Viewpoint: Overcoming the ‘achievement paradox’

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.


Product Spotlight

Get reading resources from A to Z with this new Kaplan program

To help schools meet the literacy demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, Kaplan Inc.’s K12 Learning Services division and Canadian software firm AutoSkill International have teamed up to launch Kaplan Reading Empowerment, a software-based literacy intervention program for K-12 schools.

Kaplan Reading Empowerment is an individualized, self-paced program tailored to students’ needs. More than just a piece of software, the program also provides teachers with the training and support they need to integrate the program into their daily instruction and monitor student progress effectively.

Kaplan K12 educators collaborate with district and school staff to define goals and develop a broad reading intervention plan using AutoSkill’s Academy of Reading software. The software identifies specific learning requirements of individual students and creates customized courses of study. Through the software’s database-driven management functions, teachers are able to oversee and track student progress. Throughout the program, Kaplan K12 provides a wide range of implementation services, including project management, professional development workshops, ongoing progress reporting, and follow-up meetings to review student results.

Prices for the program range from about $15,000 to $28,000, depending on the number of students and schools that are using it. (888) 527-5268

Take control of internet use with this network monitoring software

Instead of merely blocking access to inappropriate web sites, a new network management tool from Security Software Systems Inc. of Illinois, called Policy Central, monitors internet use according to a school’s acceptable use policy (AUP).

Policy Central displays your school’s AUP before students and employees can access specified applications. After accepting the terms of the policy, should a user violate these terms, Policy Central will take a screen capture of the individual’s inappropriate computer use. It also will log the violation by user, date, time, and application.

School network administrators can monitor students’ computer use for pornographic or sexually explicit content right out of the box with Policy Central’s built-in library of keywords. The software also allows you to customize which words and phrases are inappropriate with a user-definable library, and it helps you analyze the effectiveness of your AUP with a variety of reports.

Rather than “snooping” on all user activity, Policy Central will only monitor and report those activities that violate your AUP, according to the company. Because students and employees are aware of your AUP, the software places the responsibility squarely on their shoulders if they choose to violate this policy. (888) 835-7278

Project Macintosh content to a TV screen with this plug-and-play device

FOCUS Enhancements Inc., which specializes in video production and conversion technology, has created a a desktop-to-video output solution designed specifically for Apple’s iMac and eMac computers.

iTView Mac allows computer content from an iMac or eMac machine—such as DVD movies, the internet, or classroom presentations—to be displayed on any TV monitor so the whole class can see. “We created the iTView Mac to provide Mac users with the best TV-out image possible,” said Jason Overhulse, consumer product manager for FOCUS Enhancements.

iTView Mac automatically detects computer resolutions up to 1,024 pixels by 768 pixels and synchronizes them with television, resulting in a high-quality, flicker-free image. It also lets users record directly from their iMac or eMac to a VCR. The device’s software interface allows users to control image adjustments such as size, pan, position, zoom, sharpness, brightness, and color.

The suggested retail price of iTView Mac is $139. (408) 866-8300

This CD-burning package is one hot item

From making your own DVD movies, to editing photos, to creating a video library, the Total Burn Platinum Suite from Broderbund Software—a division of Cambridge, Mass.-based Riverdeep Inc.—makes burning CDs and DVDs easy.

The suite consists of five software programs that focus on creating multimedia elements and burning them to CDs and DVDs. For CD or DVD burning, the suite includes NTI CD-Maker 5.5, which handles burning data, music, video, and photos. An application called MovieShop allows you to edit videos by adding transitions, special effects, music, or titles. For photo editing, the suite includes the Print Shop Photo Workshop, which features more than 1,500 project templates for creating albums, calendars, cards, and more. The remaining two components, Print Shop Label Creator and MediaShop, help you organize the discs and media you’ve created for easy access.

The suggested retail price for the Total Burn Platinum Suite is $99.99. (800) 223-6925

Taking pictures of microscope slides is a snap with this digital camera

The M*Eye digital camera, from Ken-A-Vision, is a digital camera that can be used on or off a microscope. Students can use the device to document their experiment in progress or to capture the intricate details of microscopic slides to use in their science reports.

The camera can hold between 20 and 220 photos at a time and connects to a computer through a USB port. It can take pictures ranging from basic, JPEG-sized images to photo-quality, 1.3-megapixel images.

For $549, the M*Eye comes with a 28-millimeter microscope adapter, a USB cable, a CD ROM with software for sharing and editing photos, a carrying case, and four AAA batteries. When connected to a computer, the camera uses power from the computer. Optional accessories include a 34-millimeter eyepiece adapter, a USB-integrated flexible stand for hands-free operation, and a USB extension cable. (800) 501-7366

QuickMind launches a new instructional web portal

Sunburst Technology and QuickMind Inc., a new ed-tech firm with offices in the United States and Russia, has developed a subscription-based web portal that offers schools a wealth of standards-based content for K-12 instruction, as well as interactive software tools for generating projects that teachers and students can access at school or home.

Called, the product features curriculum materials, interactive homework assignments, project templates, lesson plans, reference materials, and online professional development activities, all accessible through a password-protected web site.

Using the Project Generators tool, teachers easily can create activities and lesson plans with their own content or choose from hundreds of existing ones. This tool also helps teachers create tests, quizzes, work sheets, web projects, multimedia presentations, word searches, or crossword puzzles in a few simple steps. As students complete their assignments, their scores and time on task is recorded and automatically reported to the teacher.

The site’s Reference Center contains pre-screened web resources, such as the World Book Encyclopedia, maps, and news sites, that can be integrated into lessons. In addition, provides an online word processor and presentation software (complete with thousands of curriculum-related clip art pieces, fonts, and templates), as well as animated, interactive lessons—available in English and Spanish—that reinforce key math, language arts, and science concepts. During these interactive lessons, teachers can monitor their students’ progress in real time and send instant messages, even if the student is logged on from home. is available through an annual subscription that allows teachers and students to access the site from school or home computers as much as they want. Licenses are based on a classroom, school building, or district. A license for one to three classrooms costs $1,200 per year, and an entire building license costs $5,500. (800) 624-2962


Browse the “National Science Digital Library”

More than 100 teams of educators nationwide are working with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop what they hope will be the nation’s most comprehensive digital library for the sciences. The National Science Digital Library is an ongoing initiative spearheaded by NSF to create a fully online resource dedicated to the teaching of technology, science, engineering, and mathematics skills. The growing library contains supplemental materials geared to support lessons across the K-12 spectrum and gives educators a central location where they can find reliable content for use in their classrooms. What’s more, through a tool called CreateStudio, educators who visit the library can assemble resources related to their lessons into movies, simulations, and digital presentations to be used in the classroom as interactive student exercises. Currently, several colleges and universities are working on more than 100 projects to improve the library, including adding new portals, incorporating other digital libraries, increasing the accessibility of information, and building new interactive learning environments. Each project is funded for two years, and NSF plans to continue building this resource for as long as funding continues.


“Illuminations” uses Java applets to shed light on difficult math concepts

Created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), “Illuminations” aims to revitalize mathematics instruction for students by providing a wealth of online resources spanning the entire math curriculum. Based on the NCTM’s own standards, the site offers five key tools for better math instruction. i-Math Investigations provides an array of interactive, multimedia classroom activities and instructional supplements. There also is a comprehensive library of math-related web resources—including more than 1,000 carefully reviewed online mathematics sites—as well as a section devoted to classroom-ready lesson plans submitted by expert teachers and a Java applets section where educators will find interactive tools designed to illustrate new concepts and formulas. Finally, the “Inquiry on Practice” section is ideal for teachers searching for ways to improve their teaching repertoire. According to the site, the inquiry file contains video vignettes, research reports, and articles designed “to encourage thinking and discussion about how to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics for all students.” All content on the site is conveniently organized by grade level.


There’s no debating the value of this site for history teachers

The 1960 presidential debates between former presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon marked the first time television played a decisive role in the outcome of a national political contest—but it would not be the last. Now, students have an opportunity to go back in time and witness the most historic and influential presidential debates of the television era. Sponsored in part by the History Channel, “The History of Televised Presidential Debates” provides a timeline of every televised presidential debate since 1960. Special features let students watch a documentary about the Kennedy-Nixon contest, read political commentary about the debate, and even watch the debate itself. Students also can look at essays on the use of television in politics, view archived interviews with media professionals, check out television viewing and voting statistics, and even read a 1959 article written by Kennedy about the role television plays in running a national campaign. Plus, teachers have access to several curriculum resources, including sample lesson plans, activities, a glossary of terms, and more.


Tap into this CoSN toolkit for “Promoting Online Safety”

The Consortium for School Networking has released new resources to help guide school leaders when they talk to parents and other community members about online safety issues. Sponsored by the BellSouth Foundation, the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Microsoft Corp., and Sprint Corp., the “Promoting Online Safety” toolkit was created with the understanding that schools need to be proactive in communicating with parents and other community members about their online safety strategies—and parents need to understand the steps they can take to make sure their children use their home computer in a safe and appropriate manner. The toolkit components include a handbook, called “Promoting Online Safety: The Home-School Partnership,” designed to help school leaders develop the message they want to convey to parents and community members, based on their local circumstances; a 10-minute video that highlights the experiences of two school districts, one in Pennsylvania and one in Kansas, as they worked through questions surrounding the best ways to protect students when they go online; and a presentation to help school leaders explain to parents and community leaders the steps their schools are taking to protect children online. School leaders can download the handbook and presentation at no charge from the project’s web site.


Consult this brand-new resource to effect “Systemwide Change”

The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) has launched a new interactive feature on its web site addressing “Systemwide Change.” In the coming months, the foundation will explore in-depth examples of how educational innovations have been brought to scale at the district or—in some cases—the state level. The first case study, which debuted on the site Jan. 27, examines the successful reform efforts in Union City, N.J. According to GLEF, this once-underperforming urban district has become a model for reform, thanks to a focus on literacy and a strong belief in its students’ abilities to excel. GLEF’s coverage of this story includes an article entitled “A Remarkable Transformation,” which highlights the main elements of the district’s reform efforts, as well as a 10-minute web documentary on Union City’s turnaround and short video interviews with leaders in the reform effort.


Peruse this Houghton Mifflin site for NCLB news and information

To mark the one-year anniversary of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), educational publisher Houghton Mifflin has unveiled a new web site dedicated to helping schools achieve the reforms set in motion by the Bush administration’s sweeping federal legislation. With a focus on improved reading achievement, the site provides resources that students, parents, and educators can use in efforts to improve reading performance in schools. For instance, in the “National News” section, educators and parents can read articles and reports from the nation’s leading journalists about the impact NCLB is having nationwide. Another section, appropriately entitled “Expert Insight,” gives stakeholders an opportunity to view research papers and other reports filed by top reading experts about how best to improve literacy instruction in schools. Selected articles cover all sorts of important and often controversial issues, from achievement and assessment to the need for teacher training and additional funding. The site also contains a number of useful links to resources that aim to spell out the requirements of NCLB more clearly, as well as tips on how to write effective grant proposals and access to a weekly newsletter.


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

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 (, 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 ( 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.


eSN Special Feature: Assistive Technologies

As educators nationwide set about the tough task of making sure all students—including those with disabilities—achieve at high levels of proficiency as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), many are looking to technology to help accomplish this task.

The good news is that new developments in assistive technologies are producing tools that are better able to help all students achieve, regardless of their disabilities. The bad news is that federal funding for these technologies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) hasn’t kept pace with the need.

Education lobbyists are hoping that changes when Congress reauthorizes IDEA, which is expected to happen later this year. They’d also like to see the new law address training for teachers in the use of assistive technologies, as well as the integration of projects that promote the development and use of “universal design” technologies in mainstream classrooms.

If schools are seriously expected to bolster the academic performance of students with disabilities, Congress must do its part to provide adequate funding for these improvements, lobbyists say.

Currently, IDEA calls for the federal government to contribute 40 percent of the average daily expenditures schools dedicate to teaching students with disabilities. But according to Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association (NEA), since IDEA first became law in 1975 the actual commitment by the feds never has exceeded more than 18 percent of these costs.

The perennial shortfall has forced many states to cut into other programs to pay for such items as technology upgrades, building access, and special-education teachers. “The federal government is not pulling its weight,” Anderson said. “We need to have full funding.”

Mary Kusler, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators, agrees. With state governments embroiled in their worst fiscal crisis since World War II, “the federal government really needs to help pick up some of the slack,” she said.

Although the legislation is slated for reauthorization this year, Anderson said there’s no telling how long it will take to set this process in motion. “We don’t know how quickly IDEA will move,” she said. “Given the budget deficit, we have a tough road ahead of us. But governing is about prioritizing, and we certainly think educating America’s youth is a major priority.”

‘Universal design’ technologies

NEA is one of 24 organizations that also are lobbying for Congress to integrate the principles of “universal design” into IDEA. Universal design calls for the development of products that can be used by people with the widest possible range of capabilities, either directly or through the use of assistive technologies.

For example, a universally designed web browser would enable students with a wide range of disabilities to access information online—either directly through the browser itself, or by being compatible with assistive technologies such as screen-reading devices.

Education and disability-rights groups want the reauthorized version of IDEA to:

  • Incorporate projects that promote the development of universal design concepts in technologies and educational materials, and authorize corresponding increases in the levels of funding for research, development, and personnel training;
  • Require entities that receive federal assistance to ensure the accessibility of their project deliverables, including print materials, electronic media materials, web sites, videos, software, CD-ROMs, and DVDs;
  • Require educational programs supported through federal assistance to ensure the accessibility of their learning materials; and
  • Establish a priority for projects that emphasize educational personnel training and preparation, particularly with respect to universally designed technologies and assistive technology devices, and authorize corresponding increases in funding for these projects.

To make learning accessible to a diverse group of learners, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)—a nonprofit educational research organization—has taken this concept of universal design and applied it to the way curriculum is delivered to students.

CAST’s approach is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It draws on current brain research and new media technologies to respond to the differences in learning among students.

“It’s just a given that in today’s classroom there is diversity,” said Grace Meo, CAST’s director of programs and services.

The idea behind UDL is to create a flexible curriculum that give students a choice about how they will access the content and achieve learning goals. “We need to place the burden of change on the teaching practices, the methods, the curricula,” Meo said.

For example, for a first-grade science lesson about seeds, the teacher would give students multiple versions of the same content. There might be three or four books for students, each written at different reading levels, and some students could use the computer to read with software such as eReader. Created by CAST, eReader reads text aloud and provides synchronized highlighting so students can follow along.

Kirsten Howard, a first-grade teacher at Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School in Jamaica Plain, Mass., is one teacher who has adopted UDL.

“I look around my room and realize that my students have choice about their curriculum. They can partner read, they can read independently, they can use a tape recorder or the computer. I am not holding them back,” Howard said.

UDL encompasses three principles. First, to support recognition-based learning, you need to provide multiple methods of presentation. Second, to support strategic learning, you need to provide multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship. Third, to support affective learning, you need to provide multiple, flexible methods of engagement.

Textbooks, for example, create access barriers for some students. But if that content is available in a digital form, the text easily can be enlarged or can be read aloud by text-to-speech software.

“You can embed supports when [a textbook is] in a digital form, so it becomes much more flexible,” Meo said. “If someone needs large print, you can easily make large print.”

To ease the preparation burden on teachers, Meo said CAST is working with several leading textbook publishers to help them rethink how the curricula they sell is written and designed, so teachers could buy UDL curricula right out of the box.

The center is also spearheading an initiative to create a standard digital file format that could become the voluntary national standard for states and schools to use to make their textbooks accessible. However, critics question whether a standard file format will be adopted nationally, because more than half of the states already have laws that govern what file format is to be used.

When will UDL become more prevalent in classrooms? “We hope in the not-too-distant future,” Meo said. “It’s a big step forward with this national digital file format. But no one wants to be the first.”

Speech-recognition software: A sound investment?

Educators who struggle to accommodate special-needs children are finding that new developments in “continuous” speech-recognition technology may provide a solution.

Unlike older voice-recognition (VR) software, the latest versions of programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking by ScanSoft Inc. and ViaVoice from IBM allow kids to talk at normal speed, without having to put pauses between each word.

Once they say the words aloud, the program “hears” them and types their message for them on the computer.

Originally written for quadriplegics and people with physical handicaps that made typing impossible, the programs also can help students who are visually impaired or have certain language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, educators who are familiar with them say.

VR software has been available commercially for nearly a decade, but until recently it was not ideally suited to the classroom environment, said Susan Barton, a consultant on dyslexia and developer of the Barton Reading and Spelling System.

Older technologies that required students to speak in a slow and stilted manner and precisely enunciate each word were extremely difficult for learning-disabled kids to use.

“Many kids who are dyslexic also have attention-deficit disorder, so it can be really hard to teach them to slow down and say one word at a time,” said Barton.

The primary reason for using VR software as a tool for dyslexic students has to do with the nature of the learning disability itself.

“People with dyslexia usually have excellent verbal skills, but they have extreme difficulty getting their thoughts onto paper in a legible form,” said Barton. “Not only do they have terrible spelling, but they almost always have ‘dysgraphia’—extreme difficulty with the act of handwriting.”

Typing can be difficult for dyslexics, too.

“People with dyslexia face a significant challenge when it comes to memorizing, and they will always be confused about left versus right,” said Barton.”That’s why learning to touch-type is difficult. To be a good typist, you have to memorize which keys are pressed with the left hand and which with the right hand.”

According to advocates of VR software for dyslexics, the newer software provides a way to bypass those weak areas.

“You can easily get your thoughts onto paper without handwriting, typing, or worrying about correct spelling,” Barton said.

Experts agree that typing, writing, and spelling are all basic skills that students should master, whether they have dyslexia or not. Preferably, Barton said, learning-disabled students should receive corrective training while using assistive technology, like VR.

“There are two ways to approach a child with disabilities—accommodation and remediation,” she said. “Ideally, a child will have both going on at the same time.”

Because it can take two or three years to get a dyslexic child’s reading, writing, and spelling up to grade level, VR is a way to ensure that kids aren’t losing that time.

Research has even shown that using VR technology might be more than an assistive technology—it might actually improve certain reading skills in dyslexics.

Dr. Marshall Raskind and Dr. Eleanor Higgens are learning-disability researchers at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, Calif. In a series of studies of children ages 9 to 18 with diagnosed learning disabilities, they found that children who use VR software to write for a total of 10.5 hours improved significantly in word recognition, word decoding, comprehension, and spelling.

“What appears to be responsible for those gains were improvements in phonological awareness,” said Raskind. “Users say a word and then the word appears on the screen. That’s basically a linking of the way the word sounds with the way the word looks.”

But Raskind is quick to add that speech-recognition technology is not a panacea.

“It does not work for everyone,” he said. “We need to continue research, and there need to be mechanisms for disseminating that research outside of professional journals.”

Most VR software packages currently on the market require a relatively high-end Windows-based PC with a standard soundboard and microphone.

The cost of such programs, once in the thousands of dollars, no longer is prohibitive for schools. According to Barton, one $100 copy of NaturallySpeaking serves 25 students.

Continuous voice-recognition software does not require that teachers take a lot of training, but it does take a small amount of training for students to use it.

One point of difficulty for dyslexic students: The software has to ‘learn’ to recognize each user’s voice before the software will operate properly. Software programs normally require first-time users to read a passage from a book aloud, so the program can analyze the user’s inflection and pronunciation.

“The problem is that many dyslexic students can’t read very well, so they need to be prompted by a parent or teacher,” said Barton. Normally setting the program up would only take 45 minutes, but with dyslexic students it could take up to four hours.

“But boy, is it worth it,” said Barton. “[The software] allows these kids to be independent, and that is so important.”

Text-to-speech software

Incorporating blind, dyslexic, and learning-disabled students into mainstream classroom activities is also getting easier thanks to a new generation of affordable, high-tech tools that convert electronic text to audio. The software allows students to hear the contents of electronic documents spoken aloud instead of having to read them from a computer screen.

Screen-reading software is nothing new. Products such as Freedom Scientific’s JAWS and GW Micro’s Window-Eyes have been around for some time. The problem for educators has been that neither of these options was designed with the needs of students—or the budgets of schools—in mind.

Annette Parslow, outreach vision consultant at the Utah Schools of the Deaf and the Blind and a teacher for 16 years, said that while the technology has continued to develop, many of its advancements have led to programs that are too complex and leave younger learners behind.

“Some of these products have too many bells and whistles,” she said.

Now, two companies in particular— and Premier Programming Solutions Inc.—have introduced solutions they say favor simplicity and affordability over technical complexity and higher prices, making their products ideal for schools teaching younger students on tight budgets.’s TextAloud product allows students to hear text spoken through a variety of voices by copying any amount of text from a document and pasting it into the open TextAloud program window. Students can hear eMail messages read to them, listen to eBooks, and even download audio files to portable MP3 players or burn files onto compact discs for use at home.

Premier Assistive Technology’s Text-to-Audio program is only one of an entire suite of applications that it markets specifically for use in assistive learning. Other products from Premier—such as Scan and Read Pro, Talking Word Processor, Universal Reader, Complete Reading System, and Talking Internet Browser— all have speech capabilities that are targeted to various types of applications for individuals.

Rick Ellis, president and chief marketing officer of, said the company originally developed its software for the consumer market but received an instant response from educators interested in implementing TextAloud in the classroom.

“Our product is very well-suited for learning,” he said.

Gayle Underwood, assistive technology coordinator for the Allegan County Intermediate School District in Michigan, said her district has used the TextAloud product to great effect with blind and learning-challenged students.

Underwood said Allegan County is considering a teamwork system that would pair blind students with learning-disabled (LD) students and encourage them to use the software together, effectively teaching each other as they go.

“The LD child could click and drag the mouse for the blind child, and a blind child with good comprehension skills could then help the LD child with certain skills,” she said.

According to Parslow, who has yet to use the TextAloud or Text-to-Audio products, many of the screen reader programs she has encountered, while effective, have proven very difficult to learn.

“Teachers can’t believe how long certain things take to learn. You end up asking yourself: How do I find enough time in the day?” Parslow said.

Conversely, Underwood said she has experienced little, if any, difficulty with learning or adjusting the TextAloud product.

“Students can highlight the text, hit a key, and it will read [the highlighted text] for them,” she said. “It’s very simple; anyone would be able to use it.”

According to Underwood, the program’s operational simplicity is part of what has made it so effective. TextAloud lets students keep the program window open while they switch back to their clipboard or browser programs and copy the text to be read. The software also allows for dialogue creation, so different voices can be used while students are listening to plays or performances.

Penny Reeder, editor of Braille Forum, said another key to a successful screen reader is that it must be able to use the most realistic voices possible.

Parslow agreed: “The kids want a better quality of speech.”’s TextAloud and Premier’s Text-to-Audio are both available with AT&T Natural Voices. The lifelike voices are able to change tone and accent words to a better extent than preinstalled computer voices, but typically cost more and are not required with either product.

Premier’s Text-to-Audio product offers functionality similar to TextAloud but is even more flexible, according to the company.

Steve Timmer, Premier’s president and founder, said his company’s product is more versatile than others because it can read files in several types of file formats, including Microsoft Word, plain-text and rich-text format, HTML, and PDF files.

Premier’s product also has the ability to compress an hour’s worth of text in four minutes, saving time on downloading. This ability is most pronounced when functioning with Natural Voices, he said, because they are slower to download and take up more space than standard ones.

Educators looking to purchase’s TextAloud for their schools can do so by contacting the company directly. The product is offered at $24.95 for standard voices and $49.95 for the AT&T Natural Voices. Educational discounts on site licenses also are available.

All of Premier’s products are under $200, Timmer said. The company also offers a grant program for schools that provides free use of all 10 products in its Accessibility Suite for an entire school year. “If it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible,” he said.

Makers of more expensive solutions contend that important functions are lost with solutions that operate solely as screen readers.

Kurzweil Educational Solutions’ Kurzweil 3000, which can be purchased for $379 or $539 per seat depending on whether a school chooses color or black-and-white, is one product that offers screen reading and several other features in a single program, including an audio spell check, scanning capabilities with automatic format correction, and note-taking or highlighting options for reference.

Kurzweil also offers the product with a floating license, so a set number of users can operate the software from anywhere within the school.

“It offers the kinds of tools that are helping students to learn, as opposed to those that you just read with,” said Cindy Johnson, vice president of marketing at Kurzweil. “We’re looking at a start-to-finish solution.”

Johnson said the Kurzweil product could help a student write a book report or complete a research project, as opposed to just allowing them to read and transport text.

“There’s a value and purpose for the cheaper models, if reading is all you want them for,” said Ken Elkind, product manager for the Kurzweil 3000. “It’s a different product for different folks. We have integrated all kinds of tools into our product, whereas some of the cheaper models have only solved one problem.”

New aid for hearing-impaired students

School administrators charged with ensuring that handicapped students receive an education equal to their peers might welcome a powerful new technology that addresses the special needs of deaf or hearing-impaired students.

Created by Interactive Solutions Inc. of Sarasota, Fla., a subsidiary of Teltronics, the iCommunicator system makes interactive verbal communication possible between the hearing world and a person who is profoundly deaf, hard of hearing, or one who has special communication needs.

“Most children who are hard of hearing leave our school systems after 12 years with a fourth-grade reading level,” said Michael Dorety, executive vice president of Interactive Solutions. “We want to teach them to comprehend the spoken word and to read the written word effectively.”

iCommunicator is a communication access technology that runs on a high-end laptop or desktop computer. The kit consists of a high-powered laptop with the iCommunicator software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, a special cable for connecting to the student’s hearing assistance device (if the student has one), and a small wireless microphone worn by the teacher. The microphone transmits directly to the student’s laptop.

The product is the first technology of its kind and was awarded a patent last year. “To our knowledge, there is no product like it,” said Dorety.

iCommunicator was conceived in 1999, when the company was approached by Virginia Greene and her then-16-year-old son, Morgan. Morgan is profoundly deaf and uses a hearing device called a cochlear implant.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted devices that create an electronic artificial sense of sound by sending electrical impulses into the auditory nerve. iCommunicator can be connected via the computer to work effectively with this device, or other peripheral assistive hearing devices, using appropriate device-specific connector cords.

“We were asked to invent a product that allowed Morgan to communicate with the hearing world and not solely rely on a sign language interpreter,” said Dorety. The problem with interpreters is that they are rare and can lead to dependency when deaf students rely on them to communicate.

“The iCommunicator is not intended to replace sign language interpreters; it’s intended to support the child when the interpreter is not there,” said Dorety.

To use iCommunicator, the teacher speaks into a small wireless microphone that transmits directly to the student’s laptop computer. The iCommunicator program converts speech to text and/or video sign language in real time. The program has a lexicon of more than 9,200 signs. If a sign is not available for a spoken word, the program will fingerspell the word.

“The computer must be high-end—800 MHz or better—because as you speak, your voice is converted to text and simultaneously converted to sign language,” said Dorety.

When a teacher speaks a word, the student sees that word appear on the screen and simultaneously sees a video of an interpreter sign language model signing the same word. If a hearing-impaired child has a cochlear implant, uses an FM system, or wears a hearing aid, he or she also can hear the word pronounced.

“We take the teacher’s voice and convert it to a computer-generated voice,” said Dorety. “That computer-generated voice comes from the laptop and transmits directly into the student’s hearing aid, FM system, or cochlear implant, eliminating all ambient noises.”

Not being able to determine whether sounds picked up by cochlear implants, FM systems, or hearing aids are actually words—rather than background noise—is one limitation of those devices, he said. With iCommunicator, when students hear a word, they know the sound they are hearing is, in fact, a word.

“The question here is how to make [hearing aids and cochlear implants] more usable,” said Dorety. “One of the [added benefits] of this technology is that the multisensory [elements] can allow for real comprehension.”

If a student wants to communicate back, he or she can type a response and the computer pronounces the words. That speech then loops back to the child so he or she can hear how the computer pronounces the words and can break them down into syllables, learning how to pronounce multisyllable or other unfamiliar words.

According to company officials, iCommunicator is based on an open-architecture platform and is effective for most children who have a basic understanding of reading and sign language, even as young as age five.

The cost of the system has declined remarkably since the technology initially was introduced in 2000. Once $8,100, the price for the iCommunciator kit now is $3,999 and includes a warranty, service, and software integration. An optional teacher training package is available for $100.

A few years ago, Sue Potteiger taught third grade to student Hilary Sedgeman at Bell Shoals Baptist Academy (preK-8, enr. 500) near Tampa, Fla. Hilary is almost entirely deaf and uses two high-powered hearing aids. Her classmates can hear normally.

“From the time Hilary was two she loved to use my computer—she really connected with it,” said Martha Cook, Hilary’s mother. “But there was nothing out there that would work for school.” Then Cook read about iCommunicator and purchased one of the systems for Hilary to use in second grade.

“She learned to use it and we took it to her private school and said, ‘Here, we need you to use this,'” said Cook.

During class, Potteiger had to pronounce her words precisely, like a television broadcaster, Cook said. “The trainers came and trained my voice into the technology so that it can recognize my speech patterns,” said Potteiger. “We also had a training session with the kids, where they could ask questions and understand that it is not a toy, but something that helps Hilary learn.”

She estimates that the professional development involved took no more than six to eight hours in total.

“In class you have to enunciate your words and slow down your normal conversational speech,” said Potteiger. “Beyond that, getting it plugged in and turned on every morning is really the biggest challenge. It is very user-friendly.”

The system provides an “instantaneous, close-captioned classroom,” added Cook. “Hilary lip-reads, but with iCommunicator the teacher can turn around and [Hilary] can still know what’s going on.”

Dorety cautioned that the iCommunicator is not a “silver bullet” and might not be appropriate for every child. “If there is a message I’d like to deliver, it is that educators need to assess both the product and the child for a match prior to purchasing this,” he said. “There needs to be a positive match between the end user’s communication access needs and the features and capabilities of the technology.”

See these related links:

Center for Applied Special Technology

Bright Solutions for Dyslexia

ScanSoft Inc.

IBM Voice Systems

The Frostig Center

Premier Programming Inc.

AT&T Labs Natural Voices

Kurzweil Educational Systems Inc.

Interactive Solutions’ iCommunicator