ONE OF THE VEXING REALITIES OF modern education is that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the march of progress. No matter how fast a school adopts new technology, something newer and better always beckons.
Moreover, dealing with constant change can push teachers and administrators to the limit. “Today, the challenges are enormous,” says Ann McMullan, executive director of educational technology at Klein Independent School District (KISD) in Klein, Texas.
McMullan isn’t backing off the task. The rapidly growing district, located approximately 25 miles from downtown Houston, includes four high schools, seven intermediate schools and 23 elementary schools serving a suburban area.
“The rapid growth of the district, including a growing bilingual population, means that we must develop highly effective academic programs to meet the needs of all students,” McMullan says. “It is essential that all students succeed, and they become well-rounded and productive individuals.”
KISD employs a wide array of technology tools to help achieve its goals. The district provides multiple workstations in classrooms, as well as mobile computer carts with wireless access to the Internet. In addition, the district uses specialized software to facilitate learning, and many classrooms are equipped with electronic whiteboards and projectors that provide interactive capabilities.
Some of the students complete their homework electronically and send their assignments in by e-mail. Teachers have the ability to create their own Web pages to disseminate information. “The technology is helping to eliminate menial tasks and wasted time, allowing everyone to focus more on learning,” McMullan explains.
Across the nation, a growing number of schools are coming to a similar conclusion: The right dose of technology and process changes can lead to better learning, lower costs, fewer disciplinary problems and improved attendance. While technology isn’t a panacea for all the problems that today’s educators face, it can go a long way toward building a better learning environment.
“There is a growing understanding of how to use computers and technology effectively,” observes Julie Evans, chief executive officer at NetDay, an Irvine, Calif., nonprofit education organization. “There’s also a growing willingness to take risks and experiment.”
For 2006, educators face a growing assortment of technology choices. Schools are increasingly migrating to one-to-one computing, Web tools and e-learning, wireless networks, video instruction and videoconferencing, Internet Protocol (IP) telephony, and sophisticated software and databases that allow students to embrace knowledge in innovative ways. In addition, some schools are turning to virtual learning to supplement instruction in the classroom.
Of course, achieving gain can cause a good deal of pain. Integrating technology with learning can prove challenging, investments are often expensive and obtaining the necessary funding can prove difficult. Training teachers to use the tools effectively remains an ongoing challenge. “In many cases, students are digital natives, and teachers are digital immigrants,” Klein’s McMullan observes.
Making the Grade
Technology and online resources are now a key part of students’ lives, and educators must address this new paradigm. “It’s essential for students to learn 21st-century skills,” says NetDay’s Evans. “They must become critical thinkers, learn how to engage in creative problem-solving and communicate well.”
Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization located in Washington, D.C., and Tucson, Ariz., that works to promote effective learning, says the emphasis must be on developing competencies that can carry students to success in an evolving workplace.
“Schools must shift their orientation from learning technology skills to mastering learning skills,” Kay explains. “It’s no longer enough to use a PowerPoint presentation or work in a Word file. Students must learn how to analyze data and collaborate with others.”
That’s a central theme at KISD. The district has established a baseline standard for technology learning tools that spans every classroom in order to support No Child Left Behind’s mandate that students be technologically literate by the end of eighth grade. Technology literacy skills have been integrated into all core content instruction from kindergarten through eighth grade.
At the high school level, students can take classes focusing on mastering Web skills and digital graphics. Students at all levels use software to learn core content—such as exploring virtual math problems—and compile and sort data in ways that weren’t possible a few years ago. For example, students learning about U.S. presidents formerly compiled information on paper in a notebook. Now they use a database to explore relationships, such as birthplaces and political parties.
Teachers, too, are reaping benefits. They’re able to display Web sites using an overhead projector and interactive whiteboard, highlight an important element or piece of data and magnify it by as much as three times. They can also jot notes on the whiteboard and convert the file to HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Later, students can download the notes. Also, teachers can e-mail homework to students, who highlight answers or type in notes and e-mail it back. Those who do not have personal computers at home either use the library or receive the assignments on paper.
KISD is moving away from relying solely on computer labs and specialized technology instruction. During the 2004-2005 school year, the district installed four student workstations in each fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade core-content classroom, along with an LCD projector, document camera and interactive whiteboard. In spring 2006, the district’s third- and eighth-grade classrooms will receive the same assortment of tech tools.
Along with the classroom computers, students have access to computer labs at every campus. Some campuses also have mobile notebook PC carts, which can be wheeled from one location to another. In fact, one of the district’s high school science teachers used a grant to network notebook computers for every student in the classroom. Now, the entire class works together to research and solve problems.
What this creates, McMullan says, is an environment in which small group instruction is essential, and teachers must use technology to differentiate instruction based on students needs. “Different groups work on different tasks and rotate through a series of events,” she notes.
In the end, the approach requires a different style of teaching. To ensure that they are prepared, every teacher creates his or her own roadmap for technology development, beginning with a self-assessment of technology skills. The district offers extensive professional development, including formal classes and job-embedded support, and teachers participate based on their learning needs.
Seeing the Big Picture
When McMullan describes today’s students as digital natives, she’s not exaggerating. NetDay, which conducts an annual survey of student attitudes toward technology, polled 167,000 students from 1,782 schools and found in its 2004 “Speak Up Day” study that 81 percent of students in grades six through 12 have at least one e-mail account; three-quarters have at least one instant messaging screen name; and 58 percent have their own cell phone.
Evans says that many schools are just beginning to grasp the significance of this data. Not only are many schools slow to design programs that maximize the use of technology for learning, they’re often unaware of how to engage students in a more effective way. NetDay found that students like to use technology for schoolwork because they’re able to get assignments done more quickly, and they get better information online.
Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association (NEA) in Washington, D.C., says that as student expectations change, schools must adapt. As technology makes limitless information and communication possible 24 x 7 globally, schools must reflect the real-world lives and expectations of students.
“Conventional instruction doesn’t necessarily resonate with other aspects of their lives,” Stein says. “Teachers must move beyond electronic presentations and automating old practices. Students are far beyond that. Teaching and learning must include today’s tools and acknowledge the norms of this century.”
That’s a message that Jody Kennedy understands. Five years ago, the art teacher at White Plains Middle School’s Eastview Campus in White Plains, N.Y., wanted to introduce videoconferencing into classrooms. After obtaining a $20,000 grant from a local foundation, she began connecting the school to museums and other content providers. Then she realized that the standalone system, which works over a T1 line, could also connect students to other schools around the world.
Kennedy, who in addition to teaching art is the videoconferencing director for the White Plains Public Schools, oversees a program that encompasses six schools and more than 40 teachers. Several times each week, students connect to peers in places as diverse as Sweden, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Argentina. They learn about culture, geography, health, language, science and life. They’re able to ask questions and provide answers. “They are the content experts,” she observes.
Barbara Catenaci, a former school administrator who now works with videoconferencing firm TANDBERG, says “Video allows the exploration, analysis and discovery to be face to face, candid and interactive. It is another way to extend the learning environment beyond the walls of a classroom.” However, to use the technology well, teachers must learn presentation skills and have a sense of what works in front of a camera.
A Touch of Class
Another emerging technology trend centers on virtual schools. In Orlando, Fla., Florida Virtual School (FVS) is changing the way many students learn. Created in 1996, it has a staff of 250 and works with more than 21,000 students.
Children take more than 100 classes that fill gaps in traditional education, and they receive credit for the classes they take. The school, which receives its funding based on strict performance criteria, has an 85 percent course completion rate.
FVS isn’t designed to replace the conventional classroom. It focuses primarily on students who have health problems, scheduling conflicts or an interest in accelerating their pace, or are home schooled or need to retake a class. “All the instruction takes place online,” says Julie Young, president and CEO.
Students can log on at any time of the day or night and can learn at their own pace. Teachers use the Web, e-mail, chat and instant messaging to communicate and exchange coursework. If a student wants to take a course but doesn’t have access to a computer at home or school, FVS does its best to find one.
One of the biggest emerging trends is the move toward one-to-one computing. By providing each student with a notebook PC, Tablet PC or personal digital assistant (PDA), schools can break through the barriers of conventional learning and open up new opportunities. With a wireless network in place, teachers and students can engage in group research and instruction. Although many schools are struggling to purchase computers for every classroom, some schools are embracing the one-to-one concept.
At El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana, Calif., a computer for every student is becoming a reality. The five-year-old K-8 school, chartered by the Santa Ana Unified School District, has about 300 students. The upper primary grades have a student-to-computer ratio that is about two-to-one, but the school will likely reach its goal of one-to-one by 2006, says co-founder Susan Mas.
Using a wireless network, desktop PCs and notebooks, El Sol is addressing the needs of a student population that is 50 percent Spanish speaking.
“Students face enormous challenges related to language acquisition,” Mas says. “In El Sol’s dual-immersion program, many need help in Spanish and English. Technology helps them learn and keeps them engaged. It creates a best practice environment.”
NEA’s Stein says that the main challenge schools face is focusing the technology appropriately. With so many possibilities and opportunities, it’s important to put the right software and systems in place—and rethink and reformulate curriculum to address the challenges of the digital age.
“School administrators and teachers must spend more time learning how the technology works and how it can be used for maximum gain,” Stein points out. “Educators must have the time, support, professional development and resources to retool their craft for the demands of today’s world.”
Similarly, NetDay’s Evans believes that educators must figure out how to make learning applicable to college, work and life. That requires using software, games, video and interactive applications in new ways.
In order to achieve these goals, schools must be innovative and resourceful. “We’re in a very interesting and exciting time,” Evans says. “Most schools have only begun to scratch the surface.”
PUTTING TECHNOLOGY TO WORK
These days, not all the action is occurring in the classroom. There’s also a growing emphasis on technology and systems that fuel improvements on the administrative side of the desk. National Education Association’s Barbara Stein says that a solid IT infrastructure, databases, and effective reporting and analytic tools can help a school or district track progress and gauge how well it is meeting accountability goals.
Another hot area is Internet Protocol (IP) communications. Increasingly, schools are adopting Voice over IP, which can cut costs and provide advanced communications features. For example, Blue Valley School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan., has wired all 30 of the district’s schools and administrative offices for IP telephony. Teachers can make phone calls from their classrooms and can set up customized voice mail boxes for parents.
Some schools are turning to IP communications and Extensible Markup Language to usher in a new era of productivity. Teachers check off names on an electronic tablet and submit the data wirelessly. The school then uploads the information to the district, which can forward it to the state.
The process saves time, reduces paperwork and improves accuracy. “Technology can pay dividends beyond the classroom,” says NetDay CEO Julie Evans.
KEY TECH TRENDS
In 2006, a number of technologies will play a key role in education:
• One-to-one computing
• Wireless networks
• Web tools
• E-learning and virtual learning
• Video instruction and videoconferencing
• Internet Protocol telephony
• Software and databases
Samuel Greengard is a business and technology journalist in Portland, Ore.