Interview by Victor Rivero
Even before the days when “technology in schools” meant a filmstrip projector’s bright beam cutting through a darkened classroom, Alan Landever’s interest in the area had always burned bright. His first computers were a Commodore VIC-20 and a Timex Sinclair 1000—which he actually built himself. Among friends and associates, he was the first to get online and share information on bulletin boards on the old, loud, and hopelessly slow modems. Since those early days, Alan, who is now the director of technology services at USD 207 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has always persevered and stayed current with the latest and greatest technologies. “I enjoy figuring it all out and finding ways to use it,” says Alan, “and I very much enjoy teaching others how to be more efficient using the appropriate technology.”
In earlier times, Alan worked his way through college lifeguarding in the summers; he later worked at a New Jersey private school, where he first began experimenting with technology integration in the classroom. Soon after graduating with an engineering technology degree, he spent a few years working in New York City installing data communications equipment, but his yearning for a school setting called him back. Ultimately pursuing his education degree and starting a hands-on science program back at the same school, Alan worked on a team “with really excellent teachers who taught me how to teach,” he says. In return, Alan taught them how to use technology. “It was a very formative time for us all,” he recalls. Twenty years later, Alan counts those teachers among his very good friends.
“Back then, I was working on a master’s in instructional technology,” says Alan. “We had a slow modem with prodigy internet in our science classroom. We also had a video production studio. We did great stuff with the kids,” he says. In fact, his school was featured on ABC News in New York and Dateline NBC nationwide for its involvement in an innovative program called MayaQuest.
“More than 2 decades ago, we envisioned the future of educational technology and actually made a video predicting what things would be like in the classroom in 5 years from then. It’s taken a long time, but we’re now finally starting to close in on that vision of the near future from so long ago.” Alan continues to discuss the past, present, and future of the internet at school, as well as the changes and the key barriers still left to overcome in the questions and answers that follow.
Victor: What’s changed since you first got involved? Is it evolutionary or would you agree it’s been very rapid in the past few years?
Alan: In my opinion, instructional technology has not had the impact on “changing education” until just the past few years. Of course, there have been many very innovative people who have truly transformed the learning environment using technology—but for many teachers, even those in “technology-rich” classrooms, they are simply using the technology to deliver the same old curriculum. They’re using interactive whiteboards as efficient blackboards; still delivering the same old stuff the same old way. Even in our district, it’s been like that—and our teachers are really good. However, the past few years with our CYBER-TEAMS initiative, our focus on job-embedded professional development, and the addition of peer coaching on technology and curriculum integration, we’ve seen remarkable changes. Many of those are highlighted on our blog (www.cyberteamscenter.org/moodl).
Victor: What factors have sped up technology integration in the past couple years? Do you agree it’s sped up in that time?
Alan: I do agree it has sped up recently. Mobile technology has a lot to do with it. The way teachers live their lives, spend their time, and communicate has changed. Teachers now see how the classroom experience can and must change to keep students engaged.
Victor: What would you say are some of the major issues technology directors have had to face in the past couple years?
Alan: Budgets to acquire and maintain technology infrastructure and processes to manage service requests and inventory. In my school district, we’re fortunate to have a grant that gives us the opportunity to take things to the next level, but we know that money won’t last forever, and we will need to have the budget to replace the bulbs in our projectors and other significant ongoing expenses. We’re planning for those future tight-budget days. The projectors we're installing--Epson BrightLink projectors--are very efficient, have lots of interactive capabilities, and, best of all, very low bulb replacement costs.
Victor: What are some of the major challenges to come?
Alan: From a purely technical perspective, ensuring that the wireless network is robust enough to handle all the new wireless devices is a big issue. We’ve updated that infrastructure and have monitoring tools in place, so we’re in a good position to deal with it, but that challenge will surely get harder in the next few years.
From a human factors perspective, we need to ensure that our staff members have the confidence and competence to use technology to transform the way they deliver curriculum in a way that engages and motivates students. We have a great model for that with our CYBER-TEAMS initiative, providing lots of professional development opportunities for teachers during the school day, and we also have a very collaborative culture among our staff, which has been in place for several years. Other districts that don’t have that and that lack the budget and support to provide lots of job-embedded professional development are going to have a difficult time generating a systemic positive impact of their investment in instructional technology.
Victor: Are there any great tools for learning out there that you can discuss or even recommend? Why those?
Alan: The classroom audio system we added has greatly enhanced the learning environment. The teacher’s voice is heard clearly in all corners of the classroom, and the kids love using the wireless microphone to read and share. It’s recorded on the computer attached to our interactive projector and can be easily recorded and shared. Interactive whiteboards are also a huge game changer if used to the fullest potential. We want it to be as much a tool for students as for teachers. One of the best things we have seen has been the integration of iPads into the classrooms. Again, we spent lots of time planning and have lots of ongoing professional development to ensure that we find and share best practices.
Victor: What are some of the best resources for accessing content and sharing it all in school settings that you know of?
Alan: In our district, we’re focusing lots of professional development and technical resources on making the most of the Moodle learning management system that we’ve built. It takes a few workshop sessions for teachers to reach that “aha” phase of understanding of the potential of how Moodle can be used to transform the learning environment they manage for their students. To see what I’m talking about, visit www.cyberteamscenter.org/stem/tla-2012-start.
Victor: Any past highlights and any bright spots on the horizon?
Alan: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I led the project to integrate the first computers ever used in classrooms at the school I worked at in New Jersey. I trained teachers and learned along with them how these tools can transform teaching and learning. This was before most of those teachers had computers of their own, and for many, my work with them was their first introduction to the internet. It was an amazing time to be doing what I was doing.
My next major highlight was over the 9 years I worked in support of Challenger Center for Space Science Education at its technology-rich learning centers. [Visit www.challenger.org.] We built realistic mission control and space station simulators where teams of students came together to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and be creative to solve a crisis and manage a realistic space mission. It was and still is an amazing place—there are nearly 50 of them around the world. Using technology to create learning environments that inspire and motivate students is really what educational technology is all about. There is no better example I can think of than what June Scobee Rodgers and the team at Challenger Center have created. It was the most formative experience I could have ever hoped for.
Today, I have the best job I could ever imagine. I’m working for a dynamic superintendent and deputy superintendent team who share a vision that the classroom environment we all grew up with is not appropriate for the students of today. We’re making very focused and strategic investments that enhance the learning environment in every classroom. But most importantly, we’re investing in the professional development of our teachers. The CYBER-TEAMS initiative we’re developing is a model that other districts can replicate.
Victor: What’s your take on education today, especially in light of rapidly evolving mobile technology, apps, mobile devices, and platforms?
Alan: The world has changed significantly in recent years. My kindergarten-age son uses an iPad to get information and do things that I could not even imagine doing when I was his age. He’s not unique among his peers. These kids cannot be expected to learn at the same slow, systemic approach that we did. They need to be challenged, facilitated, guided, and motivated in a very different way from what we experienced in our school days. If schools don’t adapt, I’m certain that the home-schooling realm will increase significantly. There is not much time. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next 5 years.
Victor: Have you any advice to others, or anything else you’d like to add or emphasize?
Alan: The old, last-year’s model of the school technology department being a bunch of tech geeks who only focus on making things work needs to change. I am a tech geek, but I am also geeky about curriculum and student learning and learning environments. I can outsource the real, high-end tech geek stuff to support companies that have engineers who do that kind of work every day. I’m working with my team to focus more on how technology impacts curriculum delivery. We understand how technology works, we love technology and crave the latest and greatest tools, but we also understand that technology is simply a tool, and we’re only successful if our teachers have the confidence and competence to use it to positively impact student learning. Therefore, our primary role is supporting our customers—the teachers. Our guiding vision is outlined here, beginning with a student- and learning-centric vision: www.cyberteamscenter.org/about-us/cyber-teams-statement and www.cyberteamscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/CYBER-TEAMS-Defined.pdf.
If the technology director of tomorrow is going to be successful, then rather than server configuration and network management, he or she must have curriculum as the top priority.
Contact Victor at victor@VictorRivero.com.