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Meet the NIC member: Michelle Cowell

Michelle Cowell NIC Member picture

By Cora Goldston
September 27, 2017

Michelle Cowell understands the importance of using technology to enhance education. A former junior high school librarian, Cowell’s work often included showing students how to use the Internet and essential software programs to find and present information. Since then, technology use has expanded significantly, and Cowell now serves as an Instructional Technology Consultant for the Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA) in Iowa.

Iowa has nine regional AEAs that provide services to support technology use, professional development, special education, early childhood education, and other regional initiatives. (To learn more about the AEAs and Central Rivers AEA, read A Partner in Continuous Improvement: Central Rivers Area Education Agency.) In her role, Cowell collaborates with instructional technology consultants and special education consultants across Iowa’s AEAs. She highlights the importance of AEA work, saying, “The state’s AEA network makes an important impact to support effective technology use. The AEAs work together to make sure schools and districts are going in the right direction to integrate technology.”

Cowell’s work with the AEA dovetails perfectly with her role on REL Midwest’s Iowa Learning and Technology Networked Improvement Community (NIC). The NIC uses an iterative research process to design, test, and refine an intervention to improve technology use in rural schools. The NIC includes representatives from Central Rivers AEA and five school districts in the region. Including both district and AEA staff allows the NIC to consider challenges and opportunities to incorporating technology from multiple perspectives, considering strategic, financial, and curricular goals. (For more information about the iterative Plan-Do-Study-Act research process, check out this overview of REL Midwest’s previous NIC work in Michigan and Minnesota.)

As Cowell explains, participating districts were chosen strategically. “We chose districts that already had one-to-one computing programs in place. We focused on high school because technology hasn’t made the same impact on instruction there as in elementary or middle school.” Cowell noted that technology has not enhanced education in high schools as much as it has for other grade levels. Because the high school structure is often strongly divided by content area, it could be more difficult for teachers to integrate technology into their lesson plans.

The participating districts will share insights about the needs of rural schools related to technology use. Rural schools face some unique challenges to incorporating technology. Cowell explains, “One big challenge is quality Internet access—it’s very hard to get high-speed Internet in some parts of the state. For a large part of the state, Internet by cable is most common. Living in a city, you wouldn’t think twice about assigning a video link for a homework assignment, but you can’t always do that in rural areas.” Improving Internet access in rural districts is a high-priority topic in Iowa. “Once everyone has reliable Internet access, technology use can really take a foothold in rural schools.”

In addition to infrastructure, economic factors play an important role in technology use. “Rural poverty is a bigger issue than most people realize,” says Cowell. “That’s one reason one-to-one computing has really thrived in Iowa, especially in smaller districts. In small districts, there are less devices to purchase, and it’s a way to ensure that everyone has equitable assess to technology.” Cowell mentioned that some districts have previously had bring-your-own-device policies, but they didn’t last because there were strong resource disparities among students.

Cowell hopes that the NIC’s work will inform efforts to address barriers and increase meaningful technology use. She looks forward to collaborating with her AEA colleagues and district staff.

Fun fact: When she is not working, Cowell likes to spend time kayaking!

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Author(s) Information

Cora Goldston Staff Picture

Cora Goldston

Communications Associate | REL Midwest


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