Finding a way to go beyond the wires and boxes and use technology to better equip today’s students for life in an increasingly digital economy was the goal last week as a record number of educators and school technology leaders converged on Washington, D.C., for the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN’s) 10th Annual Networking Conference, March 22-23.

More than 800 district superintendents, school technology chiefs, and other education decision makers attended the two-day event, which set out to make good on the promise of technology in the nation’s public schools.

Bob Moore, CoSN’s immediate past chair and the executive director of IT services at Blue Valley USD #229 in Overland, Kans. , outlined the mission: to use technology “creatively and fully” to improve education. Attendees used the meeting to nudge the national conversation away from access and toward how technology can be used to help schools meet the evolving demands of the 21st century–from improving accountability and student achievement in line with the No Child Left Behind Act to training more highly qualified teachers and preparing students for success in tomorrow’s technology-driven workforce.

Rather than simply apply technology as a tool to change how they teach, MIT professor emeritus and longtime technology advocate Seymour Papert, beseeched educators during a provocative–and at times, animated–keynote address to seriously reconsider what’s being taught in the nation’s classrooms.

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 said. The visionary professor chided the nation’s public school system for focusing too much on standards and benchmarks and not enough on innovation.

Papert’s concerns were echoed by another longtime champion of educational technology, 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.

Dede questioned whether a national preoccupation with tests and standards ushered in by NCLB has kept schools from actively pursuing the kinds of innovative, technology-driven curricula essential to prepare kids for life in the new knowledge-based economy. Citing a burgeoning demand for tech-savvy workers, he challenged schools to equip future graduates with the skills necessary to 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 reside in a world where access to technology has become second-nature.

But while tech-savvy students have come to rely on such innovations, Dede explained, schools have been slow to adapt their pedagogies to reflect this demand. As a result, he said, students today are more interested in the work they do outside of school, than in what goes on inside the four walls of the classroom.

“We see kids who won’t write in school posting on blogs,” observed Dede. At home, they play interactive video games and immerse themselves in online fantasy worlds. If educators hope one day to replicate this same enthusiasm for technology in school, Dede said, they must find a way to appeal to students’ interests.

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

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

The Bush administration has tried to stress the progress it believes schools are making with technology, mainly through the release of its National Education Technology Plan, but 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.

Though some institutions are making headway, experimenting with one-to-one laptop initiatives and funding intimate charter schools anchored in hands-on, project-based learning, Papert said, the majority of schools in this country still trail the progress reported in other, more forward-thinking nations.

A new kind of literacy

Technology is helping educators reach more students, but its growing presence in schools as well as its ubiquity in the business world require today’s learners to master a whole new set of skills.

During the conference, educators from three states–Colorado, Indiana, and Wisconsin–demonstrated how they are working to prepare students for life in the 21st century by promoting a new kind of literacy, where an understanding of technology becomes as fundamental as learning to read and write.

Commonly referred to as ICT–Information and Communication Technologies–literacy, this latest paradigm is unique to the knowledge-based economy, educators say. ICT literacy calls on students not only to use technology in the classroom, but also to understand how technology can influence the way they live in society.

In conjunction with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to updating school curricula to meet the demands of a technology-driven workplace, the Denver Public Schools (DPS) has implemented its Teaching and Learning Project. As part of the program, students master concepts and skills in each core subject area–math, science, language arts, and social studies–by learning to think not like students, but like professionals. The idea, according to Stevan Kalmon, information literacy and technology coordinator for DPS, is to show students how technology can help them learn. From critical thinking to problem solving to communication, creativity, accountability, and social responsibility, the global economy demands more of today’s students, he said. As a result, educators must find ways to teach these skills.

“Our Teaching and Learning Project emphasizes key elements of a 21st century education. For example, students taking U.S. History will analyze primary and secondary sources, rather than rely on traditional textbooks; they will become historians, rather than passive recipients of information,” Kalmon explained. “As a result of this learning, students will graduate from Denver Public Schools better prepared to succeed in 21st century communities and workplaces.”

The project is backed by executives in the corporate world, who contend today’s students cannot compete for high-paying jobs without a better understanding of technology’s role in the workplace.

“Every child needs 21st century skills for success in learning and life,” noted Karen Bruett, chair of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and director of education and community initiatives for Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc.

Similar projects are currently under way in the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in Indianapolis as well as in parts of southeastern Wisconsin.

“Our schools face the challenge of preparing students to live, learn, and work in today’s knowledge-based, global society,” said Robert Nelson, advisor to the Cooperative Educational Service Agency, which encompasses 45 public school districts and more than 270,000 students in southeastern Wisconsin. “Our 21st Century Skills Initiative creates a learning environment that prepares students to be dynamic thinkers able to solve complex, real-world problems, while using 21st century skills to help teachers lead and learn.”

Keeping an open mind–and an open door

Of course, progress is not likely to occur simply by putting students in front of computers. In order for change to take hold, educators say, district leaders must work together to achieve their goals.

Superintendent Jude Theriot, head of the Calcasieu Parish Schools in Lake Charles, La., credits much of his district’s success with technology to the accessibility of his information technology (IT) staff, and especially the district’s technology coordinator–CoSN chair Sheryl Abshire–whom he says he works with closely to develop new ideas.

Speaking as part of a morning session focused on building stronger ties between district leaders, Theriot described technology as “a thread that runs through every department.”

A longtime advocate of educational technology, he challenged district technology coordinators and chief information officers to approach their superintendents with honesty and forthrightness, while dually encouraging district leaders to keep an open mind–and an open door. “Technology people need to know the boss and they need to know the boss as well as they know the technology,” explained Theriot, adding that “a superintendent is only as good as the information [he or she] has.”

His technology coordinator agreed.

“A good leader needs to understand the role of technology,” over the nuts and bolts of the various solutions, noted Abshire.

If technology is to have its intended impact, she explained, chief information officers must reach out to superintendents in efforts to help shape and promote the overall vision for ed tech throughout the district.

Furthermore, Theriot said, it’s important that superintendents lead by example. Rather than just praise the use of technology as a cure-all for the district’s problems–which it is not–he said, superintendents need to promote technology by using it in the course of their day-to-day duties.

“I’m not going to ask somebody to use something that I wouldn’t use,” said Theriot in an interview with reporters. “You send a strong message when you’re seen using what you say is important.”

Joining in the conversation, Superintendent Bill McNeal, of the Wake County Public Schools in Raleigh, N.C.–one of the state’s largest and fastest growing districts, with more than 114,000 students–encouraged districts to set their sights high when it comes to the use of technology and its ability to transform learning.

“Good is the enemy of best,” warned McNeal, who encouraged his colleagues to continually search for new applications and ideas that will help students and teachers improve. With the goal of having at least 90 percent of its students achieving above grade level by 2008, this traditionally high-performing school district has sought to integrate technology as a means to bolster student performance across the board.

“Technology won’t make students smarter,” noted Wake’s Chief Technology Officer Bev White. But it can help teachers do a more effective job of reaching kids, she said.

Of course, technology isn’t likely to get anywhere unless schools can promote the appropriate stakeholder buy-in. That includes providing the necessary training to use various solutions effectively and obtaining the willing participation of both teachers and parents.

One of the real challenges, said White, is convincing parents and teachers that change is in the students’ best interests.

To do that, she explained, the district must convince its constituents as well as its employees of the long-term benefits of technology.

“It’s not about technology for technology’s sake,” explained McNeal. “It’s about improving student outcomes by the effective use of technology–and it takes a team, and it takes a conversation.”

Leading by example

Unfortunately, getting the right people to the table isn’t always easy. Some superintendents actively pursue the use of technology in their districts, but others require something–or someone–to prompt them.

It’s the superintendent’s job to promote his or her vision for technology across the district, but educators who attended CoSN’s conference placed much of the responsibility for effective integration and transformation squarely on the shoulders of the IT director.

According to Chris Hitch, assistant director for the nonprofit Principals’ Executive Program, a professional development academy housed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the most effective school technology coordinators are those who take a proactive role to ensure their districts are moving in the right direction.

As part of an afternoon session highlighting the “Essentials of Leadership in the Ed Tech Field” Hitch outlined several skills district technology leaders might aspire to in efforts to become more effective leaders: take time to listen to staff about ways to improve the district’s use of technology, focus on time management, develop a detailed understanding of the district and its needs, and continually be on the lookout for new and innovative projects that can help the district achieve its goals for learning.

He also stressed a need for ongoing, differentiated professional development. To help schools–and teachers–move forward, Hitch said, it’s important for district leaders, and especially technology directors, “to collect the data … to summarize it, and then decide where to go from [there].”

“It all comes back to establishing trust,” Hitch said. “Trust is the key.”

The future is now

As district leaders adjust to new roles and changing relationships, the demand for technology in the nation’s classrooms is growing, as was evident during the conference when dozens of educators showed up at an afternoon session to discuss the hottest technology trends in K-12 schools.

According to Karen Greenwood Henke, project manager for CoSN’s Emerging Technologies Report, which sought to examine cutting-edge technologies already making an impact in the nation’s classrooms, an effective solution helps schools do one of five things: galvanize classroom instruction, improve assessment and data collection, build better communities, improve administrative functions, and help educators reach students with diverse learning styles.

Virginia Jewell, educational technology coordinator for the Clarke County School District in Athens, Ga., said teachers are using personal music players to help English as a Second Language Learners (ESL) grasp the subtle nuances of the English language.

Jewell, who is also a teacher, said the district has started providing some of its ESL students with Apple iPods loaded with pre-recorded speech exercises and other lessons designed to help students polish their speaking skills outside of school.

“It’s one of those things where we are taking a common technology and using it for something different,” she said of the program.

Portable, personal media devices such as iPods and cell phones are cropping up with more regularity in schools, and Jewell encouraged educators to embrace these tools–which students rely on in their everyday lives–as agents of change in the classroom.

“We need to start looking at stuff that is there and is used everyday … and start turning [technology] into a 24/7 opportunity in schools,” she said.

Another technology that’s catching on is video-conferencing. As schools continue to build out their infrastructures to handle more bandwidth, educators say they are continually looking for ways to expand the use of video in their classrooms.

Edee Wiziecki, who serves as coordinator for education programs at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, highlighted one such initiative in which students are using multi-casting to communicate with peers in classrooms around the world. The tool is part of a specially designed video grid that can be downloaded to desktop or laptop computers, she said.

Other technologies starting to emerge in schools include the integration of open-source software, more robust district-wide content management systems used to help schools align curricula with state standards, and Radio-Frequency Identification chips, which are being deployed in some districts to track library books and take student attendance, among other uses.

Jewell and other educators at the afternoon session agreed with MIT’s Papert that technology is requiring schools to reevaluate how and what they teach.

“But if we’re going to do it, we’re going to have to have a revolution,” Jewell said.

Related item:

News from the exhibit hall

Links:

The Consortium for School Networking http://www.cosn.org