By Julie Wichman
he 21st- century classroom is evolving into something far different from what most adults recall about their elementary school days. Students still use pencils, books, paper, and chalk, but todays children are becoming adept at using electronic multimedia systems and Web page programming software at their schools, keeping apace with an ever-more digitized world.
But while many classrooms are becoming somewhat more colorful and clamorousand a lot more creative and interestingstudents in other schools are in danger of lagging behind because their teachers arent trained to use these new technologies. Especially in urban schools, where budgets are tight and thousands of children dont have the privilege of practicing on home computers, teachers may face tough barriers to helping studentsand themselvesstay current.
UWM is trying to make sure that doesnt happen in Milwaukee schools. The university recently began a far-reaching effort, the Technology and Urban Teaching Project, to train teachers to use cutting-edge technology in classroom situations and curriculum planning. Just as important, prospective teachers are learning how to discern the best uses of technology rather than being sold on all the attractive bells and whistles available.
The effort was made possible by a three-year, renewable, $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education called Preparing Tomorrows Teachers to Use Technology (PT3). If it works as hoped, soon everyone who receives a degree from the School of Education at UWM will be technologically proficient before they begin their teaching careers.
Now in its second year, the PT3 initiative is part of UWMs comprehensive efforts at teacher education reform. Along with this program, other DOE grants form an interlocking structure that is revamping teacher education at the university. For example, another UWM programTeachers in Residenceis bringing in veteran MPS teachers to mentor undergraduate School of Education students. These veteran MPS teachers and student-teachers in turn benefit from the Technology Project as they learn from one another new uses of technology for the classroom. Its a collaboration through which they may discover, create and implement innovations in technology for urban schools.
Teachers and education students also exchange information via e-mail and Web sites with other universities and K-8 schools across the country that also received DOE technology funding.
One hub of activity for the project at UWM can be found at a computer lab in Enderis Hall, where Technology and Urban Teaching Project Coordinator D.J. Himes and Assistant Professor Amy Staples, hold drop-in workshops for students and faculty on such topics as digital imaging, assistive technologies, emergent literary software, and a host of other systems found on campus and in MPS schools. Students and faculty also stop in frequently at the project office for advice or to borrow software and hardware for classroom projects and their own practice.
Himes office has all the books, articles and technology necessary to help prospective teachers learn equipment and software that has gotten a strong thumbs-up from other educators. Software and hardware donated by a few of the projects corporate partners are available on loan or for demonstration.
What I hope to see is teachers graduating from our program who can confidently walk into a classroom, and without giving it a second thought, know when and what types of technology should be integrated into the curriculum, and then seek out the resources to make technology a normal part of their school day, Himes says.
The program is enabling UWM to gradually put into place a systematic, step-by-step course of study in new technologies for each semesters 250 or so education students. Pre-service students also are learning from experienced MPS teacher-mentors through the Urban Salon, a UWM-based bulletin-board Web site that links students and mentorteachers who discuss challenges faced in urban school settings, address stereotypes, and exchange professional and personal information.
UWM School of Education faculty also must keep up with the new technology, so they, too, network with one another and participate in training programs, often participating in the workshops at the Enderis computer lab.
After only the first year of the project, students and faculty are far ahead of where they might have been otherwise.
Before, when students first entered the [School of Education], they would learn only basic word processing, spreadsheets and the like, says Professor Marleen Pugach, of the School of Educations Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction and Co-principal Investigator of the grant. Now we expect them to come in with that knowledge so we can focus on learning more advanced technologies.
In their first year, for example, students now learn about computer hardware basics, databases and different types of software for various curricula. Later they try their hand at digital video camera work, interactive media, scanners, video editing, and even making movies for distribution over the Internet.
An important component of teacher training is disability-specific software, known as assistive technologies, which include talking word processors, communication symbol programs, and oversized keyboards that can be customized in any way imaginable.
When thinking about inclusion, one thing we consider is how we can use regular technology so that even if the student has extreme disabilities, he or she can use the software with only the touch of a button, Staples says.
But Staples, Pugach and Himes are emphatic that theyre not the least bit interested in technology just for its own sake: It needs to be used in a solid, curricular-based focus, for helping educators think about learning goals first. We want them to know what is appropriate, to see that there is a time to use this technology and a time not to use it, Staples says.
Its very important to understand what are the reasonable and unreasonable uses of technology, Pugach concurs.
Himes puts it this way: Finger-painting is still great. Pencils will never go out of style. You want to see newer technologies as, say, a new type of pencil. Its just a richer form through which kids can communicate ideas to one another; another resource for kids and teachers to use as a tool to enrich what theyre learning about.
And although a lot of urban students may not have the Internet at home, exposure to it at school might entice kids to encourage their parents to take them to the library so they may use it there, Himes says. So not only will they learn that, but they might pick up a book or two while theyre at the library. Schools are moving beyond using the computer as a reward just so kids can play a game. Using computers should not just be meant just for fun time, but learning time. Looking at it from that perspective, learning is fun, too.
Faculty, students, administrators and others involved in the Technology and Urban Teaching Project have been thrilled to see first-hand in MPS just how exciting it can be for children and their teachers to use these new technologies in classrooms.
Pugach, Staples, Himes and others at UWM are going into the schools and learning from teachers, MPS administrators and technicians about the systems already in place, and helping MPS enhance those systems.
Were supporting teachers in the field through our three partner schools, sharing what we havetechnology as well as knowledgewith them. And they are helping us identify how they are integrating technology into the classrooms, Staples says.
Those three partner schools are Hartford Avenue University School, Congress Extended Year-Round Elementary School, and Starms Discovery Learning Center. Each of these schools has a technology project. Students at Starms, for example, are making multimedia presentations about the civil rights movement to enhance their studies on that topic.
As these partnerships grow, the schools themselves are eligible for more grants to bring more equipment on board. The current grant already supports half the salaries for technology coordinators working at each of the three partner schools. Teachers at these schools are supported with software, hardware and other equipment from UWM.
As of last fall, 22 student teachers were working on multimedia projects in their respective schools, using a myriad of different technologies. All of the projects and schools are very different and have very different needs, Pugach says. The student teachers are working at different grade levels, so we have to pay attention to what the specific technology needs are and what we can do to fill them. Its moving ahead quite quickly. Before, the schools had little or no technology.
There seems to be no limit on how far the technology can go, so a challenging part of the process is identifying what works and what doesnt. Fortunately, its not difficult to see almost immediately what works well. Its apparent in the level of enthusiasm among students and teachers.
This is a very exciting time to be involved with education. The whole process of learning and teaching is being reinvented, says Robert Nelson, director of technology for MPS. He says over the past couple of years its been rewarding to see how quickly things are moving along, and the partnership with UWM is a major reason behind the improvement.
You could compare it to an icebergsomething new and big has just been revealed, but there is so much more potential to be uncovered, Nelson says.
But the best part of my job is when I get to spend time with teachers and kids in the classrooms, he says. I had a first-grader teaching me how to use a computer. She had to be reading at the fourth of fifth grade level.
Its a different way of learning, Nelson says. Teachers start to see how technology can help students be more successful, and how new ways of teaching and learning can come into play. Some teachers actually have put off their retirementtheyre having too much fun.
One term used a lot is engaged learning, a more active learning style, as opposed to the traditional lecture. More kids will be successful because were able to provide access to what theyre interested ininteractive information.
Educators are finding that some students are taking on more of a teaching role for their peers and, in some cases, even the teachers.
Across the country, a technology-enriched classroom takes on a new look and feel, where teachers are becoming willing to put themselves in a role of learner instead of expert, Pugach says. That creates a very dynamic interaction. It really raises the bar for teachers.