If there's one thing that Jim Hirsch has learned in more than 30 years of working in education, it’s that progress never comes easy. The growing emphasis on information technology in schools compounds the blistering pressures to boost test scores and cope with static or shrinking budgets.
“Today’s students use technology in their daily lives, and they expect it in the classroom,” says Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology services at the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. “They’re creating new demands for how the learning process takes place.”
Waves from this sea change are beginning to take shape. “It’s not as simple as adding computerized instruction and wireless access to the classroom,” he points out. “Success can come only through revamped curricula and new methods of instruction. The questions are: How do we provide resources in print, electronically and in video? How do we personalize learning and make it meaningful to each student?”
There are no simple answers to these questions, but technology clearly plays a key role in learning and instruction. PCs, notebooks, personal digital assistants (PDAs), wired and wireless networks, and increasingly sophisticated software have transformed the classroom. The main challenge for educators is to harness the power of the technology and develop a focused strategy for education in the digital age.
“We see a greater recognition that technology is a norm for education,” says Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association (NEA) in Washington, D.C. Growing numbers of school districts go beyond the classroom to “share information with parents and the community” and to bolster the “delivery of professional development materials to educators,” she explains. This holistic approach promises to effect enormous change in the next few years.
The status of technology in the classroom has evolved considerably during the past several years, according to Julie Evans, CEO of the nonprofit education technology organization NetDay, based in Irvine, Calif. “Today’s students are very technology-savvy, feel strongly about the positive value of technology, and rely on technology as an essential and preferred component of every aspect of their lives,” Evans says. “Students are not just using technology differently. They are approaching their lives and their daily activities differently because of technology.”
NetDay’s “National Report on Speak Up Day for Students 2003” details results of a survey of 210,000 students at 3,000 schools. The survey found that 97 percent of students in grades seven through 12 and 95 percent in grades four through six believe strongly that technology use is important to their education.
Technology is the hub through which young people manage their daily lives. “Students use instant messaging and e-mail to handle everything from their history project to setting up a date for a movie,” Evans points out. “Yet, most teachers have never sent or received an instant message.”
The ramifications of these different technology experiences are important. “Young people see the potential of the technology but feel very limited by the school environment,” she adds.
It’s a concept that hasn’t escaped Plano’s Hirsch. During the last several years, he has focused on bridging the technology gap between students and teachers and adapting curricula to fit technology. “We had to disintegrate the curriculum before we could integrate it,” he explains.
The Plano district, which has 52,000 students in 65 schools, built new curricula from the ground up. Using PCs, wireless networks and the Internet, the educators constantly look for ways to streamline learning. For example, instead of directing students to the Internet to search for information about animals, educators built an online media database. “It’s faster and more narrowly focused,” Hirsch notes.
But innovation didn’t stop there. The district strives to let teachers and students give electronic presentations by connecting PDAs to televisions and projectors. It studies how teachers and students can use wireless keyboards and mice to create collaborative work spaces and overlay notes while in the classroom.
In addition, the district uses business intelligence and analytics tools to provide instant data about a student’s performance on standardized tests and in classes. “The information can help a teacher understand a student’s needs and design an appropriate and customized curriculum,” Hirsch explains.
New Era, New Demands
Policymakers may not always understand the expectations of today’s students, NEA’s Stein points out. “Most students—particularly those who come from homes where a high level of information technology is the norm—assume that technology is a seamless instrument in how we operate in today’s world,” she says.
These young people utilize technology for all kinds of communication, as well as for information gathering, schoolwork, entertainment, shopping, travel, sports and more. “To them, the failure to utilize information technology [creates] an artificial world—sort of like visiting Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village,” Stein explains.
Steve Taffee sees evidence that backs up Stein’s statements. The director of technology for Castilleja School, a private girls’ school in Palo Alto, Calif., says that students “challenge educators by demanding new ways to communicate, acquire knowledge, prove mastery and demonstrate relevance to their lives.”
Taffee adds that students in grades 6 through 12 expect instant access to information. “Students expect to sit down at a computer anywhere on our campus and immediately connect to the Internet,” Taffee explains. “They couldn’t care less if the computer is plugged into an Ethernet connection or is wireless. They simply expect it to work—and to work fast.”
Another trend, Taffee says, involves the use of smarter, more targeted devices. As desktop and notebook computers, Tablet PCs, PDAs, printers and phones share data, schools will operate more effectively. Handheld devices will gather data and share it with PCs for compilation, analysis and visualization, he predicts. Internet Protocol (IP) phones will let school staff members access directory information and display needed data, while inventory systems will automatically update the location of devices as they move.
Currently, the Castilleja School is upgrading its wireless infrastructure to 802.11g and building a digital language lab in which analog cassettes will be replaced by MP3 files and other digital media files. These digital files will make it easier for teachers to individualize instruction and add an interactive element to the learning process.
LCD projectors enable teachers to display Web pages, blogs and PowerPoint presentations, as well as other content, such as National Public Radio broadcasts. Students also can make their own movies and narrate them in French or Spanish.
Castilleja School plans an array of other technology initiatives, as well. It is installing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system to provide greater reliability, as well as expandability and lower operational costs.
Castilleja School is also turning to Gigabit Ethernet to enable a roster of applications, including Video over IP. In addition, it is exploring a program that would bring its computer-to-student ratio to a one-to-one level.
Ultimately, technology benefits teachers as well as students. “Technology spares teachers from mundane tasks that suck time away from interacting with students, preparing lessons and providing meaningful assessments of student work,” Taffee points out. Technology also simplifies scoring exams and keeping track of grades.
“Students don’t have to queue up outside a teacher’s office to get feedback on assignments,” Taffee says. “They can e-mail a teacher and attach a draft document or use the commenting features in the word processing application to exchange ideas.”
The story is much the same at many other schools. At St. Philip’s Episcopal School in Coral Gables, Fla., students in preschool through sixth grade rely on wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks to connect to interactive whiteboards and wireless projectors for tasks such as viewing maps on-screen and labeling continents or states.
In addition, the introduction of technology into the learning experience lets teachers save their work in a notebook computer. The same tool helps students learn about history, science and math. All students in grades four and up use notebook computers to access content that is appropriate for their age and their learning level.
“Books are terrific, but we live in a changing world,” points out Edward Diaz, technology director at St. Philip’s. “Sometimes, the information in a student’s book is outdated before he or she even gets it. With a laptop, a student is just a few keystrokes away from current information. Also, it’s one thing to read about Jupiter, but it’s another to visit the planet virtually.”
At the Chaparral Elementary School in Ladera Ranch, Calif., Principal Kevin Rafferty is another strong advocate of technology. He emphasizes notebook PCs, Web-based instruction and the integration of technology into standards-based curricula.
The school’s “Learning with Laptops” program helps students in grades three through five develop skills in applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as in applications for making movies and learning how to type more effectively. “Technology is not going away, so it is important to prepare students for the world of tomorrow,” Rafferty says.
Finding the right mix of technology and curriculum can pay enormous dividends, adds Steve Holmlund, a school-based technology specialist and teacher at the Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Va. He relies on a Web portal that’s available 24 x 7 to provide the school’s students with a wide range of resources, including lessons, video clips and whiteboard materials.
Students also produce a live daily TV show, and they create their own presentations and movies. “[The portal] is introducing students to new ways to discover and communicate,” says Holmlund.
Passing the Test
Despite many success stories, some formidable challenges remain for schools. Although young people are more technologically savvy than ever before and expect technology in their classrooms, most educators understand that schools should not stampede toward leading-edge technology simply because of its “cool” factor or because it might conceivably produce better results somewhere down the line.
Castilleja’s Taffee points out that too much technology can create other issues. In coming years, he predicts, educators and parents will need to find ways to connect to children who spend more and more time relating to their peers through electronic devices. Taffee emphasizes that children need the right balance of face-to-face instruction and electronic interaction.
The need for more security and IT support also can create problems for many schools—particularly large public districts that lack adequate technology funding. Tight budgets and a lack of training create more challenges that must be overcome to provide the level of teacher involvement and understanding required for success in today’s digital world.
“Far too often, the promise of technology is not realized because many teachers are still not comfortable using it in an instructional setting,” NetDay’s Evans points out.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of school districts are taking on that challenge. They are learning to mesh technology with the curriculum in order to create a more compelling educational environment.
“We have seen some anecdotal evidence that suggests technology, when it’s used well, can improve test scores,” reports NEA’s Stein.
But test scores may not be the best measure of student success.
“The more critical measure,” she points out, “is this: Are we providing students with the skills they need to succeed in this century? Some of our current assessments may not provide that information.”
Samuel Greengard is a Burbank, Calif.-based technology writer.
Students’ View of School Technology
When NetDay, a nonprofit educational technology organization in Irvine, Calif., asked students how they would like technology to be deployed in their schools to improve learning, the answers—from 210,000 students in 3,000 schools—were thunderously pro-technology. Asked to prioritize expenditures, students in kindergarten through grade 12 overwhelmingly agreed that more computers and better software use were at the top of their list.
Students want to extend the active online communications they experience in their private lives into their school environment. If they could change one thing about technology at their school, students in grades seven through 12 said they would let students use instant messaging and e-mail at school. That response outpolled having online classes and online textbooks by a ratio of almost three to one.
Students in grades four through 12 are frustrated by obstacles to online access at their school and would design a new school with fast, ubiquitous wireless access. They also want new computers that would let them venture online from anywhere in the school, as well as computer labs that stay open after school and on weekends.
Students have a clear sense of the value of technology for their education. They said that if their schools had more technology available, they would learn more, school would be more fun, student projects would be better, and students would achieve higher grades in class and on tests.
A Networked School Equals an Efficient School
The challenge of integrating technology into the educational environment doesn’t stop at the classroom door. Savvy educators recognize that hardware, software and networking tools are essential to cut costs and ensure smooth operations.
One key concern, according to Steve Taffee, director of technology for Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Calif., involves wiring a campus. Not only does this make it possible to provide access to the Internet, it also enables scores of diverse applications: managing heat, ventilation and air conditioning; monitoring pH levels in swimming pools; overseeing security systems; and controlling lighting, vending machines and other equipment.
A networked school can also manage other functions effectively. For example, with Internet Protocol (IP) phones, teachers and administrators can generate electronic hall passes and take attendance quickly and accurately. Photos and names of students appear on screen, and teachers check off their names, sending the information to a central database. The system can then automatically send attendance and truancy reports to the proper administrator in seconds rather than hours.
A few years ago, such applications might have seemed futuristic; today, many of them are commercially viable. At NetDay, a nonprofit educational technology organization in Irvine, Calif., CEO Julie Evans confidently predicts: “The school of the future will be very different from the one most of us grew up with.”