In an ever-digitizing world, knowing how to use the latest technologies is more important than ever. Nobody understands that better than the people training the next generation.
That’s why 19 educators and staff from Chatham County Schools are pursuing a certification from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The accreditation helps teach educators how to adapt to the modern age, incorporate more technology into the classroom and ensure students are prepared to use current technologies in the workforce.
Since the ISTE certification was established in 2018, more than 1,700 people earned it worldwide spanning 92 countries, with a roughly 75% passing rate.
Emma Braaten, chief technology officer for Chatham County Schools, is one of the 19 pursuing this certification; she spearheaded the effort for other members of the CCS to get it too.
“This certification identifies folks who are leading in that practice of technology and education,” Braaten said.
The process for completing the certification involves a 14-week digital learning course by ISTE, then the completion of a six-month digital portfolio where applicants show achievement of the ISTE Standards for Educators. Those standards, which are updated every eight years, include things like supporting student empowerment, learning to be a global citizen and leveraging technology to improve student learning.
“It’s a very reflective process,” said Carmalita Seitz, certification director for ISTE. “So they dive deep into the standard for educators, and then they’ll reflect back on their practice.”
All 50 states have endorsed or supported ISTE standards in some capacity. In N.C., the education department has partnered with ISTE to give every educator a free membership with the organization, which provides access to things like conferences, training and more. The certification takes that membership one step further to show mastery of technology in the classroom.
With regard to the standards for ISTE certification, technology is defined as any digital tool or resource that can enhance instruction and empower learning, according to Seitz.
Seitz said the certification process forces educators to ask important questions about their objectives for using technology in education. She said the goal of the certification is not to teach how to use technological tools for educators, but rather teach pedagogical principles to find the right tools to suit their needs.
“For an educator to be ISTE certified, what happens is it puts them in a very intentional power position,” Seitz told the News + Record. “So it’s not necessarily being able to teach a student how to use a particular app or device, but it’s how to empower learners to take ownership of their learning with technology.”
Braaten said one of the reasons she pushed several CCS staff to pursue the certification this year is because last year the district established its own digital standards. The staff pursuing ISTE include librarians, curriculum coaches, instructional program facilitators and teachers. If these individuals achieved the designation, they would become models for the rest of the district and state for using technology in the classroom, Braaten said.
The cohort of 19 marks the first time CCS staff have been involved in the ISTE certification process. The course was made possible through a $30,000 grant for professional development from the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction (NCDPI). It costs about $1,000 per applicant to go through the online course and portfolio evaluation, and the remaining funds will go toward researching what technologies from ISTE will be beneficial for students. Each educator who goes through the ISTE application will also receive funding for classroom items related to educational technology, according to Braaten.
“We were looking for a program that would help elevate and grow our staff who were at the leading edge of technology,” she said. “This is a really ambitious goal for our district. And it’s great to see there is such an excitement and student-centricity for this work.”
All 19 CCS staff first had to be accepted by the district by showing examples of technology use in the workplace and when they felt empowered by technology in their own life.
Using technology in education became more ubiquitous than ever during the onset of COVID-19, which saw many schools, including CCS, shift online. A recent Gallup poll shows 85% of educators who used digital learning tools prior to COVID-19 increased their uses of those tools throughout the pandemic, with 65% of all teachers now using digital tools every day.
To Seitz, this proves the need to train educators on the importance of digital learning. She said the ISTE certification can help educators ensure they’re using the apps, devices and digital services in the proper ways to get the most out of their students.
Melissa Parks, a 4th and 5th grade teacher at Silk Hope School, is pursuing the certification because she believes integrating technology is a vital part of teaching. She said, however, it can be challenging to use technology in a meaningful way that isn’t a distraction to students.
For example, Parks does an annual project around the Thanksgiving Day Parade where students are asked to design their own float. But instead of simply drawing or coloring the float, she asks them to make a stop-motion animation.
“I think it’s something that connects to the content, it connects to the digital standards,” Parks said. “But it’s also kind of creating that core memory experience that I hope they’ll remember.”
She said when used properly, using innovative technologies to help students learn can make school fun in new ways. Learning how to expand those innovative uses is why she’s pursuing ISTE.
“I see it as a way for me to connect to my students,” Parks said. “It’s something that I enjoy, it’s something they enjoy, so we can build a relationship using that.”
Since the rise of digital learning during the pandemic, Parks said she saw technological tools for learning become more useful, interactive and collaborative for students. Parks said she frequently uses online quizzes or apps to “gamify” her lessons and make them more creative.
Parks said working toward the certification would make her practice of including these tools even more intentional and strategic to optimize student outcomes.
Last month, CCS held an orientation for the staff members pursuing the certification; each shared examples of how they previously used technology to help students. Some coded microcontrollers with their students, others made collaborative padlets or even mock trials with banned books. Parks said that experience opened her eyes to how much great work the district was already doing and how they’d grow by engaging with the ISTE process.
“I’m just like wow,” Parks said. “If everybody’s already doing these amazing things, I can’t imagine how much better it will be as we dive into this process.”