Oct 31 2006

Five Riveting Ideas

Educational technologists from Augusta, Maine, to San Rafael, Calif., share their thoughts on what it would take to jump-start our educational system to better prepare our students to compete successfully in today's global economy.

EdTech asked five critical thinkers in today’s education landscape to describe one educational technology concept that, if implemented, would dramatically improve educational outcomes for students in this country. Good ideas take us forward; riveting ideas change the direction we want to take.

No single person has a monopoly on good ideas. But Milton Chen, Bette Manchester, Rick Martinez, Bob Pearlman and Beverley Royster took up our challenge and provided some intriguing ones. You’ll be surprised — and hopefully invigorated — by the captivating ideas they propose.


By Milton Chen


Every student and every teacher needs individual 24 x 7 access to today’s tools for teaching and learning. Just as access to textbooks defined equality of educational opportunity 50 years ago, one-to-one computing and access to technology represent the new definition of equality of educational opportunity.


Closing the digital divide is a civil rights issue. As a middle-school student with a notebook PC told me, “This computer is part of my brain. Why would I leave it behind in a computer lab?”

School leaders should look closely at the developing research on the outcomes of one-to-one computing from projects across the nation and then should consider how access for all students could prepare them for life and work in this Digital Age. If school board members need one-to-one access to technology and the Internet to do their work, why do we deny the same type of computing tools and online access to teachers and students?

We can’t allow some students to have high-bandwidth access to the world’s knowledge while others have none. The litigation of the past over the lack of textbooks for underprivileged students should now become lawsuits brought by families because their children don’t have current resources, such as computers.

Many nations now can use Internet-based technologies to level the playing field in business — not just for call centers, but for software development and global marketing. It’s not just about low-level work, like phone reservations done overseas. It’s about high-level work, such as doctors in Bangalore making our medical diagnoses from CAT scans shared over the Internet and architects in China designing our buildings from plans shared online.

We tap that network for business, so why can’t we also tap it for educational environments? That network enables students the world over to have the same access to the world’s knowledge and expertise as students in the United States. The children of Bangalore workers can now access the Library of Congress, the collections in our best art museums and NASA simulations.

If this sounds alarmist, I fully intend it to be. We are on the downslope of an educational decline in this nation that must be reversed quickly. We are in a competitive situation for the world’s knowledge and, therefore, for the world’s employment. As Thomas Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, notes, when he was a kid, his parents told him to finish his dinner because children in China were starving. Now, he tells his children to finish their homework because children in China are hungry for their jobs.

Milton Chen, Ph.D., is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation in San Rafael, Calif., and was an integral part of launching Edutopia, a new magazine for a new world of learning. He was an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and previously worked in education media with PBS station KQED-San Francisco and Sesame Workshop.


By Bette Manchester

One-to-one computing is a good start for providing equity of access to all students (as we’ve done in Maine). But as students use more digital tools, we also need to focus on school-to-school computing.

Imagine hooking up every school to another school — either within the United States or elsewhere in the world — and allowing the two schools to exchange information, learn together and discuss topics. Basically, we would create a digital foundation for a serious, ongoing cultural exchange between two schools in different parts of the world.

Any type of learning is more enriching if it’s done with people you don’t know and don’t interact with daily, and who live in a different culture. That provides opportunities for individuals to look at things differently and experience a level of diversity that they don’t get in their own school community.

But the interaction can’t be shallow e-mail banter. It’s got to be serious learning: really studying a topic, problem or issue collaboratively.

For example, let’s say your class is working with students in Maine and Ireland, studying the coast of Maine and the Irish Sea. The students would begin to look in-depth at the ecological, cultural and community issues involved with living near the water. In this digital classroom environment, the learning in both communities would be deeper, as would the relationship between the communities.

In the mid-1990s, as a principal at Mount Ararat Middle School, I helped launch a cultural exchange project between our school in Topsham, Maine, and a school in Onoe, Japan. Back then, e-mail wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, so the two schools exchanged their information mainly by fax and postal mail.

Nevertheless, it was a powerful experience. The project created a learning environment in subjects like math, science and social studies in which the students loved to engage. The learning and cultural exchange continued after the project ended via fax and mail, and some students participated in home-stays in the other country.

With the right technology tools, school-to-school learning enables access to the resources, tools and ideas of the global community. As videoconferencing and one-to-one computing gain ground, this type of cross-district and cross-cultural learning could move to a new level by showing students early on that we are part of a global community.

Any school can do this. Technology makes it easier to work and communicate across borders, to see each other and to share rich project documents. That, in turn, fosters a much deeper level of communication and learning than was available five years ago.

Bette Manchester is director of special projects at the Maine Learning Technology Initiative in Augusta, Maine. Manchester helped launch Maine’s initiative to equip all seventh- and eighth-graders and their teachers with Internet access and notebook PCs in 2001. Today, the program continues to move forward and enables students to collaborate in the classroom and outside the district, direct their own learning and continue work at home.


By Rick Martinez

Traditionally, the philosophy of the application of professional development has been a one-size-fits-all model, mirroring the instructional models demonstrated in many classrooms today. However, from my own experiences and through teacher observation, personal participation and the implementation of professional development programs, I don’t believe that’s the best model for contemporary continuing education programs.

We need to move away from the one-size-fits-all mentality of professional development. Learning should be focused and relevant to the teacher, and the technology chosen — both hardware and software — should support the teacher’s development of educational content for the classroom. Teachers do not need to focus on the technology itself.

It’s important to realize that teachers are the content experts and to let them lead the way when it comes to professional development with technology. We should shift to individualized training models for the purpose of creating meaningful, engaging classroom content. It is not about the technology; it is about teaching and learning.

The effect of an individualized training model would be threefold. First, learning would be expanded to meet individual student needs or classroom needs. Second, teachers would build libraries of instructional content to be shared at the campus level and across the district. Third, districts would build capacity within their instructional staff. Thus, the training of one becomes the enlightenment of many.

The Southwest Independent School District is utilizing this model to enhance the current programs and improve instruction. Once teachers are excited about what they have learned, they not only apply it in their classroom, but also share it with others.

The idea is to build capacity in the use of technology tools by going through the curriculum that they already know. This approach creates a vision for teachers that moves them beyond merely seeing technology as a set of skills-based activities to viewing technology as a tool they can leverage to create meaningful content for their students.

I have seen increased interest and excitement as teachers take on this vision for themselves. The approach also builds the capacity within each campus and district. Generally, districts have limited staff members who can provide professional development. By using this model, increased numbers of teachers can participate as the facilitators of sessions, with each one adopting an instructional focus rather than a technology focus.

Rick Martinez is the chief technology officer of the Southwest Independent School District in San Antonio. Previously, he was the director of instructional and information technology at Alamo Heights Independent School District, also in San Antonio. During his nine years there, Martinez implemented a fiber-optic network between Alamo Heights campuses that supports Voice over Internet Protocol, online learning, and districtwide grading and attendance applications.


By Bob Pearlman

Globalization is flattening the world and challenging the United States as never before. This country and our people — beginning with our students — must move up the value chain and lead a new era of global cooperation as 21st century learners. We need citizens who are smarter, more creative, and more capable of leading, managing, collaborating and networking with productive people around the world.

How do we get there?

Schools need to be totally redesigned to enable and facilitate 21st century learning. That means upgrading U.S. educational standards to world-class standards; moving curriculum to 100 percent in-depth project- and problem-based learning that involves teamwork, critical thinking and communication skills; authentically assessing for learning all these skills for immediate and active feedback to students; redesigning and reconstructing facilities and classrooms to enable a students-at-work environment for both individual and collaborative work; and using technology to bind this collaborative learning community together.

One of the most critical components of 21st century learning is project- and problem-based learning. What is it and how is it done? Here are some tips to make it happen:

• Create teams of three or more students who work on an in-depth project for three to eight weeks.

• Start the project by introducing a key entry question, and scaffold the project with activities and new information that deepen the work.

• Calendar the project through plans, drafts, timely benchmarks, and a team presentation to an outside panel of experts drawn from parents and the community.

• Provide timely assessments to students on their projects for content, oral communication, teamwork, critical thinking and other essential skills. Some examples of potential projects include presenting a plan to Congress on solving the oil crisis, addressing economic issues as a team of the president’s economic advisors, or inventing — under contract from NASA — new sports that astronauts can play on the moon to get exercise.

Technology plays a critical role in supporting 21st century learning environments. But it involves much more than one-to-one computing and providing teachers and students with the hardware and software tools to do their work. It also involves designing and providing a collaborative learning environment that houses curriculum, assessment rubrics, living gradebooks and communication tools.

Bob Pearlman (www.bobpearlman.org), who is based in Tucson, Ariz., is director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation in Napa, Calif. The organization supports the replication of the New Technology High School model in 24 sites across the United States. With project-based learning in place, 97 percent of graduates of the New Technology High School pursue postsecondary education, and 42 percent pursue or prepare for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


By Beverley Royster

If our schools had instructional technology integrated into all classrooms at all grade levels, there would be limited, if any, discipline problems. Discipline problems go out the window when students — whether adults, teens or children — feel truly engaged.

When adults get bored, they multitask; when little kids get bored, they start poking each other. These things don’t happen when the mind is actively involved.

Instructional technology tools have the capability to cross all lines and barriers — race, age and language, as well as physical and emotional needs — and allow the student to engage in activities that no individual teacher could bring into the classroom through the use of a textbook. When technology is integrated into the curriculum, from something as simple as using an iPod for storytelling or digital conferencing with experts in their fields, today’s sights and sounds come alive in the classroom.

All curricula could be infused with some form of technology, whether it’s math, science, history, social science, art or music, or even physical education. And once the comfort level and proficiency level of the educator have been supported and enhanced, both the teacher and student become lifelong learners. But there’s still one more step.

Students must be guided and allowed to make choices in how they’ll choose to learn a given topic through the use of technology. When this is done, something special happens. Higher-level thinking, critical evaluation skills and interpretation of information take over from a simple recasting of “who, what, when and where” questions to questions about the “why and how” of a particular situation.

Ownership is the key. There is a dangerous cookie-cutter approach to education that’s taking hold in this country. It’s driven, and necessarily so, to ensure that students learn based on standards. But one of the drawbacks is that we, as educators, aren’t allowing ownership.

Our students’ lives are filled with sight, sound and movement, yet we nip that in the bud in the classroom. We fear giving up the ownership of “my class,” and that leads to reducing the choices that students can make about how to learn.

We’ve been merging our students into one glob to learn one concept. We’ve got to give them some freedom to make educational discoveries, which is the way that many of us learned. If we don’t start acknowledging this for our kids, they’ll turn away from both us and education — and that would be a tragedy.

Beverley Royster is elementary coordinator for instructional technology at the Los Angeles Unified School District. She’s been teaching at the LAUSD since 1966, specializing in K-6 education, and has been an advisor to the California Learning Resource Network since its inception.