Q&A: How One Teacher Is Integrating Tech on a Tight Budget

July 21, 2014
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

Mary Foster, a technology teacher at University Park Elementary, has spent 21 years in the classroom, 14 of them training educators and teaching technology to Grades K–5 in Denver. Her school is currently operating under a blended learning grant, which will help educators transition from a “pull-out” technology model to a more integrated approach in which technology is part of students’ everyday routines. Foster explained how she makes it work with technology, despite a limited budget and infrastructure challenges.

Common Sense Media: Have your ideas about digital literacy evolved since you began teaching technology 14 years ago?

Mary Foster: My ideas have changed tremendously. When I first started, I had a nice computer lab, and for me, it was still about the stuff -- the tools themselves. My goal was to get the technology into the classroom and into kids’ hands. Then I realized it’s always about the teacher, and what technology needs to do is to enhance teachers’ job by making them more efficient. My job has become less about the technology itself, and more about integrating it into my classroom to make me most effective.

You’ve spent 21 years in the classroom. What has surprised you most along the way?

The change in the learner. Good teaching has always been about motivating students, knowing each individual, and knowing what they bring to the classroom. None of that has changed. But at a workshop on learning and the brain, I was taught that today’s learners are physiologically different. Today’s students learn differently than their parents did when they were their age.

Today’s students learn differently than their parents did when they were their age.

Many educators are wondering how to teach this new kind of learner. This is especially true now that kids have been using technology to learn in fun and engaging ways outside of school. To think that they’ll come into my classroom and listen to me lecture them without the technology they’re seeing elsewhere? Not going to happen.

That’s interesting. Can you elaborate?

From day one, these kids are accustomed to watching a computer or a phone that gives them immediate feedback. Especially within the context of digital games, they’ve become accustomed to looking at what they did, knowing immediately what they did wrong, and making those changes in order to advance. They’ve got poor concentration, but are very visual. They grew up with visual cues, and they’re accustomed to getting quick and accurate feedback. Back when I started teaching in the 1970s, it was all about teaching kids why they need to learn algebra and making those connections to their world. Today’s kids have become more demanding of that.

Has digital media affected how they engage in the classroom? What keeps them engaged today?

Collaborating and communicating with other people around the world excites them. They love the idea of working with students from other states and cities. They love emailing, and using social media. They love connecting. We’re trying to use that, but add in the learning part. The thing they connect with the most is sharing and collaborating, rather than working independently—they just don’t see the relevancy of that.

Are there any digital media concepts that are harder for students to grasp than others?

Online safety and digital citizenship—it’s a constant juggle to teach those skills with devices and platforms that they love to use but don’t yet understand. Kids are learning that technology can give them a kind of anonymity, but they still have the trusting nature of children. They don’t understand that the person they think they’re connecting with could be lying about their identity.

Privacy and the permanence of the Internet are other subjects they have difficulty grasping. I do a lot of training on what happens when you actually send a photo to someone. They don’t understand that it’s not like a paper photo, but that it can exist online forever, and that people can then multiply it and distribute it.

They also don’t see the relevancy in certain skills. For example, they accept that they have to learn keyboarding, but they don’t really know why. Some of my students come into the classroom and they’ve never used a computer mouse. I often tell them, “I know you guys are awesome at texting, but you have to learn to keyboard because you’re going to have write papers someday!”

Are there any infrastructure challenges you face related to your school’s technology use?

We don’t have the electrical capacity to support all of the technology we’d like to integrate. We’re not wired for this. We don’t have the place for any more outlets. The infrastructure itself has to evolve. In another year or so we’re going to be implementing online testing, and we don’t have the bandwidth for that. These kinds of necessary developments are hard to explain to the people who want to offer funding because they want to see the physical thing, the iPad itself, but there are other changes that need to happen first.

What kinds of changes do you hope to see going forward with technology and education?

I think educators, in general, must recognize that what we’ve been doing for centuries or even decades is not going to be adequate for the future. In a generation of learners who can’t imagine life without technology, we’re going to have to embrace it. We’re going to have to make it an integral part in every classroom, and not just rely on computer teachers to teach technology. Districts have to understand that technology is expensive. I think a lot of dialogue needs to happen about where that support and funding is going to come from, and what the best technology option is for each school.

Some experts are saying that all of this new technology can also widen the achievement gap if schools in poorer communities do not have access to the technologies students need in the classroom. As educators, we need to do a lot of sharing and communicating. Sharing has always become a part of teaching, but now it’s critical, and administrators have to listen to the teachers.

We are all solving the same problem of, “I have three devices and 28 kids, how do I use them?”

Do you have any tips for other educators attempting to integrate technology on a tight budget?

Communication is key. Teachers need to talk to each other. Everybody’s got a tight budget. We are all solving the same problem of, “I have three devices and 28 kids, how do I use them?” I tell teachers to get together in small groups, but also in online webinars to talk about their struggles. Constant communication and collaboration really help, both within a school and within a district. Across the board, I’ve found my peers are my best resource. Districts also need to be ready to provide training. Unless you’re a very rich charter school, you don’t have all the tools you would like. Nationwide, we're in a budget crunch. The old ways of “my school, my classroom, and my way of doing things” has to go. Elementary school was particularly noted for that, but I’ve seen it changing.