An elementary school technology coordinator shares his perspective about the difference the right tech tools can make.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Kyle Calderwood

I know it’s said a lot, but I do believe that technology is the tool, not the facilitator in the classroom. It needs to aid the lesson, not be the lesson. And while technology is an incredible tool, sometimes it needs some help.

A technologically-integrated classroom—along with the right instruction—has the power to introduce children to the wonders of the world without ever leaving their school. That’s what we try to accomplish at Tuckerton Elementary School. Over the past few years, we’ve managed to transform our classrooms by combining technology and our incredible staff.

From a Conference to a Dream Job

Before I came to Tuckerton Elementary, I worked at a university for 10 years and then went on to complete my Master’s degree in Instructional Technology. Still, at the university, I knew I wanted my next job to be in a technical role, but didn’t know exactly where I fit.

In 2011, on a whim, I went to the ISTE conference. While I was there, I saw the incredible things educators were doing with technology in the classroom. As I had discussions with these teachers, a light bulb went off in my head. I suddenly knew my path needed to combine education and technology.

I was offered a promotion at the university that took me from the telecommunications department to their computer services department. There, I started to work with faculty, staff, and students.

After a couple of years in this new role, I saw a listing for my current role on Twitter and decided to apply. The prospect of this new position enticed me. I quickly realized this job was exactly where I was meant to be.

By taking this job, I could come into the program at Tuckerton and make it my own. In addition, the people who interviewed me were warm and welcoming, and they demonstrated they were open to new ideas. The staff knew technology offered some incredible educational opportunities for their students, and they wanted to see how we could make it happen.

Since I would serve as the sole IT person in the school, I had the power to shape the way technology was positioned. I wanted to make sure we went about this process right. I had a vision to create classrooms with easily accessible technology that kept kids safe and enhanced their learning: but this would be no easy task.

Same Money, More Tech

When I joined, Tuckerton already understood the power of technology, but I saw areas where we could do even better. They had a handful of Apple devices for a few older students, but they were outdated and desperately needed to be replaced.

To address this, I went to the administration with a proposal: I could upgrade the existing devices, or I could use the same budget to buy several carts of Google Chromebooks. In terms of building a technologically integrated school, there was no question about which would be the better choice. For the same amount of money, we could get devices into the hands of considerably more children. Over the next few years, we were able to get enough Chromebooks to outfit all our students from sixth grade all the way down to the second.

The Chromebooks offered me some incredible advantages. Not only were they budget-friendly, but they also allowed me to manage them from the web. I could make changes to the network and systems, and then push them out to everyone at the school. Since I was a one-man show, this was incredible.

With the drastic increase in the number of Chromebooks we offered, our students began to experience the power of technology in the classroom. Students use the devices for research, to explore their creative side, and to see all that the world has to offer them. It was an incredible transformation.

When Two Become One

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly during this transformation. Being the only IT person means I not only have all the standard IT responsibilities, but I also need to work with teachers to integrate these capabilities into the classroom. Remember that the technology itself is just a small part of the conversation—it’s only the tool.

One of our top priorities, of course, is keeping kids safe with this technology. We want students to use the devices to expand their world, but we all know how easy it is for children to stumble across inappropriate material.

To help, we started to use GoGuardian Admin and Hapara. On the GoGuardian side, we wanted to go deeper than simple filtering. It allowed me to set up a firewall for the entire building. I could also set up filters by organizational units. That meant I was able to designate certain filters for particular grade levels or classrooms. For example, there might be websites that are appropriate for sixth graders, but they wouldn’t be something we want a second grader to land on. Similarly, we could customize filters based on a day’s lesson to make teachers’ lives easier.

We were able to view student screens live to be sure they were on task. Whenever there was a momentary lapse in judgment we were able to have a discussion with the student about making correct choices. Similarly, when a student searches for flagged terms, our staff is alerted and again we can have the discussion to make sure students are not only making the correct choices but that they know they are safe.

Often times, more devices mean just more work to track. Before, I had a spreadsheet where I’d note which devices were being repaired. The number wasn’t huge, but I’d mark a device as “Out for repair,” get inundated with other tasks, and then forget all about it. That was a mess to sort out. But with new technology integration, I could track every device and easily knew where everything was. It may sound simple, but it was a task I shouldn’t have had to expel mental energy on.

Hands Off, But Still in Control

What I love about these technology integrations is that while I do check, I have the assurance that these critical aspects give me more time in the day and more headspace to dedicate to pressing items. I can be more hands-off with the protection of the students, without compromising the tools’ effectiveness. This makes it easier for me to efficiently do my job, given the other responsibilities on my plate.

This ability to step back has been instrumental in my ability to integrate technology in the school. Since teachers can manage a great deal themselves, they have fewer barriers to an attentive classroom. I also have more time to train and offer advice because I’m not bogged down by manual tasks.

At Tuckerton, we can allow our students more flexibility to explore the online world, while still knowing they’ll be safe and productive. If we didn’t have such a strong program, our teachers couldn’t use technology in such an integrated way.

Now, our students can do everything from taking virtual field trips, to chat with researchers in Antarctica, to Skype with other classrooms. All of this wouldn’t be possible without technology, but we like to think we also had something to do with it.

Kyle Calderwood (pictured, top) is the Technology Coordinator at Tuckerton Elementary School in New Jersey. He has presented on personalized learning networks (PLNs), using Skype in the classroom, augmented reality, and has been a speaker at BETT, FETC, ISTE, and other conferences. Connect with him through LinkedIn