Machine Learning: LTIs Teach Tech to Teachers

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Sandy Shaffer, Learning Technology Integrator for Brownsville and Meriwether Lewis Elementary Schools this year. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Stroll down a Brownsville Elementary School hallway with Sandy Shaffer, and you won’t get far without a teacher popping out of a classroom to flag her down with questions, requests for help, and expressions of gratitude. Shaffer is the Learning Technology Integrator (LTI) for Brownsville and Meriwether Lewis schools this year, part of a team of 14 LTIs in schools throughout Albemarle County, up from seven such specialists last year.

Shaffer, who has taught pre-K, first grade and third grade and who also spent five years as an instructional coach before switching to the LTI position last year, describes the job as a facilitator. “Our role is to support teachers and learners as they integrate technology into the classroom in meaningful ways,” she said. “It’s about aligning tech with instructional purpose, based on what teachers want their students to be able to know, understand, and do.”

While an avalanche of educational devices, software, and gadgets is available for teachers to employ in their classrooms, many teachers are leery about the investment of time and steep learning curve required to adopt new tech. At the same time, students often arrive at school with computer and mobile device experience from home and a high level of tech comfort. “It’s a challenge for educators,” said Shaffer. “We don’t want classroom learning to be so set apart from ‘real life’ that it’s unengaging for students.”

Educational tech equipment varies widely and can serve multiple purposes. For instance, some teachers use a mobile interactive panel—essentially a large screen on wheels—that can project whatever is on a teacher’s computer for the class to view, and can also serve as a touch panel so multiple students can interact with it. Other teachers create lessons using pocket-sized coding robots called Ozobots for kids to learn about programming in an autonomous, creative way. 

The LTI’s job is one of matchmaking—finding tools that fit a teacher’s goal while also deciphering his or her learning style and desired level of support while they work the technology into their classrooms. “Some teachers find a tool they want to try, and I can give them some resources and they’ll dive in on their own,” said Shaffer. “Others prefer that I model the tech in the classroom, or co-teach it with them, and that’s great, too. The really neat thing about my job is that I get to help teachers and students see what’s possible.”

Brian Squires, Learning Technology Integrator for Crozet, Murray, and Red Hill Elementary Schools this year. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Brian Squires is an 18-year teaching veteran whose curiosity for “bringing whatever is new and interesting into the classroom” caught the attention of former Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran as she recruited LTIs for the county. He will be working with Crozet, Murray, and Red Hill elementary schools starting this year. 

“Sometimes teachers see something that someone else does and has fun with, and they wonder how that works but are a little nervous about jumping in themselves,” said Squires. “I felt that if there was a way I could help them by showing them how it works and supporting them, then teachers would feel more confident using the tools.”

Squires himself learned about tech tools in this manner over the past few years, first by observing colleague Willy Kjellstrom doing a “Makey Makey” (electronic invention tool) project with students. “I hopped over to see how it worked, and I liked it so much that I wrote and received a Shannon Grant for it and used it to teach scratch coding.” He absorbed the potential for Ozobots and Minecraft tools the same way.

One of Squires’ favorite aspects of educational tech is seeing students discover their own skills and creativity. “One of my students really struggled with reading and math, but she had a spatial reasoning ability that nobody else had,” he said. “When students were asked to make a shape out of (digital) blocks, many made a square, but she made a cat. She could just ‘see’ it, and the others crowded around to see how she did it.” 

The school division is making a strong push this year to emphasize “digital citizenship” and Internet safety among students, and Shaffer says the LTIs are reinforcing that message. “Because students come in with an already-established level of tech savvy, we often assume an equitable level of digital citizenship as well, and that’s not always present.” Students are taught to be respectful and kind in their online interactions, and to treat people in the digital realm the same way they’d treat them in person. 

Shaffer is also interested in “introducing teachers to the power of the immersive platform of Minecraft for learning,” she said. While many parents know Minecraft as merely an online game, educators have access to downloadable content that can enhance almost any unit of study. “Third grade students might engage with ancient civilization they are studying, and fourth graders can interact with the solar system, for example.”

Squires thinks that tech can be a great equalizer, as well. “It doesn’t matter who you are, your academic standing, or socioeconomic status, technology really levels the playing field among students when you bring it into the classroom,” he said. “Something about it starts everybody at the same point, and creativity takes it from there.” 

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