the technology into eighth grade in 2011-2012, and be integrated into the high school’s grade nine by 2012-2013.
Teachers spent a large amount of time reaching consensus determining a learning platform to deliver lessons and assignments. The underlying belief was that teachers could use existing lessons which could easily be modified to enhance delivery using the mobile technology. The ultimate goal was, and remains to be, expanding opportunities for classrooms to be student centered; for more students to take greater responsibility for their individual goal setting and learning.
The deployment of the devices was successful in that it created a great deal of buzz around both the school and community, and all stakeholders seemed interested, excited, and engaged. Students successfully prepared and delivered a presentation to the Board of Education which added to the sense of excitement. Local media was on board, and helped create more positive buzz.
Initially, teachers on the two seventh grade teams relied on the technology for much of their content delivery. Materials and lessons that already existed in electronic form were easily adaptable, and student engagement appeared to increase. Teachers and students hunted for applications related to content, and discovered numerous products that greatly enhanced the experience. In a very short period of time it became apparent though, that individual teachers had individual belief systems about the technology and how best to incorporate them into their curricula. By the end of the year, some teachers had fully embraced the idea of incorporating the devices into their classrooms, while others retreated, instead relying more and more on traditional lesson delivery methods. The district was faced with the question of how best to proceed with grade eight, if at all. Administration was challenged with where to find any available research pointing toward best practices in the uses of mobile technology in classrooms. Very little exists. While articles about mobile technology flood the literature, studies of the pedagogy are scarce. With the technology changing rapidly, it appears that researches are challenged with providing timely information.
Seventh grade social studies teacher Robert Garren serves as advisor to a middle school student technology club, Tech Yes. A group of Tech Yes students attended the Institute for Learner Centered Education’s Constructivist Design Conference in the summer of 2011. Using student knowledge to inform technology needs is nothing new in the field. However, the notion of using seventh and eighth grade students to provide this service seems to be unique. These students eagerly worked on an action plan that could be used to advise eighth grade teachers when school resumed in the fall.
The teachers in grade eight were at an even greater disadvantage than the teachers in grade seven. They had incoming students arriving with expectations about the inclusion of mobile learning, but they had not been part of any of the decision making processes. The district’s challenge was to determine the types and methods of professional development that would be tolerated, helpful, sustainable, and ultimately embraced. The largest issues still faced by the district seem to be the lack of research-based best practices, and the idea that this type of technology needs to be embedded, as opposed to just another tool to pull out of the cupboard from time to time. Watching students with their personal cell phones not only shows the ubiquity of the technology, but how fully integrated into their daily experience it has become. Students have greater facility with the devices, greater knowledge of the applications available, and greater interest and reliance, on the available technology. Teachers are at a distinct disadvantage.
With district prodding, Rob Garren, guided his Tech Yes students to create a professional development series for their eighth grade teachers. They surveyed teachers about their familiarity, interest, motivation, perceptions, and pedagogical beliefs and needs related to hand-held learning technology. The findings have led them to provide training for teachers both individually, as needs arise, and in groups when they sense that their instructions are floundering with delivery. The student led professional development is centered on a set of beliefs which they feel are largely universal for their grade level. The technology:
- Saves time in classrooms which can be recycled to delve deeper into content
- Forces more student-centered learning
- Creates contextual connections that may not have been evident before
- Increase student motivation
- Provide more learning ‘fun’
- Empower students by having the world’s search engines at their fingertips.
Teachers have recognized the power and potential that exists in allowing their students to provide this type of information. This current age group is indeed comprised of digital natives, with skill sets related to technology that the adults in their lives just do not possess. The students and their teachers are all acutely aware of this. I credit the teachers for having the wisdom and tolerance to actively learn from their students.
While it is too early for us to realize any trends in achievement as a result of this initiative, the anecdotal information we have points in the right direction. The district has learned that while trying to keep up with the advances in technology is daunting, we should not overlook our students as ready and willing resources in our learning environments.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
Gloversville Enlarged School District.