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A nation left behind on ed tech?

As U.S. cuts ed-tech funding, other countries are accelerating plans

In Britain, it’s estimated that half of all classrooms will be outfitted with interactive electronic whiteboards by the end of this year. In Mexico, every fifth and sixth grade classroom is expected to have a computer, printer, interactive whiteboard, and projector by November.

And here in the United States, Congress is poised to eliminate millions of dollars in federal ed-tech funding at the request of the president.

While Bush administration officials claim that classroom technology already has been sufficiently funded, other countries–including Mexico, Britain, and Australia–are moving forward with ambitious ed-tech programs of their own, with clear, innovative, and measured plans to bring sound ed-tech infrastructure to every classroom nationwide.

Many U.S. officials, including Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, have said repeatedly that the national push for ed-tech infrastructure is complete. Claiming that billions of dollars already have been devoted to these ends, administration officials say direct federal funding for school technology now can be cut and that educators can find additional funding in other government grant programs or donations from private entities.

The federal government’s Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, the primary means by which many schools fund innovative classroom and administrative technologies, has been zeroed out of President Bush’s version of the federal budget for the past three years. The Senate restored partial funding in fiscal years 2005 and 2006, but no final budget approval has occurred for 2007 (see story: http://eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6206).

Although federal funding typically accounts for only 7 percent of all education funding, that figure is higher when it comes to educational technology. And though it’s true the eRate and other federal investments in school technology have helped wire schools, there are still huge disparities from one district to another–and sometimes even from school to school within the same district–in classroom technology integration.

Meanwhile, countries around the world are moving forward with ambitious, laser-focused ed-tech initiatives that seek to outfit every classroom with a core ed-tech infrastructure. Although profound logistical, political, and pedagogical differences exist between the United States and other nations, to some observers it appears the United States risks being left behind.

Tim Magner, director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, was not available for comment before press time. But in an exclusive video interview with eSchool News, Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), an international nonprofit organization that aims to improve teaching and learning through the effective use of technology, said the debate among American policy makers about whether or not technology is necessary in the classroom is being “decided by other nations” as they move forward with their own ed-tech initiatives. He said this should be a “wake-up call” to politicians in the United States.

“I think there’s no question that it is a wake-up call. I talk about the issues of global competitiveness and&the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] disciplines as ‘the Sputnik of this era,'” Knezek said, referring to the competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union to develop leading-edge, space-age technologies in the 1960s.

“If you look at how scientists truly work, if you look at how people communicate, if you look at how schools document the progress of students, all of those have to have technology as a foundation,” Knezek said. (To view the entire interview with Don Knezek, go to www.eschoolnews.com/cic and click on “The Sputnik of our era…”)

Industry leaders are concerned as well.

“I do worry about American and Canadian educational systems, from the perspective that so many good plans and ideas that have been carefully developed and thought through go unfunded,” said Nancy Knowlton, president and co-CEO of SMART Technologies Inc., which is providing interactive whiteboards for both the eMexico program and the British efforts to outfit all classrooms with whiteboards.

“On a more basic level,” Knowlton commented, “why are teachers chronically putting their own money into what many people would consider necessities?”

By contrast, under the leadership of outgoing President Vicente Fox, the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education has initiated the eMexico plan, which follows a national digital curriculum known as Enciclomedia. The eMexico program is being unrolled in grades five and six, equipping each classroom in these grades with the basic hardware to run richly digitized versions of the country’s pre-existing national K-12 education curriculum: a computer, an interactive whiteboard, a printer, and a projector. The government chose project leaders for all 13 Mexican states to oversee the outfitting of each of those areas with the required hardware. These organizations were responsible for choosing the vendors and making certain that the basic physical infrastructure to support these efforts was in place.

Under the current plan, Mexico will continue with grades seven and eight next year and maintain this momentum through grade 12 as the years progress. The program’s continuation, however, might hinge on the new Mexican president’s desire to carry on with the plan. The outcome of Mexico’s presidential election was still being disputed at press time.

One of the major differences between the Mexican government’s approach to educational technology and the U.S. approach is that the agreed-upon curriculum came from one source, the Education Secretariat itself, well before the hardware was ever installed. The minimal hardware needed to support the curriculum was chosen based on the curriculum itself, instead of working curricular materials around hardware that has been purchased piecemeal by a district, as often has been the case with hardware deployment in U.S. districts.

Vivek Thakur, director of emerging markets at Texas Instruments, the company whose Digital Light Processing (DLP) video projection technology reportedly is used in more than 90 percent of the projectors sold to the Mexican government, discussed the digital Enciclomedia curriculum.

“The [adapted] textbook is linked to a 40-gigabyte exhaustive [series of] databases and other sources. Instructors can pull examples, streaming video, and audio and [can] give students exercises,” Thakur said. “The text will [discuss] a particular musical instrument, and the instructor can play the sound of the music it plays. The curriculum will be placed in about 155,000 classrooms by November.”

Knowlton said eMexico is a “wonderful program” for several reasons.

“It has a comprehensive approach to content,” she said. “So often, teachers are given technology but not the content (and training) to go along with it to make it useful.”

Knowlton continued: “There is a strategic reason for the choice of grades five and six–getting children to stay in school longer because they enjoy the experience. So many kids drop out today not because they can’t handle the work; they leave because the classes are boring and seemingly irrelevant to life in the 21st century.”

Thakur noted another key difference in how the U.S. and other countries have approached ed-tech initiatives.

“I think the fundamental difference is that, in the U.S., each school district has its own choices,” he said. “School districts have spent the money in ways they thought appropriate.” Owing to this basic difference in philosophy–the idea of local control over education–there has “not been a standard [model for ed-tech deployment] across the country.”

Thakur said the U.S. doesn’t need a single national ed-tech model to remain competitive–but he did call for greater regulation and cooperation among governments on the local, state, and national levels.

“We are reinventing the curriculum…in every school district,” Thakur said. “Why can’t we…have more harmony, and just not reinvent the wheel again and again?”

Among already industrialized Western cultures, perhaps Britain and Australia are leading the pack in terms of bringing their curricula up to speed with the demands of the contemporary world.

According to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, the U.K. budget for education is set to double from the 2004-05 fiscal year, from 3.85 billion pounds ($7.1 billion), to the 2007-08 fiscal year, at which point it will have reached 6.78 billion pounds ($12.5 billion). The increase reportedly will fund the British government’s Building Schools for the Future program. That national plan is meant to ensure that by 2015 every secondary school can be refurbished or rebuilt with leading-edge technology and state-of-the-art learning in every classroom.

Along the way to realizing that plan, Britain has invested heavily in installing interactive whiteboard technologies in every classroom. According to SMART, at least half of all U.K. classrooms will be equipped with the technology by the end of the year. Britain also has invested 2 to 3 billion pounds ($3.6 to $5.4 billion) in professional development programs designed to make educators “digitally confident,” according to the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a national U.S. organization for K-12 technology leaders. Implemented in 1998, this new professional development program is set to run through 2008.

A British financial web site called Finanz reports that Britain has increased the number of computers in its classrooms nearly 50 percent over the last five years, to 6 million. In addition, according to figures provided by CoSN, from 1997 to 2005 the percentage of pupils achieving upper-level scores in U.K. literacy/reading assessment went from less than 65 percent to almost 80 percent, and British nine- to 10-year-olds have moved from being 19th to third in the world rankings for literacy and reading–an improvement the organization attributes at least in part to that nation’s technology push.

Knowlton cautioned that, though Britain has made an “astonishing accomplishment in a short period of time” with this commitment to classroom technology, she worries that professional development in the country has not caught up with this technology–yet.

“Much of the commentary around technology in education is about the unfulfilled promise of technology,” she said. “It is one thing to have it; it is another to use it properly. The training and approach to teaching with technology [in the U.K.] simply has not caught up. This should be rectified in the next few years, and then watch out. The easy part is spending the money–the challenging part is putting the technology to good use.”

The Australian Department of Education, Science, and Training says Australia has committed, through its Online Curriculum Content for Australian Schools Initiative, to provide $34.1 million from 2001 to 2006 to support the development of online curriculum resources, services, and applications for Australian schools. States and territories collectively matched this amount to move forward with a joint project called The Le@rning Federation: Schools Online Curriculum Content Initiative. New Zealand also is taking part in the program.

The program has developed 4,500 interactive learning objects for K-12 schools. These are provided free of charge for all jurisdictions to distribute. Online curriculum material is available in the areas of science, mathematics, literacy for students at risk, Australian studies, innovation, enterprise and creativity, and foreign language studies. The program includes a strong professional development component.

According to the Australian government, the material is “highly interactive and supports leading education practice.”

Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN, attributed Australia’s program in part to its geography.

“Part of it is that Australia is so geographically isolated that [officials] have thought about technology: TV, radio, now the internet,” said Krueger. “They know technology is essential in a country bigger than the U.S., with most of the population along the coastline but also scattered all over the entire continent. They are always very aware of the equity issues [among this dispersed and economically diverse population] and how technology may bridge educational opportunities.”

Alluding to the often divisive nature of political discourse in the United States, Krueger praised how varying political groups in Australia have found a way to work together when it comes to providing 21st-century learning opportunities for that nation’s students.

“The political structure is really similar to the US. Education is really a responsibility of states and territories. The national government does provide some funding and direction in terms of accountability,” he said. “It is quite a parallel system. [CoSN officials] were struck by the fact that the national government is in control of one party, the states are in control of another political party, yet they can work collaboratively to come up with a more national vision [for education technology].”

Al Zeisler, president of the ed-tech consulting firm Integrated Technology Education Group LLC, called for a more formalized, comparative approach to the study of ed-tech programs, both within the U.S. and among other countries, as a way to improve educational technology in this nation.

“The ed-tech decisions made by the U.K., Mexico, and Australia clearly demonstrate that these countries consider the application of technology in support of education goals an internal imperative,” Zeisler said. “There is much to learn from the ed-tech decisions being made by other countries. Some of the results of their decisions will be positive, and we should consider adapting these programs to our schools, and others will clearly prove to be of no added value and should be quickly discarded.”

He added: “The successful use of educational technology must recognize the need for uninterrupted, long-term financial support.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

SMART Technologies Inc.
http://www.smarttech.com

Texas Instruments Inc.
http://www.ti.com

Mexican Secretariat of Education
http://www.sep.gob.mx

Building Schools for the Future in the UK Program
http://www.bsf.gov.uk

The Le@rning Federation: Schools Online Curriculum Content Initiative (Australia)
http://www.thelearningfederation.edu.au

Educational Network Australia
http://www.edna.edu.au/edna/page1.html

Integrated Technology Education Group LLC
http://www.iteg.com

Don Knezek at eSN TV–“The Sputnik of our era…”
www.eschoolnew.com/cic

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