It's Not About the Tools

As we wind down our stay in Cape Town, we’re visiting teachers in the schools and working with them individually to try to take the next steps after the workshops. I haven’t really blogged much about the actual workshops. We started with five days of sessions for teachers at Liwa Primary School in the Phillipi township. The teachers represented 20 different schools, with at least two teachers from each school.

Noble Kelly helping a teacher in a TWBC workshopA big emphasis was on moving away from basic instruction on using the tools in favor of more help with planning and integration. We started with the basics — why would anyone want to use technology in education? What are the barriers to effective technology use in schools? Starting with these questions, acknowledging some of the challenges, and focusing on the “why bother” aspects of technology in education helped set the tone for the week. The teachers also took a skills assessment on that first day to see where their technology strengths and weaknesses are.

Throughout the week, the emphasis was on technology integration. What does effective technology integration look like? Too often, we use technology to “automate” something without adding any real value. If there’s no clear benefit for using the technology, we can all save ourselves a lot of time by sticking to the traditional methods. We also addressed unit and lesson planning for technology. What do we need to do to prepare for an effective lesson using technology? Since computers are very scarce, the need for preparation work in the classroom was addressed. If students outline and storyboard and plan ahead, they can make the most of the valuable computer time.

With the notorious unpredictability of the technology resources, it’s critical that teachers do contingency planning. What if things don’t go the way we hope they will? How do we manage to meet our instructional objectives despite technology shortcomings? It’s clear that these teachers have a much higher tolerance for technology problems than the teachers I work with back home. It’s common for the Internet access to not work, or a printer to be broken. We discussed a lot of strategies for working around these challenges, and we ended up modeling a lot of them throughout the course of the workshops.

About halfway through the week, we changed the focus to more hands-on work with the tools. We were getting feedback from the teachers about their expectations and impressions about how things were going, and they needed more time to work with the tools. We taught the office productivity suite, but with an emphasis on student use of the tools, and effective instructional integration for them. We wanted to avoid teaching them to use Powerpoint solely as a means for lecturing in class, for example. Instead, we emphasized how students could use the tool for digital storytelling, or to create presentations for the class.

Meanwhile, interactive whiteboards are a hot topic. Many schools have a couple boards, but the teachers haven’t had a lot of help in learning how to use them. Fortunately, we have two team members who use them extensively, and they facilitated several sessions focusing on the “interactive” component of the boards. The goal, again, is to get students involved in the process, and not just use it as a presentation tool.

In the second week, we spent one day at a principals’ boot camp organized by Edunova. With that group, we focused on technology committees and technology planning. It’s important to get input from all of the stakeholders, and to not let a single group (teachers, school leaders, community members, etc.) take over. We also spent time on prioritizing needs and creating action plans for achieving them.

For the next four days, we had a workshop for Edunova and Khanya facilitators. These are people who work for government and non-government agencies. They provide support for technology use in the schools, though their roles are very different. Khanya oversees implementation of technology projects, while Edunova provides most of the day-to-day support. Khanya is also a much larger organization, responsible for educational technology in the entire province. Edunova works in 20 schools in the black townships, providing support and working with teachers.

With this group, we focused on technology support from the perspective of helping teachers integrate technology. Some of the topics were similar to the first week, but with a twist. In the technology planning area, for example, these people would likely take leadership or advisory roles. They still need to be familiar with the process, with the added responsibility of being able to lead the sessions as well. On the tool side, we spent some time on social networking tools, Google Docs, and tools for building learning networks. Some of these aren’t really practical for the teachers yet — the security settings, bandwidth issues, and software versions prohibit their practical use. But with this group, it’s more achievable. They typically don’t use school computers, so they don’t necessarily have the same imposed limitations. They also have the capacity to improve the situation in the labs. If they buy into the promise of these tools, they have the ability to make their use practical in the schools.

So far, all of the workshops have been really well received. The teachers, principals, and facilitators all found them to be very valuable experiences. I was very impressed at the skills of my team mates, all of whom are incredible professionals. This week, we’re following up with the teachers in some of the schools to work on sustainability and take the next steps toward integration.