Some 180 New Jersey educators attended the first WE Tech Symposium, a statewide conference recently held at West Essex Regional High School (Fairfield), to learn about new technologies and how they can incorporate them into the classroom.
They heard from many principals and teachers already using tools like social media, iPads and iPhones, blogging software, Skype and Twitter as well as more specialized tools to help their students learn, collaborate and become part of a larger community.
The symposium was the idea of West Essex Spanish teacher Raquel Williams, who had support from superintendent Barbara Longo. Williams worked closely with West Essex media specialists Rosemary Rich and Catherine Spinella and a committee of others to launch the event.
The morning started off with a dynamic keynote address by Eric Sheninger, principal at New Milford High School and known as “Principal Twitter.” Sheninger recalled when he was the principal who banned all tech devices from the school and recounted how and why he had changed his mind about them and social media.
His first introduction to social media’s usefulness came when he learned that, instead of being a time waster, Twitter was an excellent tool for engaging others and finding information. He soon found a dynamic community of educators exchanging ideas, and he began to use Twitter for professional development.
Sheninger’s overall message to the group: “Social media is not the enemy and is not going away any time soon. It is time to embrace this multidimensional tool to improve communications, enhance public relations, establish a positive brand presence, grow professionally, increase student engagement and discover a world of opportunity.” If change is to be sustainable, he added, it needs to be embedded in the school’s culture.
To those who worry social media use in school will lead to bad student choices, Sheninger pointed out that schools have the opportunity to teach students about social responsibility while they are there and using the devices. Students and their parents must be made aware of the rules through Acceptable Use contracts, which enumerate policies on activities such as copying copyrighted material, making videos of teachers behaving badly in the classroom, texting or tweeting others outside of class while work is being done, and so on.
The group also heard from Lisa Thumann, who uses innovative learning technologies at The School for Global Education and Innovation at Kean University. Her job allows her to work with educators to improve teaching and learning through technology. Thumann crowdsourced her speech from responses to a blog post on Thumann Resources, providing real-world ideas on how new technology can be incorporated into the classroom.
One story came from West Essex’s Williams, who discussed how students weren’t doing well in her language classes until she found podcasting, which both engages and helps them learn. In Upper Saddle River, a teacher was able to create a TV station for students, using very low-cost iPads and TV production software. Another school dismembered its computer lab so technology could be incorporated into lessons, not taught separately.
The conference included hands-on workshop sessions where educators could try out and learn about new tools. These included technology applications for the classroom, Prezi, Edmodo, Moodle, Flip cameras, iPads, blogs, Web 2.0 applications for math, Smart Boards, podcasts, wikis, digital stories and many more.
Several presenters talked about using Google Apps and other free tools. Others said it is important for administrators to promote tech resourcefulness in the classroom by modeling their use of technology so teachers can become comfortable with it.
NJTechWeekly.com attended a workshop given by Sandra Paul, director of technology at Sayreville public schools, on a contentious topic in not only education but industry and government: the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement.
Paul noted there is so much more learning to be done beyond books, and school systems that don’t allow the use of social media, Web 2.0 tools and teacher/student devices in the classroom are preventing children and teachers from operating in the world beyond it.
Many districts and schools cannot afford to provide every student devices, but many of those students are walking into their schools and classrooms with them in their pockets. “Why not utilize these devices for instructional purposes in the classroom, to provide access to the World Wide Web?” she asked.
In Paul’s school system, a pilot program of two teachers and some students who bring their own devices, including iPods, iPads, smartphones, BlackBerrys, laptops and anything they can think of, seems to be working. Sayreville is approaching this program as an option for teachers, who can decide whether to allow students to use their mobile devices in their respective classrooms.
She acknowledged getting the IT guys on board took some doing, but by giving them some of the cool tech to play with, they came around. At present the district is working on changing its Acceptable Use policy and technology policy to include language that allows for BYOD.
Some cons of the policy, such dealing with equity among students when some don’t own devices, are inevitable, Paul said. In those cases, it has been suggested that students check out devices from the school library just as they would do a book, or that schools provide teachers a couple of devices to lend students during class, she said.
Most schools would have to check on their Wi-Fi use to determine how many devices can have access on a single access point. Schools have to deal with infrastructure, bandwidth and type of access issues with a BYOD model, she noted.
The day’s final keynote, given by Patrick Higgins, supervisor of instruction for the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District, told teachers and administrators that, now that they know about technology, they are obligated to implement it despite challenges they might face.
Teachers have to be willing to stand in front of a bunch of 8-year-olds and say, “We are going to create a Google Doc or a blog,” and take the risk that the screen may go blank and or the students may be unable to log in. “We have to walk into a classroom with plan A, the tech plan, and plan B, the non tech one,” he said.