On the Quest for Relevance with Technology Integration

There is an old saying about looking to the past to understand the future, and I had the opportunity to do this when connecting with Ann McMullan.

Ann was a long-time social studies teacher turned district technology leader from Klein ISD, located just outside Houston, Texas. In our conversation, we took a trip down memory lane, back to the very early beginnings of ed tech, before ed tech was really a thing. She mentioned using a VCR and floppy disks, which we chuckled about as these are now ancient history to many of today’s students.

Ann is a pioneer in technology integration, and her passion for imbuing learning with relevance and elevating the student experience helped bring digital tools to all 50 campus locations in Klein ISD, which today serves a student body of over 50,000 students. She is the author of Life Lessons in Leadership: The Way of the Wallaby; and today, Ann is based in Los Angeles, California and works as a consultant, focusing on educational leadership. As a national leader in technology integration,

Ann’s experience paves a useful story for educators today, both veteran and new. Ann teaches us:

  • To pursue relevance and think holistically.
  • To be intrepid and adaptable.
  • To support and seek support from peers.

Technology integration can change the way students think about different subjects, the way they envision their future, and the way they engage in the classroom. So, without further ado, here are some highlights from our conversation.


The Aha Moments – Then and Now

In talking with Ann, I was curious to know what made her first realize the potential for technology in the classroom and what those early days looked like.

“I first ‘stumbled’ on technology when I was presenting at a social studies conference and came across a gentleman sitting at an Apple IIE computer. It was a black and white screen at that time. He had a picture of the globe on the screen. He clicked on Europe, then France, then Paris and I was blown away!

Something about the immediacy of accessing those visuals really caught my interest and enthusiasm. From that point, I began to learn about online programs that fit well with the eighth-grade US History Course I was teaching at the time…Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?, Decisions, Decisions. Once I had the opportunity to observe my students connecting with technology, I was hooked for life.

I have to credit my building principal and our district superintendent for working hard – and having faith in me and the technology – to create a computer lab in the Social Studies wing of our school. It was called ‘The Discovery Lab’. Once that lab was established, I was able to bring my students to the lab on a regular basis, and it was clear that the technology was a powerful learning tool for them. Other teachers soon took advantage of that new learning opportunity for their students.

In those days, only one computer in the lab was attached to the Internet. I used a program called ‘Web Whacker’ to download websites to a floppy disc and then install the website from the floppy disc on each of the individual computers in the lab. One of the first times I remember doing this was during the 1996 presidential election. My students were able to do real-time research on each of the candidates and participate in a mock election in class. The students loved it.

When our principal came by “The Discovery Lab” for a visit one day, he had a great conversation with one of the students about the work the student was doing. That particular student had previously only had ‘discipline issue’ discussions with the principal. That day, the student shared what he was learning. Both the student and the principal were very proud. Those types of events with the students convinced me that technology needed to be a part of their learning experiences.”

Fast forward to now, and classrooms contain iPads, 3D printers, and VR glasses. And these open up even more possibilities for deepening technology integration. Ann commented:

“As a former history teacher, the idea of using virtual reality to have students step back in time is very powerful. When I was teaching history, I was very much into roleplaying. For example, students would recreate the Constitutional Convention in the classroom and play the role of different original delegates, argue their points of view and create their own constitution. Well now, they could put on the glasses and be present in that room in Philadelphia.”


There’s EdTech for That

As technology continues to grow in schools and the possibilities for tech integration in the classroom are unlocked, the number of available digital tools can be overwhelming. How do educators break through the noise and find the high impact programs that will truly drive their intended progress in the classroom?

“For me the key is to always remember that teachers are in the ‘learning business’, not the ‘technology business.’ Our edtech team focused on meeting the learning needs of the students and recognizing the unique classroom environment that each teacher worked in.

I still believe that the most important element in a classroom is the relationship between teacher and student. That's a face-to-face, everyday connection, and it has to be there in order for things to work.

There is no time to waste on programs that are neither proven nor reliable. It is also important to understand that when technology is used effectively it must lead to changes in instructional practice. Learning new pedagogy must go hand in hand with learning technology tools and applications, which is something both teachers and administrators need to comprehend and practice.”


The Case for New Approaches to Learning

In other words, shifts in approaches to teaching and learning must also occur in order derive the benefit from digital tools. Pedagogy must evolve to accommodate new levels of modification and redefinition for technology integration.

And changing the way learning happens is critically important for bringing education into the 21st century. This desire to modernize education is something that drives much of Ann’s work. Learning must be relevant.

“As important as it is to assure that all students graduate ‘college and career ready’ it is also important that life in the classroom today reflect real life outside the classroom today. Technology is a part of everyday life – in one form or another – for almost everyone. For too many students walking into a classroom today is like stepping back in time to 1955 or 1965. Nothing has changed in many classrooms, yet the world has changed dramatically.

Another driver is the changing nature of work. That’s where an emphasis not just on technology but also on the ‘soft skills’ – the ‘C’s’: Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking – must be taught and practiced regularly. Today there are other ‘C’s’ that are sometimes also added: Computational Thinking; Citizenship; Civility.

Finally, the need for students to truly understand what happens when they are present in a digital world is so critical today. People are now just beginning to understand the impact of our interactions in an online world and students must come to know how to be and act smart and responsibly in a digital world.”


Innovating Together

In pursuit of relevant and effective teaching, whether it was through downloading websites to floppy disks or now through virtual reality, the anxiety and excitement that accompany introducing new teaching strategies persists. Being able to collaborate with peers is immensely important; plus knowing that innovating with technology in the classroom doesn’t require a high level of technical expertise, nor does it succeed well if you are working at it alone.

Ann really empathizes with this. She wasn’t a tech expert, so she sought out learning opportunities from peers.

“K-12 education has traditionally operated in a very siloed environment. Teachers were often on their own once assigned to a classroom. But today there is so much to consider, that I think the growing notion of scheduling a common planning period for teachers to come together to collectively reflect and plan for instruction is very powerful.

It is also critically important that teachers have an opportunity to observe firsthand how other teachers and their students are implementing technology effectively. This is especially powerful if they can observe teachers at their own campus but visiting classrooms at other schools is also a viable option.

Teachers also need to be assured that ‘failure’ is part of the learning process – not just for their students but for professional educators as well. Teachers need to know it is okay to ask for help when something doesn’t go right.”

Indeed, no educator needs to go it alone. Technology integration is a big, often district-wide effort, but teachers and their students are the end users. They must feel empowered to try, to learn from failure, and to invent new ways to apply technology in the classroom. Doing so is essential for future readiness – for schools and districts to elevate students’ lives beyond the school building’s walls. Think “why”, think big, and think what’s next.


Digital Equity and Beyond

Along these lines, I closed my discussion with Ann by asking if there was one thing she could change about digital learning at every school, what would it be?

“The issues around Digital Equity – All students should have access to effective and appropriate digital tools and Internet access at school and at home…and access to teachers, school leaders and parents who are proficient and enthusiastic about helping them learn and succeed when leveraging the power of technology.”

Use technology to make learning relevant. Use technology to redefine pedagogy. Use technology to break down barriers for all students.

Insights By

Ann McMullan

A 34-year veteran educator, Ann spent 18 years as an innovative social studies teacher, followed by 16 years as a school district administrator. In that role, she led the visioning, planning and effective implementation of strategies and tools for digital learning. Ann concluded her work in Klein ISD as the Executive Director for Educational Technology prior to moving to Los Angeles in 2013. Because Ann felt that the work she had been doing in leading the changes in education systems to meet the needs of today’s students was still urgent and relevant, soon after her move to Los Angeles, she started her own independent education consulting firm in the fall of 2013 and now works nationally and internationally as a speaker, writer and consultant.

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