Hampered by sluggish innovation and an innate resistance to change, schools have yet to fully embrace the promise of technology and, as a result, are failing to prepare today’s students for success in the 21st century.

That was the message delivered to educators by a panel of distinguished professors and educational technology advocates on the closing day of the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN’s) 10th Annual Networking Conference in Washington D.C., March 23.

Heading home to their respective school districts, more than 800 ed-tech stakeholders left the nation’s capital charged with overhauling a learning system that has yet to make good on the promise of technology. Rather than simply use computers as a tool to change how they teach, former MIT professor and longtime technology advocate Seymour Papert, beseeched an early-morning audience to reconsider what’s being taught in the nation’s classrooms.

In order to adequately prepare today’s students for their future, Papert said, educators must promote technology as a solution with real-world implications–not just some new tool used to drive home rote concepts. “We need to give up this assembly line model of education,” Papert told a captive audience during a rousing keynote speech in which he chided the nation’s public school system for focusing too much on standards and not enough on innovation.

Papert’s concerns were echoed by another ed-tech visionary, Chris Dede. A professor of learning technologies at Harvard University, Dede is known internationally for his work with virtual reality technology and its applications for learning.

Falling in line with his colleague, Dede questioned whether a national preoccupation with tests and standards ushered in by the federal No Child Left Behind Act has kept schools from actively pursuing the kinds of innovative, technology-driven initiatives necessary to help transform education in the 21st Century.

“Do [we] want kids who are really good at taking standardized tests?” Dede quipped. Or, do we want kids to leave schools ready to make an immediate and lasting impact on society?

Dede said a burgeoning demand for tech-savvy employees in the business world has placed new pressure on schools to equip future graduates with the skill sets to help them land better jobs.

Media is reshaping the way people–and especially, kids–live their lives, Dede said. With the advent of eMail, and more recently, instant-messaging and file-sharing, among other innovations, kids today live in a world governed by their ability to multi-task.

But while kids have come to rely on technology, Dede explained, schools have been slow to adapt their pedagogies to that demand. As a result, students today are more interested in the work they do outside of school, then in what goes on inside the four walls of the classroom.

“We see kids who won’t write in school posting on blogs,” explained Dede. At home, they play interactive video games and immerse themselves in online fantasy worlds. Schools, however, have been slow to adapt pedagogical strategies to exploit these evolving interests. As a result, Dede says, students are experiencing an educational disconnect. To bring students back into the fold, he said, educators must appeal to their interests–and that’s where technology can help.

“[Educators] have to examine root and branch all of the ideas about what children learn and at what age,” MIT’s Papert explained.

While the Bush administration has tried to stress the progress it believes schools are making with technology, especially through the release of its National Education Technology Plan, Papert contends officials have only served to propagate a longstanding myth–and have done so primarily “by using a lot of fancy transformational language.”

The truth, he said, is that schools have made very little progress up to this point.

While schools have increased the amount of hardware and software sitting in classrooms, he said, there is little evidence that educators are actually using the technology to transform how and what they teach.

Though some institutions are making headway, experimenting with one-to-one laptop initiatives and funding intimate charter schools designed to teach via project-based learning, he said, schools in this country still trail the progress of other more forward-thinking nations.

Before they can change to meet the demands of the new century, Papert said the nation’s schools need to get over the notion that technology–with all its boxes and wires–is in itself a cure-all for the problems faced by public education. Computers, he said, are simply essential ingredients in the revolution.

“Technology doesn’t change anything,” Papert explained, adding that “you can’t make great art without paint … You couldn’t make the Mona Lisa without any paint.”

But, he said, it’s up to educators to take the lead in changing the system.

“Educators are the philosophers of the future,” Papert charged.


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