Technology in Schools

What’s STEM got to do with it?

Meaningful careers. Financial stability. Happiness. That’s what we all want for the future of our students, right? This might feel like an abstract, far-off concept when working with elementary school students. However, the foundation built during these formative years is exactly what supports achieving those goals. How do we cultivate the curiosity, tenacity, and student empowerment to help our students realize that future? Think: Science… Technology… Engineering… Math.

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Use a personal learning network to keep up with instructional technology

Given the pace and breadth of technology innovation these days, keeping up with the latest in instructional technology is difficult to do alone, especially if you’re not sure where to begin. Establishing a personal learning network (PLN) can keep you on the cutting edge of instructional technology, creating many layers of support that you can access when necessary.

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Coaching takes informal observations to a new level

McREL’s Power Walkthrough Coach, available July 1, builds upon our successful informal walkthrough platform for school leaders, providing tools and protocols to help coaches more specifically address instructional needs with the teachers they serve. This is in line with emerging trends we’ve seen in schools and districts, where coaches or peers give feedback to one another, yet don’t often have a vehicle for doing so in way that captures look-fors and progress without being evaluative.

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Finding and supporting the E in STEM

On the NASA Wavelength blog, McREL STEM consultant Sandra Weeks takes a look at how scientists and engineers work together to accomplish NASA satellite mission objectives, and applies that model to implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) with a focus on the role of engineering. Read her blog post, Finding and supporting the E in STEM, here.


2011_Weeks_WEBSandra Weeks is a STEM consultant for McREL. As a former high school science teacher, her expertise in STEM education and NGSS lends to the design of K-12 instructional materials and professional development on a variety of STEM topics, including NGSS and Science Notebooks, for out-of-school-time programs such as Cosmic Chemistry, NanoExperiences, NASA’s Dawn Mission, and the NASA Science Mission Directorate Education and Public Outreach forums. You can also follow McREL’s STEM pages on Facebook and Twitter for more information about our STEM initiatives.

Big Data, Big Brother, and the Nest

“Big Data” is a current buzzword in education and in society in general. Look at the programs for most major educational conferences, and you’ll see any number of sessions focused on the use of data to improve student learning.

But big data goes beyond a school or district keeping some basic information about their students’ achievement. Big data is a collection of data so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional data processing applications. It takes the power of massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers. Big data companies in the educational space include inBloom, Pearson’s PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus, among others.

As an educator, think of the power of being able to look at a data set of all elementary students in the country, including all of their formative and summative assessments, all of the various curricula they are experiencing in their classrooms, their behavioral data, health data, and IEP information. Add to that all of their demographic data and the effectiveness of their classroom teachers. To be able to immediately make sense of those data to diagnose and prescribe educational solutions for every student would be tremendously powerful.

Having access to this information sounds truly transformational. What could be the harm?

Here’s what gives me pause. Google recently announced that they had purchased Nest for $3.2 billion. I have a Nest thermostat in my home and I love it. It provides me with easy access to data about my heating and air conditioning usage, how my usage compares to previous years, and where I stand in relation to others in my area and nationwide. It also knows when I am home and when I am away and adjusts my home’s temperature accordingly. All of those things make me a more efficient homeowner and save me money. This dataset would be similar to the scope of data a school district might collect on students in its attendance area.

Buying my Nest didn’t initially cause me any real concern, but with Google’s purchase of Nest, my thinking has changed. Google already knows with whom I communicate via e-mail (Gmail), where I go in my car (Google Maps), what I watch on YouTube, what I post on blogs (Blogger), and what I search for on the web. Add all of that to the data my Nest is now providing to Google, and the data cloud of my personal information continues to grow.

Don’t worry, though, because Google keeps these data secure. So did Target. And Neiman Marcus. And the National Security Agency.

Am I ready to pull my Nest off of the wall? No. In my opinion, the actual realized benefits, so far, outweigh the potential risks. I’m proceeding down this path with the full realization that my data should not be considered totally private or secure, but trusting in the companies to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard my data.

As educators and parents, we have to consider the same benefit-versus-risk equation when thinking about student data. How valuable would big data be to educators throughout the country? What are the possible implications of a “national school database” being hacked (see this recent story by Education Week) or being opened up to commercial marketing use?

Does your opinion change when considering this through the lens of an educator versus that of a parent? Your comments are welcome.

A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL’s chief program officer. He is co-author of the second editions of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works and Classroom Instruction That Works, and he was the lead developer of McREL’s Power Walkthrough classroom observation software.

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

McREL has long maintained that technology, when used thoughtfully and intentionally, enhances good instruction. But it’s not about the technology itself; it’s about technology working together with a well-designed lesson or project focused on clear learning targets and differentiated by student needs and learning styles.

I just read a blog post by Krista Moroder, an educator in Wisconsin, and it really resonated with me. Krista’s reflections, posted at EdTechCoaching,  help us remember that good teaching isn’t something new, created by modern technology tools. Many of us got into education because of great teachers in our own past. Technology can, however, make good instruction even better.

With her permission, I’ve reposted Krista’s column below.

-Howard Pitler

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

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What do you do with classroom observation data?

At their core, classroom observations should be about coaching, building up professional practice, and supporting better outcomes for students. Principals should use classroom observation data to enrich conversations during professional learning community meetings, individual teacher coaching conferences, and staff meetings. When large samples of student data are available, school leaders can disaggregate the data by age, content area, or other categories to enable powerful analysis of the data’s meaning and uses. This, combined with other evidence, can be used to support school improvement goals, collaborative planning, professional development planning, and a common understanding of what quality pedagogy looks like. Principals who do this well can help their teachers
make great gains in teaching and learning.

We’re sometimes asked by principals and district leaders who are interested in Power Walkthrough® for more information about how the system ties in with research-informed instructional practices and good classroom observation protocols and purposes.

The Power Walkthrough system supports best practice by using a carefully designed template of observable elements based on the best understanding of modern pedagogy, with indicators of research-informed classroom environmental factors, instructional strategies, learning taxonomies, technology applications, evidence of learning, and student interview responses. The template is customizable, so that if a school wants to focus on formative assessment or collaborative learning, they can do so by adding or substituting observation elements. We recommend not adding too much to the observation template, so that it doesn’t turn into a teacher evaluation tool and take too long to conduct. If individual observations take more than 3-5 minutes to conduct, principals won’t
be able to visit enough classrooms for the data to be valid and reliable.

Validity and reliability of data relies not only on a sufficient sample size, but also on the skill of the observer. Becoming an efficient, skilled, and astute observer of teaching and learning takes quality training, practice, and collaborative reflection between observers. School leaders don’t have to be experts in all content areas to conduct good observations, but they do have to be highly knowledgeable in pedagogy and be a keen observer of student learning evidence. The Power Walkthrough templates help principals by providing cues, “look-fors,” and a common nomenclature.

Templates and lists provide structure and allow for statistical analysis, but they don’t preclude the principal from observing other factors in the classroom, interviewing students, or recording descriptive notes. In fact, Power
observations are designed to end with student interviews to gather student perspectives on what they’re trying to learn and why they’re learning it, to see if they fully comprehend the objectives of the lesson. Answers such as “we’re learning math because we have a test on Friday” aren’t good enough. A great
answer would be something like, “we’re learning how to graph polynomials because they can be used to model how some things work in nature like the shape a stream of water takes when it’s shot out of a fountain or the path of a
basketball when you shoot a free throw.”

In the end it’s not about the instrument itself, but how it’s applied. Depending on the goals of school leadership, Power Walkthrough can be used either for typical data collection purposes or innovative change. We encourage instructional leaders to collaborate with each other and their teachers to learn from the data together. Teachers will take ownership of the data’s meaning if they are allowed to find it themselves rather than using a top-down approach of dictating to them what the data means. If used regularly and collaboratively, Power Walkthrough data can provide a wealth of professional development experiences for all educators, both on a daily basis and as part of a whole school improvement effort.

We hope this explains a little more about how Power Walkthrough supports good classroom observation practices and instructional improvement.

Matt Kuhn is a principal consultant at McREL, where he designs and delivers professional development and provides technical assistance to school and districts in instructional technology, STEM, and leadership. 




One-to-one initiatives require a “core vision”

4.1.1Leslie Wilson co-chairs the National Steering Committee of One-to-One Directors and facilitates networking and collaboration among one-to-one visionaries. As a founding member and CEO of the One-To-One Institute based in Lansing, Mich., she created and implemented model programs and services based on Michigan’s Freedom to Learn Program.  

While leading Michigan’s one-to-one teaching and learning initiative, Leslie recruited McREL to facilitate technology training for the state and Leading for Technology staff. We are reposting her  blog as a resource for schools, districts, and states that are implementing or considering one-to-one initiatives.

You’ve Got ‘Tablets’ and Now You’re 1:1? Really?
By Leslie Wilson

More and more districts are acquiring ‘tablets and saying ‘we are now 1:1’. I always ask what that means. What is 1:1? The definitions are many as districts glom on to sexy, inexpensive, long-life battery, lightweight devices instead of foundational, robust, multi-tasking, creativity devices (which also by the way, are lightweight, have long-life batteries, etc., etc.). One-to-One Institute’s work amplifies the message that a quality, student-centered 1:1 employment is complex, transformative work. The focus points are teaching and learning and not hardware, software, and apps. A shared vision, strategic project plan and leader must accompany the program from its embryonic inception. What are the goals? How will they affect the current culture and expectations? What kind of messaging, practices and policies need to accompany this effort?

To transform teaching and learning to a student centered, personalized instructional setting, there are key components—project plan elements—that have to be addressed to be successful.  Leaders need to know, understand and guide the ‘change’ process. A 360 degree professional learning program must be embedded for all stakeholders. Teachers who will need to change their practices from adult-centered, static systems to student driven, experiential operations require time, guidance and learning communities to ensure the shift of practice. And overarching policies must direct the practices.

Human and funding capacities are also of primary importance. How will we acquire and deploy devices?  Maintain/repair them?  Refresh them? Scale out our program? What about battery replacement? Yes, even the ‘tablets’ have batteries that die. Do we buy a new one for $100 (1/3 or ¼ cost of a new tablet) or do we have a plan for replacing all of them in 18-24 months? Do we lease or purchase? What in-house funds can we reallocate to this program (if it is a priority)? What do administrators, teachers, parents/guardians, etc., need to know and do differently in this changed state?

At a time when school funding is in crisis, stakeholders need to understand ‘why’ their schools are investing in technologies when staff is being laid off and programs being set aside. Calling on and sharing research and best practices will be crucial to district’s messaging. If tablets are the chosen devices, a district must be prepared to provide technologies for students to create, multi-task, store and produce robust results/activities in addition to what they will do on the limited functionality tablets…and they need to honestly share this need and solutions to provide additional device support.

There is a much bigger picture and quality impact on education with authentic one-to-one implementations. It has to be about core vision, beliefs and strategies that complement what’s needed for learning and producing in the 21st century. It is not as simple as buying a cool tool. We can all have cool tools and have the same old, same old education system resulting in the same old, same old results.

Leslie Wilson, CEO One-to-One Institute  Read more of her blog.

Developing effective digital learning policy

Digital tech blogIn the ‘80s, teachers were excited to incorporate overhead projectors into their classrooms. In the ‘90s, cutting edge classrooms were those equipped with a computer—one that would allow students to take turns accessing CD-ROMs and saving to floppy disks. Today, digital technologies have exploded, and schools might issue tablets to all students, rely exclusively on virtual courses, or even encourage the use of cell phones in class. But does technology in the classroom really improve student achievement?

Research tells us that although technology can have a positive impact on student achievement it is no guarantee of success (Pedro, 2012). Some students in online classes might outperform their peers,  while those enrolled in a particular virtual school lag significantly behind. One educational software program may lead directly to higher test scores while another produces no measurable effect. And a one-to-one laptop initiative may be a wild success in one school district while it is a complete flop in the district next door.

Given the variable success of digital learning initiatives, decision makers have much to consider when determining whether and how to invest in digital learning. McREL’s newest policy brief, “Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World,” offers recommendations to policymakers as they consider ways to formulate digital learning policy:

1.       Consider digital learning options that will address the unique needs of a specific region

Effective digital learning policy accounts for the strengths and needs that are unique to a region.  While investment in a learning management system may be appropriate for a highly developed region, other areas may be better served by improved access to the Internet.  Likewise, disparities within  regions may mean that students and teachers in rural and remote areas lack access to the educational and technological resources that more populous areas take for granted.

2.       Develop a rationale for digital learning

Advocates for digital learning may cite different reasons for their support. Some emphasize the role that education plays in preparing students for the workforce, arguing that students must be highly digitally literate to succeed in today’s technology-driven workplace. Others focus on technology’s ability to improve student achievement and enhance educator effectiveness, while still others argue that digital learning promotes more equitable access to education.  Consideration of these rationales is likely to increase stakeholder buy-in and produce clearer policy.

3.       Support successful digital learning implementation strategies

Successful digital learning programs provide for ongoing and substantive support to teachers and principals who must be trained to effectively incorporate any new technologies into their practice and maximize on the potential of those technologies. Further, effective digital learning policy provides for the ongoing evaluation of any digital learning initiative, which in turn allows for ongoing program improvement.

How effective have digital learning initiatives in your region been? What is your current digital learning policy? What obstacles does your district or school face in creating one?

For further details on effective digital learning policy, read this free McREL resource: Beyond Access: Effective Digital Learning for a Globalized World.

Written by Allison Dunlap, policy research assistant at McREL.


Pedró, F. (2012). Trusting the unknown: The effects of technology use in education. In Soumitra Dutta & Beñat Bilbao-Osorio (Eds.) 135–146, The Global Information Technology Report 2012: Living in a Hyperconnected World. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Tech CITW captures the “big picture”

On occasion, we come across mentions of our work that let us know how our work impacts educational leaders, teachers, and students. We were especially thrilled when The 21st Century Principal blogged about the 2nd
edition of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. We thank blogger J. Robinson, former
teacher and administrator, for recommending our work to his readers:

Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works is not a “how-to” book when
it comes to employing technology in the engagement of instruction. Rather, it is
a ‘big-picture’ book that surveys the field of technological tools and helps
the teacher connect with the kinds of technology she might wish to use in the

Check out Robinson’s blog or follow him @21stprincipal on Twitter to read more of his ideas and musings as he grapples with an ever-shifting learning environment.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is co-author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition.