How to Help Teachers Use Technology in the Classroom
The 5J Approach

By Mary Burns / September 2010

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Recent reports (from The Chronicle of Higher Education and Walden University [PDF], for example) point to teachers' continuing difficulties integrating technology into classroom learning. Despite access to technology and despite the fact that novice teachers are entering the classroom with far more advanced technology skills than their counterparts of an earlier age, only 39 percent of teachers report "moderate" or "frequent" use of technology as an instructional tool (Grunwald Associates, 2010).

This limited use may have multiple causes: Teachers may be overwhelmed by demands of testing; they may not see the value of instructional technologies in their particular content area; they may work in environments where principals do not understand or encourage technology use; and the types of software most helpful in instruction are not always the types of applications students know how—or want—to use.

But one cause of this difficulty seems to be the types of technology-related professional development teachers receive. Though technology training is one of the most common types of professional development for teachers—with 60 percent of teachers reporting some sort of technology-related professional development in the past year (NEA, 2008)—only 43 percent rate it "useful" or "very useful." Many teachers report that the instruction they receive in technology integration, whether online or face-to-face, is still too focused on learning how to use the software versus integrating it into the teaching and learning process (NEA, 2008).

Teachers do use technology—for administration, personal productivity, and displaying content (via projectors and document cameras)—but not so much as a student learning tool. Why?

After 25 years of incorporating technology in the learning space, we still may not have figured out how to do technology-related professional development that helps teachers use computers as part of the instructional process. After 25 years of having computers in schools, we still lack an approach that ensures teachers truly understand the benefits and appropriate uses of computers for instruction and that teachers actually use technology as part of teaching and learning.

Back to the Drawing Board: The 5Js

In the 1990s, the Austin-based educational organization, SEDL, developed a technology professional development framework called the "5Js." The five 'J's, which I will explain in further detail in this article, are:
  • job-related
  • just enough
  • just in time
  • just in case
  • just try it.

The approach was used successfully with 150 teachers in five states to help them integrate technology into instruction and assessment. Almost all these teachers were successful in this endeavor—the number of teachers who moved from "low constructivist" to "high constructivist" use tripled after two years (Dimock, et al., 2000).

In Indonesia, where teachers' and students' technology skills are almost minimal at best, Education Development Center recently concluded two pilot technology-coaching projects in which every teacher (of approximately 280) integrated one computer into his or her classroom instruction as a part of a learner-centered activity. EDC's Indonesian technology coaches did so by utilizing SEDL's 5J approach as their "playbook." Given some of the reports we see about American teachers, more than a decade after its development in the U.S., it just might be worth dusting off and revisiting the 5Js to consider how we might improve technology-based professional development and support for teachers.


Beyond Skills Training: A Theory of Action

The 5Js contain little that is new. Their value is in organizing best practices in professional development under a simple mnemonic device that helps educators focus on essential practices that promote quality implementation of an innovation.

The overall approach, sequential and cumulative, is grounded in two basic premises. First, if technology is used as a teaching and learning tool, tied to curricular goals and assessment and embedded within strong instructional techniques, it can promote better instruction and greater student collaboration, enhancing student learning. If not, it can't. Second, professional development can promote quality technology integration and learning by minimizing the importance of computers within professional development and concentrating instead on the core areas of teaching: content, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and classroom management.

According to the 5Js, technology-related teacher professional development should be:

  • job-related, focused on the core competencies of the classroom, not technology
  • just enough, emphasizing increased comfort, not proficiency, with computers and management of limited technology resources
  • just in time, meaning teacher are provided with skills as and when needed
  • just in case teachers need to plan for contingencies
  • accompanied by a "just try it" attitude, wherein instructors apply both pressure and support to compel teachers to use what they've learned.


Job-Related

The teacher's primary role is to help students understand particular subject matter. Everything else is secondary. Therefore, the focus of any computer-related professional development should not be on the technology itself, but on how computers can improve performance in these core areas of the teacher's "job."

Begin with instructional objectives. What should students know and be able to do?

Select appropriate technologies to support these objectives. What technologies can support these instructional objectives? How will the technology be used (with other learning tools) to do this?

Gauge the effectiveness of technology in student learning. How effective is technology in supporting these learning objectives? This allows teachers to make better planning decisions around technology as an instructional tool.

Make professional development workplace-based. Conduct professional development in the very environment in which the teacher will be expected to use computers-her classroom. This builds confidence that teachers can use a particular piece of software given their own constraints. It removes the "deficit" excuse of "I can't do this in my classroom because..." Equally important, classroom-based professional development keeps technology instructors honest. If teachers can't use technology a certain way given their physical or demographic constraints, technology instructors need to know so they can better support teachers with implementation.


Just Enough

Teachers don't need to know everything about a particular piece of software. They only need "just enough" to help them complete a curriculum-related or instructional task. Anything beyond this is wasted effort.

"Just enough" focuses, not on proficiency with technology, but comfort using technology within a curriculum activity.

First teachers need only learn a few software skills to help students use the technology. More important is understanding the software's instructional possibilities. As part of the "just enough" approach, teachers are encouraged to find their own solutions to technology issues, through trial and error, seeking help from colleagues, or reading FAQs and help guides. If this fails, only then should the technology instructor intervene and help the teacher. This approach is often unpopular while it's happening. It may take longer, but in the end, teachers report that they feel more confident once they have solved their own problems. And that's what this "J" aims for-confidence.

Next, the principle of "just enough" encompasses hardware access. Teachers often believe more is better, that more technology in a classroom will yield a more learner-centered environment, while having less hardware impedes such an environment. Limited hardware is often cited by teachers as a rationale for not attempting more collaborative approaches. In the U.S., teacher say, "I have four computers and 25 students. How am I supposed to do this?" In Indonesia, teachers say, "I have one computer and 60 students. How am I supposed to do this?"

The "just enough" principles says whatever the in-class ratio of learners to computers is, it must be the same in the professional development sessions. The sessions then focus on activities that emphasize collaboration and sharing of resources.

Teachers cannot and should not be trained in an environment that is richer with technology than what's in their own schools. This strategy demonstrates to teachers that scarcity of resources can actually breed, rather than impede, collaboration, and that innovation does not always depend on resources (Burns & Dimock, 2007).


Just in Time

The third 'J' is a truism in the field of professional development. Professional development should support teachers' learning just in time — when they are ready to both learn and apply what they've learned with students.

The "just-in time" approach has three main corollaries.

Differentiated professional development. Teachers, like students, have different learning needs and preferences. A just-in-time approach attempts to differentiate the instruction and support teachers receive so they can tailor instruction to particular students.

In-class support. As the teacher plans to pilot her new instructional activity with students, the coach should provide "just-in-time" support-whether it's observation and feedback, support as an assistant, or support as a co-teacher. This "just-in-time" and classroom-based support is most useful before and as the teacher does his activity

Reduce latency. Latency is often a major issue in professional development. Too much time elapses between teacher learning and implementation of learning. By providing professional development close to the point of classroom implementation, this lag time and loss of learning is reduced.


Just in Case

The Indonesian teachers my organization has worked with have many fears about computers. What if they break down? What if students break them? What if students cannot use or easily learn the software in question, particularly if the teacher also feels uncomfortable with the software? How can the teacher use one computer or two computers with 50 students?

These concerns reflect larger fears about control that are not unique to teachers in one country or continent. Technology "disrupts" the classroom equilibrium based on teacher control and expertise in all matters. Limited computers mean grouping, making it harder for teachers to control the class in general and unruly students in particular. Inability to help students with software or troubleshoot a technology problem might reveal teachers to be less than omniscient. Teachers everywhere fear that chaos will ensue.

This fourth 'J' therefore focuses on helping teachers address these control issues by adopting a just-in-case attitude toward computers. This approach focuses on carefully planning the classroom activity. By remembering that computers are just one of many learning tools, teachers can reduce their chances of being caught unaware when computers fail technically or instructionally.

The central tenet of just-in-case thinking is planning.

By deliberately grouping students with varying technical expertise, teachers can delegate computer training to students, thus shifting some instructional responsibility to students.

By working with teachers to always have a Plan B, if technology breaks down or the school's one laptop has been double-booked, learning does not grind to a halt.

Technology cannot save a poorly planned learning experience. Often, it just exacerbates the weaknesses. In this just-in-case approach, technology coaches help teachers plan and organize instruction in a more careful, detailed, and comprehensive fashion. By thinking through and planning for all contingencies, teachers will always have a plan just in case technology fails.


Just Try It

Central to change is action, and this is where professional development often breaks down. "Just try it" is the most important 'J' principle of them all. Without application in the classroom, professional development is a waste of time, money, and effort.

Although it's changing, most professional development programs don't monitor or track teacher implementation of the knowledge and skills they've learned. This is particularly true for online professional development.

Thus, this fifth and final 'J' focuses on getting teachers to just try the computers in their classrooms, and making sure they do through pressure, monitoring, and support.

In the project in Indonesia, teachers knew that after every single professional development session, upon return to their classrooms, they would be expected to apply what they had learned and report the results to colleagues and their coaches.

We've further guaranteed that they "just try it" three ways:

Instituting co-teaching between the coach and teacher

Organizing solo teaching where the coach observes and provides feedback to the teacher

Creating an ongoing practice of "open lessons" where teachers carry out a technology-based activity in front of colleagues.

When they "just try it," teachers know that mistakes will be made. Errors and failure are a natural part of learning. But when everyone in the school "just tries" technology, teachers can begin to help one another and build collaborative teams.

Four strategies can help to ensure that teachers "just try" technology.

First, teaching the curriculum, not the technology, is the teacher's main "job" in a classroom, so any technology-related professional development should make sure that technology supports overall lesson objectives (Job-related).

Next, teachers should receive instruction in technology when (not before) they need it and follow-up support to plan their technology-related activity (Just in time).

Third, technology professional development should de-emphasize the importance of teachers' expertise with software and hardware (Just enough) and emphasize teachers' comfort and confidence with computers. Over the years, I've found it helpful to encourage teachers to envision themselves as project managers who set up the activity, with students as "technicians" who delve into the intricacies of the software.

Finally, teachers need to carefully plan for using technology in their classroom, including strategies to address things they think might go wrong (Just in case).

Only when these five 'J's come together in a systematic way might the story of technology-based trainings have a different ending.


About the Author

Mary Burns has worked with teachers in the U.S., Mexico, Caribbean, Asia, and Africa to help them utilize technology to improve student learning. She is a former teacher who, early in her career, taught in a one-computer classroom and ended up teaching in a 1:1 classroom. At Education Development Center, she designs and conducts online and face-to-face professional development around technology and instruction; evaluates technology and professional development programs; and conducts research on various types of pre- and in-service teacher distance learning.

References

Burns, M. & Dimock, K.V. (2007). Technology as a catalyst for school communities: Beyond boxes and bandwidth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dimock, K.V., Burns, M., Heath, M. & Burniske, J. (2001). Applying technology to restructuring learning: How teachers use computers in technology assisted constructivist learning environments. Austin, TX: SEDL.

Grunwald Associates (2010). Schools and the internet. http://grunwald.com/surveys/si/index.php.

National Education Association. (2008). Access, adequacy, and equity in education technology: Results of a survey of America's teachers and support professionals on technology in public schools and classrooms. Washington, DC: Author.

Walden University (July 28, 2010). Educators, technology and 21st century skills: Dispelling five myths. www.waldenu.edu/Degree-Programs/Masters/36427.htm.

Young, J.R. (July 24, 2010). Reaching the last technology holdouts at the front of the classroom. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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