Special Anniversery Feature: Alive at Five … Has school tech ‘arrived’?

Five years ago, many school leaders were just beginning to chart a course that promised to transform teaching and learning forever, shifting from factory-style schools of yesteryear to fully empowered centers of learning—or “eSchools,” as we like to say—equipped to take advantage of the unlimited opportunities presented by technology and the internet.

To help you and your colleagues achieve this evolution, we created eSchool News. Launched in March 1998 as an objective and reliable news source to keep you informed of the latest trends, issues, and cutting-edge developments in educational technology, eSchool News this month celebrates its fifth anniversary with a look back on how far we’ve come in that time.

Although the technologies might be different, many of the same issues and challenges that schools were grappling with five years ago still resonate today. Our lead headline in March 1998 read: “School eRate funding under attack,” and the story revealed how some influential members of Congress were threatening to derail the historic telecommunications program before it even got started. Take a look at our front page this month, and you’ll see an eerily similar story: After years of relative calm, attacks against the program have resurfaced.

Flip through the pages of our March 1998 issue, and the trend continues. Back then, we reported that the American Civil Liberties Union had entered into a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Loudoun County, Va., library board’s internet filtering policy, one of the strictest in the nation. Today, the ACLU is one of the defendants in an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal court’s ruling striking the portion of a 2001 filtering law that pertains to libraries. (This same law—the Children’s Internet Protection Act—was first proposed five years ago by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as we reported in our March 1998 issue.)

In March 1998, the chairman of the Texas Board of Education was widely criticized for his bold and thought-provoking idea to replace school textbooks with laptop computers by the end of the millennium. This year, former Maine governor Angus King left office after having orchestrated the largest and most ambitious school laptop program of its kind. Although the machines aren’t meant to replace textbooks altogether, they do give all seventh and eighth graders in Maine the chance to learn using the latest technologies&mdashbut only after King fought tooth-and-nail to get his proposal through the legislature.

Back then, we reported that Compaq Computer Corp. would purchase Digital Equipment Corp. in what was the largest merger in the history of the high-tech industry at the time. But that $9.6 billion deal now pales in comparison to Hewlett-Packard Co.’s acquisition of Compaq last year for an estimated $20 billion, as the consolidation of the computer industry continues to impact school customers even today.

Then, the problem was online term-paper mills, which (as we reported in March 1998) Boston University sought to shut down with lawsuits against eight internet sites for marketing term papers to students via the web. Now, the bar has been raised in high-tech cheating, as 12 University of Maryland students stand accused of using the text-messaging function of their cell phones to receive answers to an exam while taking the test. (You can read the story on page 13 of this month’s issue.)

But there are also stories in our March 1998 issue that, when read today, seem very much outdated. On page 4, we trumpeted the news that “School computers smash the $1K barrier”; today, few school leaders would consider buying desktop machines for more than that amount. Our Product Spotlight section in March 1998 featured the release of new 56K modems, a vast upgrade in speed from the 28.8-kilobit modems prevalent in most computers at the time&mdashyet the idea of covering dial-up modems now seems absurd, as the vast majority of schools today use broadband connections.

Looking back, it’s clear that schools have made great strides these past five years in moving from the “old school” to the “eSchool” ideal—but it’s equally obvious that much more needs to be done. To give you an idea how far schools have come and the challenges that remain, we’ve asked four members of our esteemed Advisory Board for their perspective.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer, The Hill School (Pottstown, Pa.)

In five short years we have experienced the bursting of the bubble on the internet economy, a stark realization of the scope of global terrorism, a new political administration and sweeping educational legislation (the impact of which we are still to understand), and the rising and falling of many players in the educational technology market. How does our shared past speak to our collective future? What have we learned along the way?

First, the good news: The promise of a national, even global interconnected education network appears closer than ever. Through creative and judicious governmental policies, catalytic partnerships with foundations and the private sector, and sheer dint of effort, America’s schools are more wired, more digitally nimble, and more technologically capable than at any time in history. Our infrastructure is sound, our technology is capable, and our ambitions continue to focus on universal access for all children, re-imagining the school as a learning organization, and retooling our educators to meet the challenges of this pervasively digital learning environment.

But as much as our success buoys our current efforts, the true promise of digital technology is being unevenly realized across America. Mired in technology hardware, software, politics, and provisioning, many technology leaders and school administrators have yet to clearly articulate a vision of what actually will be done with these digital tools. Is it merely an automation of existing practice, an enrichment or adjunct to “real” education, an entertaining technical bauble with which we impress parents and taxpayers?

As governments and schools face revenue shortfalls and difficult decisions in the coming years, any program that does not deliver increased achievement to our students and teachers will be examined and discarded. It would truly be disheartening to find many technology programs on the budgetary chopping block, not because they were foundationally flawed, but simply because there was no clearly articulated and executed plan to drive the technology inextricably into the daily curriculum of the institution.

And much as we collectively discovered that simply adding the letter “e” in front of “learning” does not transform poor pedagogy into profitability, we’ve also learned that merely bolting technology onto outmoded forms of teaching and learning does not fulfill the transformative promise that we all hoped for.

Instead of hoping for a newer software or hardware upgrade, let us never forget there are far more important values—hard work, teamwork, initiative, trust—that should infuse our learning networks as much as the fiber and Cat-5 wiring that connects us digitally.

Sandra Becker, director of technology, Governor Mifflin School District (Shillington, Pa.)

In the past five years, technology has crept into our schools as people have recognized the need for more skills in technology-related jobs. Career Pathways and other workforce initiatives have indicated to educators how critical technology skills would be for jobs in the future. Educators have embraced the internet and found projects. School leaders have learned about networks, viruses, and the eRate. Network implementations have required more electricity and demanded creative means to connect computers in older buildings. Superintendents and principals have recognized the need to support technology integration, budget for support, and look at teachers’ technology backgrounds in hiring new staff. K-12 institutions have learned about leasing, outsourcing, and other business procedures.

At the same time, substitute teachers have become more scarce. In-service training has had to occur in less-than-ideal situations. School districts have been forced to establish budget priorities. Technology specialists have quickly learned that teamwork and collaboration were needed to handle the rapid growth.

Has technology made a difference? Scientific research seems inconclusive. Teachers have worked diligently to incorporate higher-order thinking into projects. What works for students has become an issue. Teachers have begun to develop WebQuests and guides for students. Critics have challenged schools with the question: How does technology improve learning? Assessment, rubrics, and evaluation have become critical. During this period, the National Educational Technology Standards for Students, Teachers, and Administrators have given the educational community a framework (see http://cnets.iste.org).

Most educators I know feel pressured by state standards and are looking for the proper uses of technology to help students meet them. The Marco Polo web site (http://www.marcopolo-education.org), with its professional groups and standards-based projects, has helped many educators deal with standards and technology.

As school leaders anticipate the future, they must ensure a technology refreshment plan that includes infrastructure investments. Institutions need to examine the promise of Internet2. Digital content, online museums, middleware, and teacher resource pages will become available in the near future. Educators should study the information available on the Internet2’s K20 Initiative web page (http://k20.internet2.edu). Secondary schools, at the very least, need access to the broadband and video-rich resources of Internet 2. K-20 institutions need to collaborate and develop applications to serve students and knowledge-building.

For their part, teachers need to develop projects and materials that promote understanding, build relationships, and bring experts into classrooms. Many teachers will pursue advanced courses in classroom technology. Administrators need to find time and ways to support teachers in these efforts—and they also need to set goals for their staff members. Technology coordinators must support the integration of technology into the curriculum by working with curriculum directors and assessment specialists within their district. Partnerships between basic and higher education are critical for scientific research and improved teacher education programs.

Technology is and will continue to be a valuable tool in the hands of creative people. The learning community must support the continued growth of technology infrastructure and expertise for all stakeholders in education.

Keith Krueger, chief executive officer, Consortium for School Networking

In the 1970s a cigarette company promoted its product to women by saying, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

Likewise, the ed-tech community’s hard-fought victories of the past five years seem to me also to give us the right to say, “We’ve come a long way.” In 1997, less than one-third of schools had even one internet connection, and connectivity to classrooms was less than 10 percent. More than 70 percent of connections were dial-up. Compare this with the latest statistics, and the progress is impressive: Virtually 100 percent of schools and 86 percent of classrooms are now connected, and more than 70 percent of these with dedicated T-1 or better connectivity.

In our cynical world, it is easy to underplay this amazing accomplishment of the deployment of a “new” technology—the internet—to schools. In comparison, telephones have been around for about 100 years and are pervasive in American society … except in our classrooms.

So, is it time to plant the flag, declare victory, and move on? Despite that impulse by some politicians, we all know that simply having the wires and boxes isn’t good enough. The ultimate purpose for putting infrastructure and connectivity in classrooms is to enable the improvement of learning.

Yet I believe most critics and advocates for educational technology would agree that we still have a long way to go before we leverage the power of information technologies and transform learning in most classrooms. Let’s face it: Too often we see educators simply using technology to automate things they were already doing. Research consistently shows that most educators don’t use the internet for powerful applications. We know from other sectors that the true power of technology is when we find ways to transform the enterprise, which—in this instance—is ensuring that every child learns to the best of his or her ability.

So, where do we need to go in the next five years? How do we make the exemplary teachers and model classrooms and best-practice schools not exceptions, but the rule? And how do we scale this to every district, state, and corner of our nation?

First, we start with leadership. We need to impart the vision, skills, and understanding of what is possible. That means not leaving any administrator or teacher behind.

Second, we need to get serious about personalizing instruction, and the only way that’s feasible is to use technology.

Third, we need to move beyond talking about technology as though it is something different from school improvement, and we need to work with educators who don’t see themselves as technologists.

Finally, we need to get smarter about how we use technology as a strategic resource. That means having school district chief technology officers as part of the senior management team. It means using data for continuous assessment. And it means focusing on the total cost of ownership of technology so we can maximize our investments.

If we can do that, the theme for the next five years will be the song “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

Raymond Yeagley, superintendent, Rochester School District (N.H.)

Five years ago, Rochester schools were moving from a few Macintosh and Apple IIe computers—many sitting unused in the back of classrooms—toward our current status with at least one modern computer in every classroom, all connected through a high-speed network to the internet. Just one year earlier, our district had embarked on a professional development plan to prepare our teachers for more effective use of technology. Only a few adventurous teachers at the time had eMail and knew much about the internet. Instructional software was primarily of the drill-and-kill variety. Our staff was just beginning to see the real potential of technology, networking, and the internet.

To the neophyte, the internet of the time might have looked like a network of pages linked to other pages with nothing but more links. Occasionally one could find useful content, but not often. Any vision of the internet as an indispensable educational tool probably was grounded mostly in faith.

Educational technology and our understanding of it have greatly matured since then. We are beginning to be less enthralled by the novelty of gadgets and are looking more seriously at how technology can be used to improve learning.

No doubt, new devices will continue to come. We will see increased use of videoconferencing and wireless networking. Handheld devices that combine computing, telecommunication, information services, and other functions might become as commonplace as calculators are today. Reliance on textbooks might wane as availability of electronic resources increases. But I believe our technological focus will shift away from new hardware and toward an understanding of how students learn. Researchers are already on track in this endeavor. Unfortunately, the general level of understanding about the research is still in its infancy.

Many of today’s debates center almost exclusively on whether technology generates higher test scores. In the coming years, I believe our assessment of research will shift to the secondary effects of technology in schools: How can we better identify and address individual student learning needs? How can technology help teachers work more efficiently? How can it help reduce operational costs and move more dollars toward instruction?

Finally, I hope the next five years will see less time devoted to teaching about computers and software and more to teaching with them. In many districts, students have learned well how to manipulate the multimedia components of presentation software to create entertaining class projects. Too often, however, this has been accomplished at the expense of other important academic endeavors. In the coming years, if we are to prepare better-educated citizens, we need to realize that the glitz and graphics of multimedia are not a substitute for good research and writing skills.

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