My first computer was a Texas Instruments 99. I remember the first time I saw it on display at Kmart—I wanted it so bad I cried, and when I got it for Christmas, my parents never saw me again. I spent hours learning BASIC programming. I started by copying existing program codes from hand-me-down tech magazines. Transcription turned into creation as I started making my own tweaks to the code. I wasn’t a computer genius, but I loved computers and programming. I ended up developing skills I would use for the rest of my educational and work life.
When I read about today’s technology initiatives, I am often discouraged. Everything I learned with my old TI-99 and the myriad computers to follow had nothing to do with the machine. In every instance, it was a tool, an outlet and a vehicle for learning. It wasn’t the device. It was the THINKING I did with the device.
I finally found someone to validate my view of technology in education; her name is Keri Randolph, the director of learning for the STEM hub and PEF’s vice president of learning. Earlier this month, I had a chance to pick her brain on her path to teaching and the district’s one-to-one technology initiative.
Tell me a little about your background. What pulled you toward education, and how do you reconcile that with your current role?
I spent most of my life swearing I wouldn’t be a teacher. I majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College. I started graduate school at Michigan State in environmental microbiology. There were only two females on the whole floor where I did my research; it was cutthroat and competitive—and very isolating. As part of my assistantship, I had to teach undergraduate labs. I found myself working tirelessly to make the content come alive, and my research took more and more of a backburner. I could deny my love of teaching no more.
North Carolina was so desperate for science teachers I could walk right into the classroom and begin teaching high school. This is not a path I would recommend. I was in the first cohort of NC TEACH, an alternative licensure program which allowed professionals with undergraduate degrees the ability to begin teaching right away and earn teaching credentials during the first year. It was hell. If it weren’t for the assistant principal, a kind teacher down the hall and my crazy refusal to never give up, I wouldn’t have made it.
The more I taught, the more I realized my research background was an asset. During my 10 years in the classroom, I started to really understand how influential a teacher can be, in good and bad ways. I wanted to impact more students, and the only way I could think to do this was to work with teachers. I began working with preservice teachers around 2005. I officially left the classroom in 2010—and I miss working directly with kids every day.
Tell me a little about your prior one-to-one experience. What do you hope to replicate, and what do you plan to do differently?
The district where I taught in North Carolina began the transition to one-to-one (one device for every student) using Golden Leaf Foundation funds in 2005. All high school students received iBooks in 2006. There were lots of problems: The Internet capacity wasn’t sufficient, so I planned one lesson and then a backup lesson in case the students couldn’t get on the network.
The aspects of my one-to-one experience which I hope to replicate is the excitement around education it generates. It can be like a breath of fresh air for education in a community, something to be excited about rather than the bad news we often hear. The other aspect is the self-sufficiency it can bring. Students are no longer dependent on a teacher or textbook to be a giver of knowledge. Learning can extend beyond the school day or structured class time. Learning is more authentic and connected. From the beginning of the one-to-one project, my goal has been to start the conversation with learning and keep talking about learning.
Why are one-to-one technology efforts important?
We are behind. There is limited technology in the hands of students in our schools. We need kids using technology in authentic, goal-directed ways. Currently, many students use it for games and social media, but they don’t understand technology as a process and as a tool for work. Many people criticize investment in devices for students, citing concerns over how quickly devices become obsolete. It is true that technology is changing rapidly, and schools do and will always struggle to keep up. This is more impetus to push technology into classrooms. It isn’t about the device—it is about the process.
Describe some of the current initiative’s biggest challenges and successes.
The biggest challenges include a small IT staff supporting over 45,000 users, infrastructure, lack of instructional technology support and lack of time for professional learning for teachers. Among the biggest successes is that schools have leveraged their own funds to add to those the Benwood Foundation has provided to increase device numbers well above the number we originally proposed. The best is the excitement of the kids. Last week at Red Bank Elementary, the students received their iPads and skipped recess to begin working with them. The looks on their faces were a huge success. They are excited about school.
What can parents, guardians or other interested community members do to help students in a technology-centered environment?
Start the conversation at your school. Find out what barriers exist. Help students understand what responsible use is and what it means to be a good digital citizen. Ask your student to show you what they are learning. Let them teach you. If you are considering purchasing technology for your student, ask your school what they would recommend. If you are upgrading, consider donating your gently used devices to your local school.
Did you catch the part where she said, "It isn’t about the device—it is about the process"? As the nation continues to integrate technology into classrooms, remembering this quote will become more and more important. Despite my continuing love for it, my TI-99 is obsolete, but the thinking skills it developed are future-proofed. Thank you to Keri Randolph for taking the time to entertain my questions AND for shepherding a huge step forward in the technology-education integration.
Keith White is PEF Chattanooga’s director of research and effectiveness. Feel free to reach out to him by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.