U.K. pupil-to-computer ratios are 6.2 to 1 in the primary grades and 3.6 to 1 at the secondary level. The U.S. pupil-to-computer ratio is 3.8 to 1 for all public schools, acccording to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Oct 31 2006

Making I.T. Personal

One year after the U.K. government backed individualized instruction, its plan is paying off.

One year after the U.K. government backed individualized instruction, its plan is paying off.

Schools around the world are embracing information and communications technology in education — or what Americans call educational technology.

The United Kingdom is one of several nations leading the integration of ICT into its educational process, according to educational technology advocates. These countries are moving from the standalone computer in the back of the room toward a model where technology helps teachers assess each student’s individual progress and develop individualized instruction.

The U.K. started on its current path toward individualized instruction in 2005 with the publication of a comprehensive strategy. Under the direction of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the country has steadily raised government spending on education and ICT.

So far, it’s paying dividends: Current pupil-to- computer ratios are 6.2 to 1 in the primary grades and 3.6 to 1 at the secondary level. Nearly all schools have at least one interactive whiteboard, and all schools were expected to be connected to the Internet at broadband speeds of 2 megabits per second or better by the end of 2006.

The U.K. is taking a unique approach by moving beyond business-as-usual computer use, says James Bosco, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University, and co-chairman of the International Committee of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a U.S. nonprofit organization of K–12 technology leaders. The U.K. is linking its efforts to expand ICT in the schools with an approach to teaching and learning that takes advantage of computers. “Getting more computers is just the means for accomplishing their goal of making instruction more responsive to each individual student,” Bosco contends. “While many talk about this, they are taking actions to make it happen.”

U.S. Educational Technology

  • Nearly 100 percent of U.S. public schools had access to the Internet in fall 2005, compared with 35 percent in 1994.
  • 87 percent in 2005 reported using the Internet to provide assessment results and data for teachers to use to individualize instruction.
  • In 2005, 93 percent of public school instructional rooms had Internet access, compared with 3 percent in 1994.
  • 19 percent of public schools provided handheld computers to students or teachers for instructional purposes in 2005, up from 10 percent in 2003.

How the United States Compares

In the United States, the ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access in public schools is 3.8 to 1, according to the federal Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite that respectable ratio, the federal government has not made the same increases in funding for educational technology as other leading countries have, says Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. Funding for educational technology in the United States, under the No Child Left Behind initiative, has dropped from $700 million several years ago to just $272 million today. President Bush recommended no funding for education technology under NCLB for fiscal 2007. But to date, the Senate plans to keep educational technology funding at its current level.

The United States has other challenges, too, when it comes to implementing personalized instruction. Unlike the U.K., Singapore and other countries on the leading edge, the United States has a decentralized education system, which makes it harder to push through the pedagogical changes and standards essential for success.

“Individual schools are not going to be able to do [individualized instruction] — at least on any substantial basis,” says David Whittier, an assistant professor of education at the Boston University School of Education who specializes in educational technology. “We need state and federal leadership to do this.”

In Singapore, for instance, the government sets the direction for education and provides funding for ICT in primary, secondary and pre-university-level schools, says Dr. Thiam Seng Koh, director of the Educational Technology Division of Singapore’s Ministry of Education. The central government also pushed for the necessary infrastructure and teacher training to make ICT work, Koh says.

The Government’s Goals

Government involvement in education has also been essential in the U.K. In March 2005, its Department for Education and Skills (DfES) made suggestions for improving schools and called for “a more strategic approach to the future development of ICT.”

DfES listed personalizing instruction as one of its primary goals. It describes an evolving program that will let learners use “challenging, game-like activities and materials that adjust to the level and pace appropriate to you.”

It also envisions a system that lets each student choose from more subject offerings, delivered through partnerships among schools, colleges, universities and other sources — with online help and peer-group networking. And it wants a system that creates more flexible learning environments, so that students can choose whether to learn with others, at work, at home or online.

Still in Adolescence

U.K. education leaders acknowledge that individualized instruction, though promising, is still in its early stages. “National, centrally driven strategies over the last 10 years have had a significant, positive impact on standards in schools, but the pace of improvement has slowed, and increasingly we need to look for more personalized ways to support individual learners,” according to Doug Brown, deputy director and head of learning technologies with the National Grid for Learning for DfES’ ICT in Schools Division.

Several key factors are moving all schools forward toward personalized instruction, says Terry Freedman, an independent educational technology consultant in the U.K. The factors include a heavy investment in technology (hardware, software and broadband Internet access) over the past 10 years, the creation of ICT courses as a distinct required subject as part of the U.K.’s national curriculum, legal requirements for almost all national curriculum subjects to incorporate ICT and the proactive involvement of government agencies.

Taking a Page

CoSN’s Krueger sees lessons that American educators can learn from British efforts to use ICT to individualize education.

U.S. leaders need to develop a clear vision for educational technology and support it with funding, he says. What’s more, educators have to set up a system where network administration happens not at each individual school, but on a higher level, so that teachers don’t have to worry about that in addition to their regular duties. At the local level, schools must be empowered to use technology in ways that best fit their students’ needs and not in ways that fit a one-size-fits-all mold, he adds.

Educators and U.S. officials need to push for more consistent quality in the content delivered through educational technology, Krueger says.

Custom Homework Assignments?

Imagine if students could pick their own homework assignments. How could it be managed?

United Kingdom educators have a solution, which was described in a recent presentation by Doug Brown, deputy director and head of learning technologies with the National Grid for Learning, ICT in Schools Division of the United Kingdom’s Department for Education and Skills.

Students in one test-bed school are connected to the school’s learning platforms via the Internet. There they can choose among a number of homework assignments and must complete a set number of online modules. The system automatically grades those modules and feeds homework scores to parents and teachers.

Individualized Learning Conference

The Consortium for School Networking’s 12th Annual K–12 School Networking Conference: Bridging Individualized Learning and High Stakes Accountability will be held March 28–30 in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.k12schoolnetworking.org.


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