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Whither Technology?

“Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” – Paul Saffo, Futurist

In 1996, President Bill Clinton in his State of the Union address challenged the nation to ensure – as a matter of educational equity and opportunity – that every classroom be connected to the Internet and equipped with computers, good software, and well-trained teachers. In response, the federal government launched a concerted effort focused on wiring and equipping schools, teacher professional development, classroom-level integration of technology, and student technology literacy skills. This national strategy ultimately struggled to maintain political will and, by 2011, the Obama administration and Congress agreed that other priorities for federal education policy were greater, bringing an end to the beginning of the modern movement to employ technology as a school improvement and reform strategy.

Indeed, educators and education policymakers have had and continue to maintain a complex and fickle relationship with technology and with those who promote its use as a component of school improvement and reform strategies. Yet, as the pace of technological innovation continues to drive fundamental changes in the personal, civic, and professional lives of many Americans, it is hard to imagine how public K-12 education could be immune to its influence or why that would even be desirable, particularly in the face of a college- and career-readiness agenda, bolstered by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. College students rely on technology for academic success and to improve personal productivity. In the workplace, everyone from mechanics to accountants to physicians depends on technology to conduct work, grow businesses, and collaborate with colleagues – both locally and globally.

Looking ahead, what is at issue is not whether technology has influenced or will influence education. Rather, the issues at hand are how, how fast, and whether this influence will help us achieve our stated goals and values for public education or something altogether different. In fact, if we, as a nation, are serious about preparing all students for college and careers, a concerted effort will be required to re-establish a shared vision for technology’s role in education policy and to attend – in a systemic and sustained manner – to good implementation.

Leveraging Technology to Unlock and Unleash Improvements in Education

While some are impatient with the pace of technology adoption in K-12 education, the speed and scope of change has been remarkable by any other standard of educational transformation or reform. Investments in school technology stemming from and spurred on by those early Clinton-era efforts have done nothing less than lay the foundation for a new and more powerful generation of technological opportunities by helping to ensure a critical mass of school computers and near universal Internet connectivity.

Indeed, the emerging work of states and districts in 2012 is fundamentally different from that arising from Clinton-era efforts. Earlier efforts were too often treated as supplemental to the ongoing work of schools, voluntarily incorporated in classrooms by individual teachers or visionary school leaders. Such efforts have proven difficult to sustain over time and to scale up across districts and states. In contrast, today’s efforts represent a rethinking of core public education system functions with technology as an integral component, not unlike the way the rise of spreadsheets and databases has transformed many businesses.

Consider the following:

  • The shift from print textbooks to digital instructional materials. Within the last two years, more than a dozen states have changed policies or launched initiatives that encourage the use of digital content and, in some cases, open educational resources in lieu of traditional proprietary print textbooks. Momentum for these changes will continue to grow with the implementation of the Common Core standards in most states, making it easier for publishers of all kinds to enter the market. In addition, teachers and students are both accessing content over the Internet and creating their own.
  • The shift from paper and pencil assessments to enhanced online tests. While some 33 states currently employ some degree of online and computer-based assessment as part of their accountability systems, new student assessments currently being developed by the Race to the Top assessment consortia are slated to be delivered wholly online by the 2014-15 school year. By employing technology-enhanced items, such as those that assess speaking, writing, mathematical understanding, and other higher-order skills, the implementation of these new assessments will serve to reinforce and assess student mastery of the high expectations embedded in the Common Core standards in ways that are not possible via current generations of student assessments.
  • The shift from face-to-face workshops to online professional development. While schools have been much slower to adopt the use of Internet-based materials for professional development than they have for student instruction, face-to-face professional development is expensive and research clearly shows that one-day workshops do not change teacher behavior in the classroom. However, if educators have ongoing access to the Internet, they have a variety of resources from lesson plans and videos of best practices, to podcasts from experts and online courses. Perhaps more important, they have access to each other.
  • The rise of ‘big data’ in informing educational decision-making. In contrast to other major technology-driven shifts in core education system functions, the rise of data-driven decision-making systems is fundamentally a new opportunity that technology brings to the table. Smart systems will ensure the alignment and continuous improvement of digital instructional materials, assessments, and professional development, while also providing information – in some cases for the first time ever – on the use and effectiveness of those materials in fulfilling their purpose.

While the future is bright for the growth of online and blended learning solutions and new school models – and for the related, but broader movement toward competency-based education – the speed and path to broad adoption is much less certain over the next three to five years. In contrast, the shift to digital content, online assessment, online professional development, and enhanced data analytics – all in service of improved student learning – is relatively straightforward, well under way, and easily scalable.

An Obligation and Responsibility to Manage Change

Given the broader context for education reform and improvement (especially to the unique circumstance of Common Core standards adoption), states and districts are faced with a basic, but far-reaching choice: to manage and plan for the full range of these digital opportunities in the context of stated goals and values for public education or not. By choosing not to attend to how, how fast, and in what sequence such shifts in state and district education systems are being made, implementation efforts will be piecemeal and severely challenged, costs could dramatically increase, inequities will undoubtedly grow, and basic public stewardship responsibilities could be ceded to those with mixed motivations.

To manage the shift to digital solutions, educators and leaders must:

  • Coordinate strategic and long-range technology planning efforts within and across state and district agencies and functions. The shift to digital solutions entails the reimagining and reinventing of core education functions — teaching and learning, instructional materials, assessment, professional development, and school operations – across the full-range of students served in public schools. Everyone has a stake in this work, education leaders most of all.
  • Establish or leverage existing vehicles for ongoing public-private dialogue and cooperation. It is not the primary role or expertise of schools to develop new technologies or applications, just as it is not the primary role of the private sector to steward the care and well-being of students in loco parentis.   An open, cross-sector dialogue is critical to sound educational decision-making and the fostering of a robust marketplace of products and services of value to schools. In so doing, states and districts will need internal capacity and honest broker advice to fairly evaluate vendor claims.
  • Ensure student and educator computer and broadband access. As we shift to treating technology as core, instead of supplemental, to the school experience, states and districts have an obligation to muster the political will to ensure students and educators have access to computers and broadband. Just as states today are obligated to provide resources for an adequate basic education, providing access to digital devices and robust broadband (in and out of school) will no longer be optional as core education functions – from instructional materials to student assessment to teacher professional development – shift to digital and online platforms. Aggregating demand within and across districts and states – and with other public institutions – is likely to be an effective strategy to managing costs.
  • Unlock and repurpose existing funding streams, while – with federal support – increasing investments in school infrastructure.  The shift to digital will require the repurposing of existing funding streams and new money; nonetheless, especially in difficult budget times, the federal government’s support will be critical to success. While substituting, for instance, computers and open educational resources for print textbooks can save costs, districts and schools will incur new costs, such as broadband infrastructure upgrades and technical support, during and after the transition.

The forces driving education’s digital shift are strong and gaining momentum. The real technology question we may be facing is how serious we are about the current school improvement and reform movement.  Can we muster the political will to accelerate these forces, or will they be stalled by inertia and allegiance to the status quo? The answer to that question will go a long way to determining how quickly students will graduate high school college and career ready.

This posting by Doug Levin and Geoff Fletcher of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) originally appeared in “Getting to 2014 (and Beyond): The Choices and Challenges Ahead,” a collection of essays published by Education Sector.

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