Mar 18, 2009
In light of the current financial crisis and its inevitable impact on schools of all sorts, I worry about the near-term future of education and, more specifically, the role of education technology in the classroom. In particular, I'm concerned that, in most cases, we have failed to effectively integrate technology as an essential, strategic part of the educational process.

Don't get me wrong, I believe we've been heading in the right direction with ed tech, albeit slowly. In fact, I have witnessed a number of programs that suggest the beginnings of what I believe will be an important shift in the use of education technology. My only question is, is it too late? When budget cuts come, that which is viewed as neither strategic or essential generally finds itself on the cut list.

So how do education technologists make the right choices and demonstrate a measurable effect on teaching and learning in the classroom? The solution requires no less than an organization-wide cultural shift with regard to technology in schools - from the technology directors to integration specialists to principals and teachers. A few thoughts:

Change the decision making process. When selecting technologies for implementation, we must ask ALL the right questions. Deciding for a technology based on emotion, a great sales pitch, word of mouth, or even because we think it will work is not enough. Before any technology implementation is begun, we need to answer four key questions:
  1. What is our vision for this technology - ie, what do we believe it will do to meet our educational goals? 
  2. What are the skills necessary to use and support this technology? 
  3. What are the resources we will commit to ensure the success of the implementation, from staff development to release time to support to infrastructure? 
  4. How will we measure the results to ensure that the technology is having the desired impact? 
Too often, one or more of these are overlooked or glossed over, particularly number 4. If you can't demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology in the educational environment, then you can't establish its value with stakeholders.

Loosen our filtering policies. The Children's Internet Protection Act was never intended to be used as an excuse to remove responsibility from the classroom, yet our response to it has had just that effect. In an effort to "protect" our children from "inappropriate" content, we have created an environment where noone takes responsibility for their activities, instead choosing to "blame it on the technology." In an ever escalating effort to restrict, ban, and block anything that might have the remotest potential to be misused, we have denied our staff and students access to some of the most powerful tools for creativity, collaboration, and learning on the web, and eliminated every opportunity to teach children to use these tools wisely and safely. When you consider that recent studies have show web filters to only be about 90% effective (which translates into 1 in 10 attempts to access "banned" sites or content is successful) and couple that with all the lost educational potential, it becomes clear that something has got to change. Staff and students need to be held responsible for their activities on the Internet, just as they are for the content of any other media they might bring to school (ie magazines, music, video, etc.) Internet use in the classroom should be executed with purpose or not at all. Computer time should not be a free-for-all, but an opportunity to take part in learning activities of educational value, and teachers need to take an active role in supervising their students' activities, taking advantage of teachable moments at every opportunity. And finally, intentional inappropriate behavior should be treated for what it is: a behavior issue, not a technology issue.

Choose the right technologies. If there is one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, it is that the educational process must change to meet the growing demands of a 21st century economy. But when we consider the role of technology in the classroom, we have a tendency to mold it to our habits, to fit it to they way we've always done things. So we upgrade our whiteboards to super whiteboards, and our overheads to super overheads (ie doc cams) because we think the reason kids aren't learning is because we aren't interesting enough. Then we pretend that "engagement" equals achievement, even though the achievement gains come in anywhere from modest to non-existent. Any honest look reveals the obvious: that we've spent thousands of dollars on classroom technologies that are most used by teachers, rather than kids. If we really want to transform the classroom into a place where student learn and put to use real 21st century skills, then we need to spend scarce technology dollars on technologies that do more than merely enhance delivery while reinforcing 19th century classroom practices. We need to invest in technologies that empower students to learn, create, and discover in exciting new ways. In short, we need to invest less in instructional technology, and more in educational technology. A good rule of thumb is this: if the teacher touches the technology more often than the students, then the technology has no hope of transforming the learning environment.

If we as education technology leaders will consider just these three, we will not only establish technology's strategic value within our schools, but also effect transformative change in the learning environment. My greatest fear, however, is that we have failed to do so for so long that technology will continue to be viewed as an add-on, an expendable extension of the classroom that is easily jettisoned in times of crisis, as have been so many art, music, and science programs over the years. A setback such as that could take years to recover from - years our students simply do not have to lose.


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  1. I find your statement, "I feel pretty good about that because I'm preparing them for the real deal, not some artificial measuring stick mandated by people who have a knowledge of politics, not education" quite telling. Call me slow, but I had an epiphany last week in Austin as we discussed the potential of social media and the challenges associated with it, in that it (finally) dawned on me that the primary reason we are having such trouble transforming, and not merely reforming the learning environment isn't that we don't have great ideas, enough passion, or even that we have unwilling teachers. The primary impediment to the kinds of transformations we're talking about is that they are completely at odds with our current assessment systems. Changing our approach to meeting the requirements of those assessments will be incredibly difficult, in light of the fact that they are based entirely on knowing "stuff", rather than knowing what to do with "stuff", which serves to reinforce the uninspired knowledge transfer methodologies we see taking place in our classrooms today. Definitely worthy of discussion, and maybe a blog post or two.

  2. The measuring stick should be one tied to a student's capabilities with real life tasks. However, "real life" as a measuring stick is hard to nail down because it is not a quantity, and it is constantly in motion, evolving with the times.

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