Alan Landever is the Director of Technology at USD 207 in Fort Leavenworth Kansas, a four-school district inside the US Army facility. In 2010, he helped develop the CYBER-TEAMS concept and successfully applied for a $2.5M grant to fund the three-year project. He serves as the day-to-day leader of the initiative, now in its second year. CYBER-TEAMS is built on recurring professional development of TEAMS thinking (STEM + Arts Integration) for teachers, plus significant technology upgrades across the district.
The CYBER-TEAMS program has received several awards, including the 2012-2013 Distinguished Program Award from Apple. Alan and his team frequently share their research and experiences at local and national educational technology conferences. Based in part on the success of CYBER-TEAMS, the KU school of Education has placed a cohort of its student teachers with the Fort Leavenworth Schools in order to learn from their technology integration model. Prior to USD 207, Alan worked at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. One of his first jobs was as a classroom science teacher.
MO: Do you think that the prevalence of social media and our dependence on the internet has should change how and what we teach to students?
Alan: Yes, of course social media and the internet have changed the way we live. We are now teaching digital natives who know how to access information on their own, and that means we can teach with a more learner-centered approach—if we choose to do so as educators.
My own kids are in the 1st and 3rd grade and they have had their personal iPods for as long as they can remember. The other day my first grader wanted to draw a picture of an Italian flag. He Googled it on his iPod to figure out what color crayon he needed. My third grader is starting to text with her friends (we are closely supervising this and have lots of conversations about digital citizenship). Both of them enjoy FaceTime chats to share dinnertime or to study spelling words with grandma and grandpa who live across the country.
The world has changed, significantly. We would be doing a tremendous injustice to our kids if we attempt to sit them in rows and have them silently absorb our curriculum in the scope and sequence that we decide to share it with them. These kids know what it is like to use these tools to answer their questions and make new discoveries. The education system, as it is now, was designed for a prior century. It is awkward to be at the tipping point, but it is time for a significant transformation in public education to occur. If it doesn’t happen quickly I predict we are going to see a significant increase in online and charter school programs that are designed to support the way students really do learn today.
MO: What are some of the key challenges that you face when it comes to teaching technology and innovations?
Alan: I am reminded of an old commercial with a man talking about all the new innovations he and his team are implementing, and then the shot pans wide to show him with a bunch of people building a plane as it is flying through the clouds. Our teachers at USD 207 are doing just that. They are working hard to integrate new tools and refocus the learning environment to be more student-centered and all the while, they are working within the tightly scripted well-planned and unyielding time schedule that orchestrates hundreds of moving parts (learners) simultaneously.
It really is an amazing thing to watch these teachers make it happen. A key challenge from my perspective is to provide teachers with the right tools that will have the greatest possible impact on learning and helping to support the integration of these tools, so that the teacher has the confidence in its operation and understanding of its efficacy. It’s not about me or my technicians being able to make a piece of technology work, we need technology in place that is 100% reliable because the teachers simply can not take the time to troubleshoot technical problems when they are trying to keep this plane in the air.
MO: What advice would you give when it comes to team building?
Alan: Even though he was talking more about change management, I think Jim Collins hit the nail on its head with regard to team building, “It is important to get the right people on the bus and to get them in the right seats.” That is not an easy thing to accomplish. And even with the right people in the right places we as leaders need to remember that we are all emotionally charged people with an ego and needs and issues (some disclosed and some undisclosed).
I worked for 9 years as a Vice President for an educational not-for-profit associated with NASA, I reported to the board of directors quarterly and had the honor of working directly with Russ Griffith who was the President of DataTel and committee chair for our technical support working group. Russ was a great leader and during his tenure, DataTel was named best place to work in the DC metro area several times. I am often reminded of a piece of advice that Russ shared with me during one of our committee meetings, “We are all emotional human beings, the more we can control our emotions and anticipate how others will react emotionally the better off everyone will be.” This is a hard thing to do, perhaps that is why I think of it so often. That reminds me of another favorite quote from Russ, “I’ll take sustained progress over delayed perfection any day”.
I try to foster communications as much as possible with my team. Every morning, we have a 7:30 a.m. status meeting to start our day. We discuss what happened yesterday and what we have in store for today. We seek to understand how each might be able to help. Then, as much as possible we go out and do our jobs. I hope my team feels empowered and supported. As for me, I trust them to make good decisions and to seek my input when needed.
MO: Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind and the process of putting together your unique CYBER-TEAMS?
Alan: I entered into education as a profession from an alternate route. My degree was engineering technology but I found myself working in a school setting. I knew that was the environment I wanted to work in but I did not have teaching certifications. I pursued an alternative route to teacher certification and had a few very impactful non-traditional teaching methods workshops. I think that these innovative workshops struck a strong tone within me because my perspective was not confined to the traditional teacher education process. And frankly, I was not overly successful as a student in a traditional school environment as a child, myself.
One of our primary goals with the CYBER-TEAMS has been to use simulation and foster collaboration. We wanted to build STEM skills, but felt passionately that the Arts could not be ignored—and the research bears this out. We also wanted to create an active, technology-enabled environment more akin to “academic recess” than the traditional classroom of straight lines and dictated instruction.
Another part of our inspiration for the CYBER-TEAMS was to enhance the learning environment and we wanted to do it in a way that was both effective and sustainable. We did many things to achieve this, including adding audio systems in each classroom to enhance the instructor’s voice and upgrading our projectors to the Epson interactive projectors because of their functionality and lower cost of ownership than our previous projectors, which required much more costly bulbs.
CYBER-TEAMS is about building that environment across our entire school district. TEAMS is the operative element. This is a STEM grant initiative but we have incorporated the arts and built all activities on a foundation to foster collaboration. We think the following mathematical expression sums it up pretty well…. (STEM+Arts)* Collaboration = TEAMS
Our teachers have really taken the original concept and made it something great. They talk about TEAMS Thinking. What we mean by TEAMS Thinking is more than any one of the five important elements, Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. We believe that just like any team, it’s not about any one player or any one step. We believe all problems and projects can be approached by using TEAMS Thinking. Starting with the end in mind – take the problem/project/question at hand and….
1) Think like a scientist – ask questions, collect data
2) Think like a mathematician – analyze data, consider the proper order of operations
3) Think like an artist – what is the output, how can it be most meaningful to me and my audience?
4) Think like an engineer – explore an iterative process, find the weakness and fix it, make it better, review and make future recommendations
5) Think like a technologist – what is the best tool available to do the job?
MO: Do you think that it’s possible to teach someone to become an innovator or is it more of an innate quality?
Alan: I think everyone has the natural capacity to be an innovator. I think we all come up with new ways to do things every day. To me, it’s not about teaching someone to become an innovator; it’s about empowering someone to be an innovator. Helping young students to tap their innate creativity and innovation skills is something that we talk about as educators almost every time we get together for workshops and other professional discussions at USD 207. We talk about innovation at the strategic level, and we talk about it at the tactical level, then we go out and try it and learn from our successes and our mistakes.
MO: How do you see technology shaping the direction of education in the years to come?
Alan: I think technology is going to completely disrupt the educational institutions as we have come to know them. It was less than half a generation ago that the internet could only be imagined by the most astute futurists. The way the world operates has changed completely before our very eyes and it is a given that innovation is not going to stop. It seems almost cruel to keep students boxed in age appropriate rooms following a predetermined scope and sequence designed to give them little bits of knowledge that they will likely forget.
One of the most resilient and adaptable people whom I have ever worked with is a woman who attended a one-room K-12 school house in rural Missouri. She has a completely open mindset—it’s how she approaches life.
I began my career working in schools while going to college. Those were the days desktop computers were first becoming available in schools and most people did not have one at home. I learned quickly that providing professional development to teachers is the single most important indicator of programmatic success.
With that in mind, I like to think that what I really do is build better environments for learning. Typically, these are technology rich environments, but I am keenly aware that technology is not the answer, it is just a tool to support learning and the process of learning. I want the teachers to be both confident and competent using these tools. If I meet my goal then they will transform that learning environment from a typical classroom of years ago into a student centered realm that inspires collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking that will strengthen communication skills.
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