Oct 31 2006

How To Make Technology a Force for Change

Technology can be intoxicating, but it’s just a tool. The key to driving real change in education is using technology to facilitate and enhance student-teacher interactions.

Let's face it, technology can be intoxicating. The glow of a sleek flat-screen display and the impact of a Web page published half a world away make it easy to think anything is possible thanks to PCs, multimedia applications and the Internet.

Nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than in education. As outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared earlier this year, “We are already seeing some remarkable results [from technology’s influence], and I believe this trend bodes well for the future of our country.” He added that teachers now as never before use technology to introduce students to a variety of new ideas and to enrich their overall learning experience.

Paige’s comments came at the release of the department’s third technology plan, titled Toward a New Golden Age in American Education: How the Internet, the Law and Today’s Students are Revolutionizing Expectation. (For a copy of the report, visit www.ed.gov/technology/plan.) Secretary Paige appropriately used a Webcast presentation to introduce the plan to educators across the nation.

Like the technology plans that preceded it, the latest version provides both a report card of where schools stand in their adoption of technology, as well as a call to action for how schools can more effectively ride the technology wave in the years ahead. As the new plan points out, there is cause for optimism and concern in both areas. What the latest plan fails to emphasize—but what administrators, teachers and parents should keep top of mind—is that no matter how alluring the latest and greatest hardware and software technologies may be, they will never rise above their roles as tools to facilitate the student-teacher interactions that are the core of the learning experience.

Consider the Limitations

There’s no better time than the release of a technology roadmap to consider technology’s strengths and limitations. While the Digital Age introduces computer-savvy students to a world of information unbounded by borders and cultures, there’s a flip side. The world now demands more knowledge and skills and a greater drive for success from today’s students who find themselves competing in a global marketplace.

The United States ranks as a big spender in that competition, although this fact may be news to resource-stressed teachers and administrators who may feel as if they’re always trying to squeeze the most out of tight school budgets. Nevertheless, U.S. elementary and secondary students receive an average of more than $8,700 per year in federal, state and local dollars—a level that’s surpassed only by Switzerland.

But big bucks—$500 billion spent for U.S. K-12 schools in the 2003-04 year—haven’t always yielded big dividends. For 20 years, reading scores in the U.S. have remained flat, while only 31 percent of U.S. fourth-graders achieve grade-level reading proficiency, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress published by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Break down the numbers further and the results become even more discouraging. Only a fraction of African American, Hispanic and Native American students attain reading proficiency in their respective grade levels. Math performance offers little comfort. Only about 10 percent of African American students reach proficiency by 4th grade, a number that drops to a stunningly low three percent by 12th grade. Similar stark statistics characterize the proficiency levels of other ethnic groups.

Take Advantage of Technology

How can schools cope with these results? The latest technology plan outlines how technology can become a force for positive change. The plan offers seven recommendations to help school officials and local governments take advantage of technology. They are strengthen leadership, improve teacher training, support e-learning and virtual school initiatives, provide much greater access to broadband communications, move to more use of digital teaching materials, consider innovative budgeting and integrate data systems.

There are clear benefits to adopting these ideas. As the latest federal technology plan details, the rise in technology-rich e-learning methods has blossomed since the turn of the millennium. On-demand classes now act as important supplements to the normal school day.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that a minimum of 15 states now provide e-learning for special needs students who require additional instruction outside of regular class time. In addition, a quarter of all K-12 public schools now offer e-learning or virtual school instruction.

If current growth trends continue, nearly every state and school will offer these resources in the next decade. When that happens, U.S. students can routinely expect to receive flexible instruction at a time, place and pace that suits their individual needs.

But technology isn’t only for delivering instruction; it’s also playing an increasingly important role in assessing the effectiveness of school curriculums. The Education Department provides examples of this in its report—examples that confirm what teachers and administrators are telling Ed Tech.

We recently spoke with Joe Sassone, assistant superintendent at the fast-growing Vail, Ariz., school district near Tucson. When its elementary students consistently failed to meet state standards, the district launched a technology-driven strategy of regular assessment testing that quickly identified which students required extra help to meet standards, and which students who were already at proficiency levels could benefit from extra instruction to push them to mastery status.

The results are impressive. In the past, only 46 percent of fifth-graders at one Vail elementary school met state standards for grade-level proficiency. After the assessments, that number jumped to 80 percent.

With results like these, it’s easy to be enamored with technology. But, as Sassone and others point out, technology only pointed the way to improvements at Vail. The real keys to success were the regular strategy meetings among administrators and teachers to discuss what methods worked, which ones fell short and what game plan was needed to bring about future success.

Technology is “the vehicle to help us get where we want to go,” Sassone says, adding that it was the new culture based on collaboration and cross-fertilization of teaching ideas that ultimately resulted in success.

Now that’s an idea that’s truly invigorating.

Chris Rother is vice president of education sales for Vernon Hills, Ill.-based CDW•G, a leading technology provider to government and education. She is a passionate advocate for enhancing the educational experience with technology.

Today’s Tech-Savvy Students

Computer use among students of all ages is on the rise.

• Students 13 to 19 years of age believe school is important: 96%
• Teens with access to computers use the Internet for school research projects: 94%
• Students 5 to 17 years of age use computers: 90%
• Students 13 to 19 years of age say college is critical to their future: 88%

Source: The Department of Education