Undeterred by a sluggish economy, some state governments are pumping more resources than ever into new technologies meant to improve services in schools and other municipalities, according to the latest survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government.

The 2002 “Digital State Survey,” cosponsored by Government Technology magazine and the Progress and Freedom Foundation, ranked state governments nationwide for their use of technology to support services in such key municipal areas as education, taxation, and transportation.

According to the study, released Nov. 1, five states—Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, South Dakota, and Utah—are among the most adept at using digital technologies for educational purposes. Although three of these states—Illinois, South Dakota, and Utah—bested the survey for a second straight year, both Arizona and Indiana vaulted eight positions to grab a share of the No. 1 ranking in 2002.

Making new inroads into technology hasn’t been easy for state education departments this year. Nationwide budget shortfalls have spurred a reshuffling of long-term agendas, and a changed political landscape—compounded by tumultuous mid-term elections—has left several state initiatives teetering in uncertainty.

Still, state educators appear more committed than ever to expanding the role technology plays in improving education, said Janet Grenslitt, senior researcher and special projects manager for the Center for Digital Government.

In measuring the effectiveness of each state’s ed-tech initiatives, the center focused on a number of criteria, including online tools for administrative functions such as financial aid records and course registration, internet access in schools, school performance measures, and the availability of distance learning programs.

In Arizona, for example, education officials paid Qwest Communications Inc. more than $140 million to equip all of the state’s schools with high-speed internet access and shelled out an additional $27.9 million to Cox Business Services Inc. for the creation of the Cox Educational Network—a combination of online tools, streaming video, and customizable curriculum designed to run in concert with the massive technology infrastructure.

“I can’t tell you why we’re No. 1,” interim Arizona School Facilities Board Director Ed Boot said. “But I certainly can tell you why we’re doing well.”

According to Boot, a lot has changed in Arizona schools during the last 15 months. For instance, the state’s education network now has 980,000 registered users—parents and students—who can access more than 700 software titles via a secure user ID from one of the schools’ 165,000 computers or from any internet-connected machine, anywhere in the world, free of charge.

Boot estimated that Arizona has poured more than $200 million into educational technology services over the last year and a half. According to the Center for Digital Government, it was the result of those efforts that fueled Arizona’s ascension to the No. 1 spot in this year’s study.

Indiana, which jumped up eight spots on the survey in tandem with Arizona, is another state whose much-improved status was the result of breakthrough technology programs. According to the researchers, the Indiana Web Academy is doing its part to help close the digital divide for students there.

One program, Indiana’s eParent initiative—which allows for the digital communication of grades, eMail messages, attendance records, student information, and curriculum across the state—is exceptional for its ability to engage parents, school officials, and students in efforts to improve education at every level, researchers said.

The Web Academy also provides virtual lockers, or online storage facilities where students can house ongoing projects and research; eFlash, a statewide electronic newsletter on education news and programs; and EZ-Website, an interactive web design template that lets students build and craft their own unique web pages.

But in Indiana, officials do more than provide technology for technology’s sake; they also offer the instruction necessary to make sure students and faculty are getting what they need out of such high-tech investments.

According to the state education department’s web site, Indiana offers a range of technology training options, from one-hour seminars on simple word-processing applications to week-long “boot camps” on web design and effective technology integration.

South Dakota, which faces the challenge of incorporating greater course diversity into small, remote, and often distant schoolhouses, relies heavily on technology to provide new classes and more options for its students, said Ray Christensen, secretary for the South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs.

Two comprehensive, statewide information systems—the Digital Dakota Network (DDN) and DDN Campus—provide a robust set of tools for students, parents, and educators to improve the quality of education in each school and home across the state, he said.

DDN Campus, for instance, enables South Dakota school districts to create class schedules for students electronically, as well as store, sort, and compare aggregated academic records as required under the No Child Left Behind Act, distribute electronic report cards to parents, check real-time attendance data, track disciplinary records, and publish school accountability information such as test scores and graduation rates online.

The state also is using its robust technology infrastructure to provide more diverse learning opportunities for its students, Christensen said.

According to him, DDN is used to stream interactive videoconferences and new curricula to some of the state’s most isolated school buildings. The effort brings course content to students in rural areas who otherwise would have fewer choices of study. “Technology really takes away the remoteness,” Christensen said.

South Dakota schools also got a boost this year from the Technology for Teaching and Learning Academy, a four-week training program for the state’s teachers to help them integrate technology into the classroom, Christensen said.

Utah—which, like South Dakota, landed atop the list for a second straight year—was able to retain its No. 1 ranking by bolstering its 20-year-old Utah Education Network, which helps promote technology integration throughout the state, researchers said.

And in Illinois, three revolutionary technology initiatives contributed to that state’s share of first-place honors again this year.

At the crux of Illinois’ statewide technology infrastructure lies the Illinois Century Network (ICN). This far-reaching, high-speed technology backbone takes a communal approach to education and data sharing by interconnecting schools with libraries, museums, and municipal agencies throughout the state. Once connected, each institution enjoys the use of video tools, internet access, and data-sharing capabilities, said Mary Reynolds, chief technology officer for the state of Illinois.

“Education has always been a catalyst for cooperation and organization,” said Grenslitt, who added that states performing best under the survey’s criteria were the ones that showed ambition and the ability to turn their technology visions into real-world programs.

In Illinois, “We are really trying to hit every angle in terms of education technology,” Reynolds said. But according to the survey’s criteria, it takes more than just good networks for state governments to prove their worth in digital education.

Other initiatives, such as distance learning, also are important, researchers said.

Illinois boasts two online schools, the Illinois Virtual High School and the Illinois Virtual Campus. Whether studying in higher education or searching for ways to diversify course options in secondary schools, students with computer access have the ability to expand the breadth of their education outside the traditional course catalogue by enrolling online.

According to Reynolds, the increased use of technology enables Illinois to deliver educational services more quickly and seamlessly to schools than ever before. “Simplicity is a great goal. It’s one of the goals we are striving for by way of technology,” she said.

The five best-performing states weren’t the only ones making headway this year. According to Grenslitt, at least 30 states operate tools that store, maintain, and aggregate data based on student achievement; 27 have statewide plans for information technology and staff development; and 24 states now foster eLearning initiatives with at least one pilot program, whether it’s a virtual high school or some other source of online learning.

“We’re attempting to draw awareness to new accomplishments and the value of digital technology in various areas,” Grenslitt said of the survey. “Technology plays an integral role in how the government operates. It’s really been a good year for educational technology.”


Center for Digital Government