Statewide ed-tech training program results in ‘digital educators’

No Child Left Behind challenged all states to have technology fully integrated into the curriculum and all students technologically proficient by the eighth grade. In addition, the state educational agencies were to establish research-based instructional methods that could be widely implemented by local educational agencies. This was a pretty tall order for Florida to meet, with such a diverse population of students with various learning styles, educators who were focused on their core content areas, and district leaders with various definitions of technology integration.

In response to this challenge, we created the Florida Digital Educator (FDE) program. Our goal was to ensure that Florida teachers and students would seamlessly use technology as a tool to accomplish tasks through higher-order thinking skills within the core curriculum. Through face-to-face workshops, online training, collaboration, and mentoring, we can tailor the FDE program to the specific needs of districts and schools.

Like many states, we wanted to encourage educators to become advocates for ensuring that all students had equal access to technology. This would mean access to hardware in the classroom rather than just a lab, software that facilitates a student-centered learning environment, and access to digital content, such as video, audio, text, and simulations.

We sought to develop a comprehensive training program that would allow teachers to experience the use of technology as tool for learning. The training needed to be done in a non-threatening manner in which educators could develop their personal skills. We wanted to give educators hands-on experience in creating videos, photo books, presentations, and other digital content in core curriculum areas.

In 2005, we piloted our "Teaching and Learning Institute" concept in a north Florida school district with expert trainers from across the nation. What made this program unique was that, during the school year, these trainers were a teacher, a library media specialist, a professor at a university, and a district administrator–not the typical professional trainers for technology, but veteran educators in all areas of the curriculum. The training had educators take on the role of students to experience the use of technology as tool to accomplish a given task in the curriculum.

The next summer, 475 educators from 19 school districts attended six different summer institutes that were conducted throughout Florida. Participants consisted of K-12 teachers, media specialists, instructional technology specialists, and administrators; their technology skills ranged from novice to advanced.

Each institute consisted of a four-day workshop during June or July. Session topics concentrated on the production of student-centered, project-based learning through tools such as podcasting, digital video, digital storytelling, graphic organizers, and digital images. The sessions were hands-on, with participants producing multiple projects during the four days. Follow-up mentoring is conducted via blogs, eMail, and online journals.

To support training on such a large scale, we had to increase the number of qualified trainers across the state. We did this by creating a Master Digital Educator (MDE) program. Thirty to 35 teachers are selected each year from hundreds of applications. They receive rigorous instruction in technology integration, which also counts as two graduate courses at the University of South Florida. The year-long program includes face-to-face training on selected weekends and for one week during the summer. It also incorporates synchronous and asynchronous online components.

The institutes have "completely changed the culture of [our district]," said George Perrault, director of instructional technology for the Orange County Public Schools. "Many of the teachers were veteran educators who had a comfort level with the way things had always been and saw no connection between technology and the curriculum. In one short year, they have developed videos that are posted on our web site. …Our end-of-the-year gathering has become a multimedia extravaganza."

This summer, we made additional refinements to the program. Participants now upload an artifact at the end of each session, then tag their artifact with appropriate metadata so it can be made available to others. Also, we have added an advanced track and modified the standard track to allow different starting points for teachers with different levels of experience.

Our research on the FDE program has included classroom observations, surveys, and performance-based assessments. We’ve found that participants feel significantly more prepared to integrate technology in the classroom, assign media projects, and create rubrics to assess media projects. Educators also feel confident to implement technology through individualized instruction, cooperative groups, and as a problem-solving and decision-making tool. Over time, their students have been able to use a wider variety of software tools for learning.

Shannon White is the assistant director of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the University of South Florida.