Technology has a rich history for serving as a catalyst to revolutionize industries and change organizations. It challenges institutions to rethink old assumptions while exploring new ideas, innovations, and solutions. While this change eventually takes place, it does so only after a period in which questions raised by the technological innovations are addressed.

For instance, in the early 1980s Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow noted, “We can see computers everywhere [in business] except in the productivity statistics.” Despite the promises of technology advocates and the large amounts of capital that industries were pouring into computers and information technology (IT), many economists were not seeing a payoff in productivity. This phenomenon became known as the “productivity paradox.”

One explanation for this paradox was that many companies were automating their old ways of doing business and, as a result, only achieved small improvements in their efficiency. Productivity did not increase, because business processes were not reengineered to accommodate the new benefits and opportunities offered by technology. What businesses learned was that for technology to improve their productivity, they needed to rethink the way they did business as a result of technology-enabled processes.

The same holds true in education. The education community is going through its own unique “achievement paradox”: Despite their significant investment in technology, schools have struggled to show the meaningful academic improvement promised by technology advocates.

As with business, one reason for the lack of significant improvement is that school districts simply are automating traditional instructional processes instead of inventing new methods of delivering instruction. For example, teachers are using computer presentation tools in place of a blackboard. A student may use a computer that cycles through spelling words instead of paper flashcards. Instead of typing classes, students attend keyboarding classes. In each case, the instructional process has not fundamentally changed. Twenty-first century technology is simply placed on top of old instructional methodologies.

How are businesses breaking out of the productivity paradox? A recent report from the University of California at Irvine’s Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations, entitled “The Productivity Paradox: Is it Resolved? Is There a New One? What Does It All Mean for Managers?,” provided several suggestions:

  • The No. 1 priority for managers should be restructuring their organizations and implementing effective management practices. In such environments, IT investments are likely to be most productive.
  • Aligning IT investments with business strategy is critical to success.
  • Managers should promote education and learn about the organizational practices that enhance the returns from IT investments and decrease the likelihood of failed investments.
  • Organizations must develop internal methods to measure returns on IT projects and to learn from their successes and failures in order to reduce risk and improve performance in the future.

Again, there are lessons here for the education community:

Rethink instructional processes and educational structures.

Technology is only as effective as the instructional process it accompanies. Instructional practices must be redesigned based on what research tells us is the best way children learn various facts and skills, and these processes must reflect what technology allows students to do that otherwise would be impossible.

Technology is also challenging us to rethink how we organize and structure education as a whole. The charter school movement is providing a number of experiments using different public school settings, instructional methodologies, and organizational structures to break out of the traditional educational mold. Not surprisingly, many charter schools are being designed around the opportunities and flexibilities afforded by technology. Through its Small High School initiative, for example, the Gates Foundation is exploring examples of how an education system can be reconceptualized and transformed.

Align technology with educational challenges, goals, and instructional strategies.

The integration of technology into the curriculum is still far more often claimed than experienced in America’s classrooms. For technology to support instruction and learning, it first must be aligned with specific educational goals and instructional strategies. The first step of any technology project must be to identify the educational outcome technology is intended to provide. What challenge is technology supposed to help overcome? What is it that you want your students to be able to do or achieve as a result of using a specific piece of technology? How will the use of technology support instruction?

Invest in professional development.

Businesses learned that simply equipping employees with state-of-the-art computers and software systems did nothing to produce results without ample training in how to use these tools. Educators also must receive professional development before they can use available technology tools effectively in their instruction. This professional development should reflect the lessons learned from evaluation and should be an ongoing effort, not a one-time event at the beginning of the year.

Invest in rigorous evaluations.

Most technologies are piloted before they are deployed throughout a district. These pilot programs must include rigorous evaluations to help gauge the effectiveness of the technology solution and also inform teaching practice. Every successful or failed technology implementation has lessons that can help guide future projects. Use this information to justify future expenditures, guide implementation, influence professional development, and inform future decisions regarding technology’s role in supporting student achievement.

It is important to underscore that these principles are found throughout President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Within the legislation are programs to invest in more professional development for teachers; rigorous, scientifically based research to inform educational practice; expansion of new models of education through charter schools and virtual schools; and alignment of technology to educational goals, by allowing technology to be used as part of any of the law’s other educational programs. Through these focused efforts, we can break out of the achievement paradox that has plagued not only educational technology, but education in general.

Over time, the infusion of technology forces institutions to engage in systemic reform. Corporations are reinventing themselves around the flexibility and new opportunities afforded by technology. School districts and classrooms will have to change as well. Instructional and administrative processes need to be reengineered to accommodate the efficiencies and improvements offered by the internet, curriculum software, and distance learning. Only then will true improvements be made that will lead to cost savings, time efficiencies, better informed decisions, more options for students, richer learning environments, improved instruction, and—most importantly—increased student achievement. The question no longer is how to use technology to do the same thing better. Now, the question is how to use technology to transform educational practices to reach new goals—as a catalyst for change and as a tool in creating, implementing, managing, and communicating a new concept of teaching and learning and a system that supports it.

The goal of NCLB and America’s education system is to help every child reach his or her full potential. When we help children reach their potential, America, too, will reach its full potential. Technology is one of many tools available to help us accomplish that goal.

John Bailey is the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.