Oct 31 2006

Fostering Technology

Don Knezek wants the federal government to improve the integration of technology and teaching. If it doesn't, the country's economic future might suffer.

INTEGRATING TECHNOLOGY INTO mainstream curricula is as much an ideological perspective as it is a goal, challenge and political platform. But don’t call the idea a pipe dream or you’ll get on Don Knezek’s bad side.

Knezek moved the International Society for Technology in Education’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., in 2003. He hoped that the move would make it easier for ISTE to extend its influence and to connect with policy-makers and other educational organizations, as well as with the educators and administrators who make up the core of its membership.

The goal is to make the integration of technology and teaching something that every educator wants and is equipped to do well.

Ed Tech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland spoke to Knezek about the big issues that top ISTE’s agenda and about a key challenge facing U.S. educators: the decline of interest and graduates in math, the sciences and technology.

Copeland: Is the new generation of school leadership more amenable to integrating curriculum and administrative functions with technology?

Knezek: We’re seeing a maturing of the community of educators that are using technology in the classroom, and it represents significant school reform in its own right. To make changes in schools and sustain those changes, leadership is a critical element.

So, as always, time marches on, and we are getting principals and administrators who started with one computer in their classroom years ago now moving into leadership positions. They understand what their predecessors didn’t. In a sense, we have attrition on our side.

Copeland: What do they understand that you can leverage to foster the proliferation of technology usage in the classroom?

Knezek: In order to see technology integrated effectively in the classroom, we need a frontline workforce with the skills and knowledge to use technology to improve schooling and learning. So, [their existence] addresses a key issue.

Even if those skills exist at the teacher level, the principal dictates the school’s culture. As we see tech-savvy educators move into their new roles, quite frankly, the opportunities for teachers become more doable by virtue of having someone with the skills and experience that is positive toward technology in a leadership capacity.

Copeland: What’s the first step to making real curriculum change?

Knezek: The education system is sophisticated and complex. You would expect change to be slow. What is true is that the most critical piece of consistent and improved change is having a shared vision. What makes integrating technology tough has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with defining a shared vision of what technology can do for kids.

Do we want creative students? Do we want critical thinking skills? Or do we want the regurgitation of facts? Without a shared vision, we don’t know what education could be like with technology. Businesses that are successful decided what they were going after, then determined what role technology would play and held a steady course.

Copeland: What can this country learn from educators abroad?

Knezek: We can learn from other countries what our future will look like in terms of diversity. The number of languages and dialects that educators elsewhere must address is amazing, as is the diversity in socioeconomic status among learner populations.

You’ll find that other countries are dealing with these challenges effectively, even with limited wealth, language diversity and scarcity of resources. They can bring the lessons they’ve learned to the United States.

In some ways, they’re harnessing the efficiencies of technology and digital resources that we’re not. In many cases, because they’re dealing with more limited resources and larger populations at school ages, they are facing those challenges in a magnified manner.

Copeland: Can you give me an example of how we could apply that learning?

Knezek: One issue we face is how to incorporate indigenous knowledge into a mandated curriculum, which is an enormous issue with Native Americans. Looking to other countries that have faced that issue may help us.

Copeland: Are there things that we can share with educators abroad?

Knezek: One area in which the United States excels is our commitment to address all learners. A country like China, for example, has traditionally taken a lock-step approach to the learning environment.

However, they are now committing resources to a blended system, which respects the teachers’ ability to guide learners, but which understands that you have to give students the opportunity to choose an area of study and to have input into the activities they undertake. That is a change, and they’ve looked to this country for guidance.

We are going to see that change happen much more rapidly there than change occurs here, because in China the government assures that schools align. And many of the systems abroad have a more powerful central ministry of education than what we have.

Copeland: In terms of graduating students in math, the sciences and technology, the United States is losing ground fast when compared to nations like China and India. What are some of the issues that account for the decline of graduates in those critical fields?

Knezek: One of the issues is that a large majority of their young learner populations have the desire or need to improve their lot in life and economic status. It is difficult to say that the economy and the experience of living with economic disadvantages drive much of that, but they do appear to be drivers.

What I have to believe is that there is a more convincing message that we can communicate to our population of young learners that says success in math, science and technology leads to economic success.

Copeland: Are you saying that the problem is complacency?

Knezek: It is either complacency or we, as educators, have not effectively engaged young learners as other countries are doing. It is clear that we are not able to attract a pool of young learners and sustain them.

I don’t know if it is complacency or advantages or the lack of the background knowledge needed to enter those fields. But I do think that the problem is partly a marketing one. The same techniques that work in India or China would not work with American students, but they have found a way to influence their learners toward those fields, and we have not.

Copeland: Are you saying that education should be tied to economic and employment trends?

Knezek: We have come through a sun-drenched era of prosperity, but how we got there has not been instilled in many of our students. We have to be careful how tightly we tie education to employment development alone, but it feels like things have swung far enough away from that point and that we are not providing for the needs of industry. Employability is not the only purpose of education, but it’s one of the purposes that is not being well served.

Copeland: If other countries are more successful in some areas, what role can—or should—the United States play in transforming education?

Knezek: We should have a research base to make better decisions about our strategy. We have a strong higher education program throughout the country and a research component on effective learning for modern society and the workplace. However, I don’t think that the research is accessible by educators, policy-makers and parents. We are positioned to play that role.

The United States has stimulated some experimentation in learning and in teaching strategies, and that is something that we have to offer other countries—our research and the quality of our libraries. When students are inspired to learn, a quality library within the school helps them be successful.

Copeland: Where should this shift in advocacy focus start?

Knezek: Advocacy is done best at the district level, but we are in a national crisis with regard to having a skilled workforce for our public schools. Regardless of what we hear from [political leaders in] Washington, D.C., it is the responsibility of the federal government to develop an agenda to address this crisis.

ISTE is [in Washington] for several reasons, two of which include: to establish an office in order to influence policy and advocate for educational technology’s potential; and to network with other professional associations, agencies, institutions and political leaders. We want to influence and build linkages to other networks that reach into the fabric of schools and education.

Copeland: At the teacher level, is training and professional development the answer?

Knezek: We need better standards. To define a highly qualified teacher and include no technology tools or training is an atrocity. While the majority of teachers say they have had professional development in technology, in reality, when you dig below the surface, very few have more than one day of training annually.

You cannot change behavior with one day of professional development per year. There is some masking in statistics that we collect. There needs to be consistent messaging around educators qualified to lead learning in the 21st century.

Copeland: What can an educator expect to gain from attending ISTE’s National Educational Computing Conference (NECC)?

Knezek: The NECC conference is a tremendous professional development event for educators who work directly with students. It will focus on best practices for using technology to increase student learning and improve teacher preparation.

What is new is that now there is a strong program about school improvement, leadership for school reform and effective educational policy, all involving technology. The conference has always been about using technology to improve student learning, but now it is about leading with technology, important technology efforts and establishing effective educational policy around technology.

Copeland: What do you offer to administrators?

Knezek: ISTE’s fastest growing membership group consists of school administrators. Leadership development is a key opportunity that ISTE offers. While we are still a service organization, we focus on leadership development. We have built a robust core competency around leadership development for technology.

In a Nutshell

Here are some key facts about the International Society for Technology in Education:

• ISTE is a nonprofit membership organization

• Goal: To provide leadership and service to improve teaching and learning by advancing the effective use of technology in education

• Membership: More than 85,000 teachers and administrators worldwide through individual and affiliate memberships

• ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards Project established technology standards for students, teachers and education administrators, while also highlighting the support systems that are necessary to achieve those standards and realize the potential benefits of technology for education

• Organizer of the annual National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), the field’s premier professional conference focused on education technology.