Apr 17 2008

The Currents of Change

The Currents of Change


John Kuglin

Lee Copeland

Public education is at a crossroads. The growing importance of interactive digital media is occurring all around us, whether we admit it or not.

Public education is at a crossroads. The growing importance of interactive digital media is occurring all around us, whether we admit it or not.

Consider the case of the superintendent’s angry wife. Earlier this year, a student disagreed with a superintendent’s decision to have school after a snowstorm. This student called the superintendent’s house to disagree with the decision, leaving a message with his name and phone number.

The superintendent was already at work, but his wife called back and left an angry message for the student. The student digitized the message and posted it on YouTube. The next thing you know, it was a story on CNN.

Embrace New Technologies

This example proves the world is a different place today. Acknowledging the world is a changing place, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills not only has cited the pivotal role technology should play in school today, the group’s report further states that students need to master critical skills beyond their core subjects or they will be woefully underprepared to work in today’s world.

So now that we’ve outlined why change is necessary, here’s how to accomplish it. Media is changing, from the aforementioned YouTube to cell phones and MP3 players that can become quick projectors, casting their images onto a wall. Streaming-video sites are becoming more popular in schools, putting collected clips at a teacher’s fingertips.

Combine all this with the growing world of simulations, and you have a powerful tool that can merge up-to-date information about almost any subject with geographical data. Think teaching about Lewis and Clark’s journey across the continent is boring for students? Layer the explorers’ trails over Google Earth, call up the duo’s journals and suddenly students feel like they are looking over the explorers’ shoulders rather than dusting off a history book to learn.

The quality of this imagery continues to improve. This type of work wasn’t possible five years ago; today, for example, aerial maps of Switzerland’s terrain are all high-resolution, with detail so clear you can see tracks in the snow where skiers have recently passed.

The addition of data is the third ingredient in this mix. By taking something as simple as temperatures for a year and mixing it with a simulation, you can show exactly how it correlates with your area’s changing seasons. Data visualized is powerful.

Next, you can break the project out of your classroom’s four walls by using any of the many Web 2.0 technologies your students are probably already familiar with. These range from blogs and wikis to social networks, online photo albums and video-sharing sites.

Throw in two-way videoconferencing and all of a sudden your students are sharing information with the likes of NASA scientists and students from South Africa. Combine these seemingly unrelated areas and your district will be creating its own 21st-century classrooms.

Infrastructure Needs

So what type of network is needed to support 21st-century classrooms?

Eagle County, in the heart of the Colorado ski country, has 16 schools to serve its 6,000 students and 500 teachers. Its main connection to the Internet is a Digital Signal 3, a T3 line that carries 44.736 megabits per second. All the schools have between 6Mbps and 10Mbps on the metro Ethernet, but the real beauty of this setup is that a school’s connection can jump to 50Mbps with the turn of a knob.

An additional key to providing robust services, including video streaming, is the district’s 9 terabytes of storage space. This allows IT services to load lots of content onto the network, making it faster for teachers to access.

Still think the world isn’t flat?

Then don’t bother seeing the documentary Two Million Minutes. In this 2007 film, two former Teach for America educators compare the high school careers (each year is roughly 500,000 minutes, meaning that each student has two million minutes of high school) of two students from the United States with their peers in China and India. The upshot? Those chronically low scores by U.S. high school students in science and math are no accident. From approximately the same number of students, China produces eight times more scientists and engineers per capita than the United States, while India graduates up to three times as many. The filmmakers seek to answer the question: Is the United States doing enough with the time it has to ensure the best future for both students and the country?

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