Online master’s program produces technology experts in education

Carrie Hillman is passionate about using technology to open new avenues of learning for her students.

“Having that technology integration piece lets kids explore their passions,” Hillman said. “They have the world at their fingertips. Why not empower them to use it?”

Hillman, a technology integration specialist at Nevada Community School District, is a 2013 graduate of Iowa State University’s online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instructional technology.

Over the past decade, the program has prepared 67 educators to use technology appropriately and effectively for learning. The online program is part of the Iowa State University School of Education.

“Our courses are all about building expertise and building networks of educators across Iowa and beyond,” said Denise Schmidt Crawford, an associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching. “These educators become leaders in K-12 schools in using technology to support learning and teaching.”

Empowering learning

As a technology integrationist, Hillman works with teachers and students on how to effectively incorporate technology into lessons. She said her time at Iowa State helped prepare her to use technology to help students create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically.

Middle school students once asked her about using the online game Minecraft to model specific events as they learned about World War II. When she surveyed her students, 90 percent of the 250 who responded saw uses for Minecraft in the classroom and gave specific examples.

“I love when the kids are asking me, ‘Can we do this?’” Hillman said. “The kids see the educational uses for these technologies; we just have to let them use it.”

Hillman said one of her students who struggles in the traditional classroom frequently uses a special space in the high school library to develop, build, prototype, and create projects and inventions.

The space includes tools from MakerSpace — a place online where students can create and learn with technology. The room includes technology such as Oculus Rift, a 3-D printer and scanner, Makey Makeys, littleBits, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis.

“He comes in and builds things I couldn’t,” she said. “He sees that in his future. When I asked him what he wants to be, he said, ‘a computer programmer.’”

Hillman started the online Master of Education program as a fourth-grade teacher at Wings Park Elementary in Oelwein. She said everything was so applicable to what she was doing in the classroom.

She began a blogging project with her students. One of her students refused to write from kindergarten through third grade. But by the end of December in Hillman’s fourth-grade class, the student was blogging once a week. By the end of the fourth-grade year, Peter Reynolds, an award-winning author and illustrator, illustrated a story that the student wrote on his blog.

In 2011, Hillman’s school district began the process of implementing a one-to-one device policy to provide each student with access to a laptop. Hillman advocated for teachers to receive instructional training along with the one-to-one program. The skills that Hillman learned at Iowa State helped her step into the role of technology integrationist where she could put into effect what she advocated for.

Creating research

Ricardo Martinez, an Iowa State doctoral student in education, transitioned from teaching high school math to pursuing research as a result of the online program, which he graduated from in 2015. During his studies he was drawn to the creative aspect of research and hopes to use his research to inspire and motivate teachers.

“I was always a creator,” he said. “When I create something I want others to use it. I want it to be for other people.”

Martinez began the program as a middle and high school math teacher and plans to research the use of technology in math. He credits the Iowa State faculty teaching the online program for giving him exposure to the technology that puts him ahead in his research process.

“Still to this day, I just can’t understand why math education is so behind in technology,” he said. “Without math there would be no technology.”

Martinez began to be drawn into research when Larysa Nadolny, an assistant professor in the School of Education, emailed him asking him to work on a project involving augmented reality in the classroom. Working on the project became Martinez’s favorite part of the program.

“It validated that I knew something,” he said.

Today, Martinez wants to study the use of computer programming and simulation for learning mathematics. He said as students understand the programming, they can make and manipulate their own simulations, such as making statistical models.

“If you can get someone comfortable with the basics of programming, they’ll look at other programs and other computer interfaces, and they’ll be comfortable with most technology,” he said. “It’s all about being comfortable.”

Supporting teachers

School districts want to provide instructional support to help teachers use technology effectively in their lessons, Crawford said. Students who graduate from Iowa State’s online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instructional technology have the knowledge to fit that specific role.

Matt Townsley, director of instruction and technology at Solon Community Schools, helps teachers understand how to let instruction drive the use of the technology instead of the other way around. He saw this purposeful use of technology in his own training in the program as well.

“It’s just as much about quality instruction as the technology along the way,” said Townsley, who graduated in 2009. “The professors put a huge investment into this program. They expected a lot of us and a lot of themselves as well.”

Patrick Donovan began the program as a science teacher at South Hamilton Middle School/High School, but knew he was interested in moving into a technology integration specialist position.

Donovan moved to a technology integration specialist position at Ames High School after his first year in the program. He graduated in 2015 and finds that what he learned helps him do his job better. He learned how to find and use research more effectively to meet the needs of teachers in their professional development.

“The program gave me a better focus on what I can do as an educator,” Donovan said.

Stephanie Laird, an instructional coach in the Southeast Polk Community School District, applies what she learned about the importance of data and analyzing curriculum from the online program to help teachers plan their lessons and student activities.

Laird, who graduated from the program in 2013, began the program as a Title 1 teacher teaching math and reading. As the program went on she began to be known as the technical specialist, even before her official role as an instructional coach.

Flexible learning

The online Master of Education degree program in curriculum and instructional technology is offered every two years. Students go through the program with a cohort of students who take all the classes together, many of whom still keep in touch.

One course is offered each semester and the courses have flexibility within their schedule for students to complete the work on their own time. This flexibility makes it ideal for graduate students who often have full-time teaching jobs.

Many of the classes also incorporate a visit to campus once or twice a semester to interact face-to-face. Those who are unable to attend the class sessions on campus can participate using a video conference system. Graduates say the courses helped them think beyond their own classroom.

“It really fit the realm for anyone passionate about technology,” Hillman said. “I saw a new opportunity for a career in every class.”