A week before a deadlocked presidential election would stun the nation and shock the world, hundreds of superintendents and senior managers from school districts across the United States came together to address the promises and pitfalls of using technology to reform local elections. They discussed how balloting for school bond issues, tax referenda, and school board races could change if citizens cast their votes any time, anywhere via the internet and if those ballots were tabulated instantly and automatically.
Electronic balloting in local elections was one of three emerging technology issues the school district chief executive officers grappled with during a first-of-its-kind Superintendents’ Technology Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., Oct. 30 and 31. The conference was produced by eSchool News, the nation’s only national newspaper about school technology. The theme of the conference was, “Setting the Technology Agenda for America’s Schools.”
The realities of a national protocol for the electronic transfer of school and student records was also on the superintendents’ agenda, and they dealt with the issues surrounding internet policies for students and staff members.
After briefings from experts on each topic, superintendent leaders and professional facilitators from the National Association of Partners in Education guided the school district chiefs through consensus-building sessions. After intensive discussions formulating key alternatives in each area, the conference attendees came together to express a “Sense of the Summit.” They voted on three “National K-12 Advisories,” each composed of specific guidelines the superintendents offered for the consideration of their peers and for the edification of lawmakers and opinion leaders from coast to coast.
Along with the consensus-building sessions, the conference offered professional development on topics ranging from electronic procurement to communication strategies superintendents can use when discussing technology with business leaders and board members. But the Superintendents’ Technology Summit aimed to go beyond professional development, by encouraging the superintendents to weigh in on three areas where emerging technology issues are likely to have a profound impact on the nation’s schools.
The nation’s first binding election that included voting via the internetdubbed eBallotingtook place last February in the Arizona Democratic primary election. Turnout increased by 800 percent compared with the number of citizens participating in that party’s previous presidential primary vote.
During November’s presidential election, an experiment allowing a small number of military personnel to vote via the internet reportedly went without a hitch. Some experts predict that eBalloting will be ubiquitous in the United States as soon as 2004.
Mark Strama, eBalloting expert and vice president of Election.com, told attendees at the Superintendents’ Technology Summit that holding an online election might increase voter turnout, because it offers constituents the convenience of voting at any time and from anywhere.
Some advocates of eBalloting also speculate that opening elections to the internet would encourage more busy parents to vote, tipping elections for school bond issues in favor of the district as parents’ votes outnumber those of retirees, who often vote against school funding.
“Internet voting isn’t going to make other types of voting go away,” Strama said, although he said that the Gartner Group, a research organization, has predicted voting will be done mostly online by the time the next presidential election rolls around.
Despite the potential for increased voter participation, online voting does raise some concernsmost notably, voter privacy and the potential for voter fraud. These issues can be resolved through technology, Strama told the superintendents, but the start-up cost of encrypting ballots to ensure voter privacy and mailing personal idetification numbers to authenticate voters could prove daunting for election officials in many localities.
Although online voting might one day be the norm, superintendents at the summit determined the prospect is not something very many educators are thinking about now. One of the major roadblocks to eBalloting, attendees noted, is that laws would need to be passed permitting ballots to be cast via the internet.
Strama said New York so far is the only state where internet voting is legal. For now, Strama told attendees, his company is trying to find state officials and school districts willing to work with the company to change state laws that prohibit internet voting.
While arriving at a consensus on eBalloting, superintendents agreed that online voting will increase traffic to school web sites. They said voting via the internet would have no effect on the likelihood of passing bond issues or on the quality of school board members who might be elected via eBalloting. The superintendents also agreed that literacy would be a major factor in who uses online voting.
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)
An emerging protocol called EDI is beginning to enable K-12 districts to send student transcripts and other information electronically to colleges, state and federal agencies, and other participating school districts. Last fall, the Des Moines School District in Iowa became one of the first in the country to transfer student records using the EDI protocol, which is being developed by a U.S. Department of Education (ED) task force.
If all schools adopt EDI, it is likely to reduce cost and save time for administrators, guidance counselors, and college admissions officers, according to Raymond Yeagley, superintendent of the Rochester, N.H., School District and chairman of ED’s EDI Task Force.
A case in point is sending transcripts to colleges, Yeagley told summit attendees. The current process involves the costs of staff time to locate, copy, and package the paper transcripts along with the costs of supplies, photocopying, and postage. EDI can reduce staff time by as much as 75 percent, Yeagley said, while eliminating postage and supply costs and significantly reducing the cost of analysis at the colleges.
The downside to EDI is its initial set-up costs. Chief among the challenges to its implementation is the variety of student information systems used in schools, most having unique file formats that are incompatible with their competitors and with software used by colleges.
For EDI to be used to send transcripts and other student records, there must either be translation software to convert the files into a standard format, or each student software vendor would need to create an EDI module for its software. Each of these approaches is in its infancy at present, Yeagley said.
In addition, schools will need to deal with the learning curve associated with any new software and with the natural tendency of people to resist change. Guidance counselors and others will need to be convinced that EDI really will be less work and less costly before they will embrace it and make it successful. To accomplish this, EDI proponents will have to be ready with answers to such questions as how to transmit SAT information, letters of recommendation, and other narrative documents that typically are mailed with the paper transcript.
Such challenges notwithstanding, the consensus among superintendents at the summit was that EDI is a reliable, cost-effective, and efficient means of transmitting records and that the K-12 community should pursue EDI as a preferred means of exchanging information.
Conference attendees agreed that the use of consistent, well-established, dependable standards for EDI is essential and that schools should use systems compliant with the standard EDI protocol, not XML. They also said the software industry, state and federal agencies, colleges and universities, and K-12 school districts should share the burden of implementing EDI.
Addressing concerns about internet security, the superintendents agreed the means are available to make the internet secure enough to transmit student records. But, they said, school districts need to develop procedures to authenticate records requests and to ensure that student information conveyed via the internet is as safe as records sent through the mail.
After lengthy deliberations on the topic of acceptable internet-use policies for staff and students, the superintendents identified guidelines schools should adhere to when creating these types of policies.
First, they agreed there should be no federal mandate that would require school districts to use internet filters. At the same time, they said, educators should be proactive in developing standards and specifications for filtering.
Such policies should outline that use of the internet in schools is for educational purposes only and that personal use must not interfere with educational duties. Violations of the policy should result in consequences consistent with existing student codes of conduct or other applicable school regulations.
Technology-use policies, the superintendents said, must be concise, understandable, and applicable to students, staff, parents, and the community. They must be legal and enforceable, consistent throughout the region, and must address all technologiesincluding analog and digital devices.
The superintendents also decided that school districts should be responsible for maintaining an internet environment free of commercialism for students. They said schools should be responsible for educating students and staff about copyright laws and in proper citation of copyrighted material.
Think like a quarterback
Besides shaping the agenda for school technology in several key areas, the superintendents got executive briefings on other issues pertaining to technology and leadership.
Keynote speaker Ian Jukes, associate director of Audio Education Inc. of British Columbia, encouraged summit attendees to create forward-thinking visions of what technology should be like in their districts, especially considering the speed at which technology is evolving.
Jukes had one key message for the superintendents attending the technology summit: Think like a quarterback. When a quarterback throws the football to a receiver, Jukes explained, he throws the ball to where the receiver will benot where the receiver is when the ball is released.
“There’s not a single person sitting in this room who is prepared for what’s about to happen,” Jukes said. We are preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist and to solve problems we don’t know anything about, he added.
Education is “about visualizing the life these kids will lead when they leave school,” Jukes said. “Reconsider education through the lens of emerging technologies.”
He cited a gap between where education is going and where the rest of the world is going. Education hasn’t yet grasped what the future holds or what is about to happen. “If we continue to do the things we’ve always done, guess what: We’re going to get what we’ve always had,” he said.
A practitioner of the type of forward thinking Jukes espouses is Joe Kitchens, superintendent of Western Heights, Okla., School District. Kitchens described how his district is providing more computers for a fraction of the cost, using thin-client technology. Thin clients eliminate the need for a typical computer processor, because they deliver software applications running off a central server.
“You have to have a pretty good-sized server. But … you can get the eRate to support a server for thin clients,” Kitchens said, referring to the federal program that provides discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal network components.
Another speaker, University of Michigan Professor Elliot Soloway, went so far as to announce the demise of the personal computer in schools: “PCs are finished!” The concept of a personal computer in school is an oxymoron, anyway, he said, because school computers are shared.
“Palms are the personal computer for K-12” education, he said. “We’re working in schools where every kid in the high school has one.”
Soloway said personal digital assistants (PDAs) are great for schools, because they’re affordable, portable, and wireless. Every student can have the convenience of mobile computing, he said, especially now when more software applications than ever are being created for PDAs.
“We have to think differently,” Soloway admonished. “You have to be flexible.”
Sandy Paben, director of education for NY WIRED, reminded the superintendents of the importance of staff development. “Less than 30 percent of teachers feel prepared to use computers,” she said. “They’re not going to feel prepared until they get professional development.”
Lots of free content is available for teachers on the internet, Paben noted, and the International Society for Technology in Education already has created technology standards for schools.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel,” she advised. “If somebody has already done it for you, take it and tweak it.”
The “Star Chart,” created by the CEO Forum on Education and Technology, is another great resource that can help school leaders define their schools’ technology agenda, she said.
“I think this can help you set benchmark goals,” Paben said. “It’ll help you decide on your priorities.”
Setting sound priorities in light of the multiple opportunities and challenges presented by emerging technology was a constant theme at the first-ever Superintendents’ Technology Summit, cosponsored by eschoolmall.com, with additional support from HostLogic, Kids 123, NCS Pearson, Solbourne, Smart Technologies, ThinClient@school, and VoicePoll.
The superintendents who gathered in Palm Springs weren’t able to head back to their school districts with comprehensive solutions to all the challenges emerging technologies might pose, but during the conference, most attendees said they attained a clearer perspective on what the future could hold for America’s schools.