Today’s educational system needs a complete overhaul–and technology is precisely the agent to accomplish this change, according to the speakers at Intel Corp.’s fourth annual Education Visionary Conference. Held May 18 in Washington, D.C., this year’s event was titled “Educators Driving Change in Communities: Creating New Uses for Technology and Impacting Economic Development.”

Ten leaders in the ed-tech field gave rapid-fire talks to school, government, and business officials from around the country. Though Intel convenes the yearly meeting to help its business partners better serve education, many of the day’s messages were targeted as much to educators as to vendors. And although the conference theme of using technology to transform education was to be expected in a meeting of companies from the high-tech sector, the speakers offered compelling evidence of the need for such a change–along with examples of how successful schools already have made this transition.

Susan Patrick, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, began the talks with some alarming statistics: Only 68 percent of American students graduate from high school–and just 26 percent of those who go on to college make it to their sophomore year.

“We are so trapped in the memory of what school was like for us,” Patrick said. “When we were students, the world outside of school looked like the world inside school. Now, it does not.

“The paper-based system does not make any sense to kids who are coming up in school,” Patrick added. “Is our educational system geared toward innovation? Do we want an 18th-century model or a 21st-century model for our schools? The 18th-century model is the one we have now.”

She continued: “The ed-tech community loves the term ‘integration.’ But our schools need transformation, not integration.”

Simply integrating technology into instruction, Patrick said, “accepts the existing environment, the existing instructional model. … We need to build instruction for personalized, customized learning for every student’s needs.

“With technology,” she said, “I see that happening every day.”

‘Embedding’ technology into learning

Sheryl Dunton, principal at Talbot Hill Elementary in suburban Renton, Wash., described how technology has helped transform instruction at her school, which has conceived of the student body as a “micro-society” with embedded technology.

“Talbot Hill virtually emulates democratic society in the school,” she said.

At Talbot Hill, first- through fifth-grade students take part in student government elections; they run for-profit and nonprofit businesses, for which they write the business plans and fill out online order forms for raw materials to make their products; they debate policy for and finally pay “taxes” on all “profits”; they participate in student courts of law, equipped with “attorneys,” trials, and sentences; and they even have mock “ATMs” from which they withdraw the Talbot Hill “currency” on which this economy is based.

The student-run Talbot Hill newspaper has several columnists and special features, including classified ads. Students use a word-processing program to produce the newspaper. They also are learning to use a scanner and digital camera to add pictures.

The TV news station at Talbot Hill has a news studio in the media room, which rests between the library and computer lab. Here, students learn about all the skills needed to produce a broadcast.

In addition, “Tech Kids” manage the school’s iMac lab, learning how to be the experts on software (to help other students use it) and how to clean the computers. They also work on Talbot Hill’s internal web page.

“It makes school fun,” Dunton said. “It captures kids’ attention and lets them know why they’re in school. … Students feel empowered in their lives.”

Addressing an educational ‘disconnect’

Ken Ender, president of the Cumberland Community College in Cumberland, New Jersey, warned that the more general world of K-12 education is “totally disconnected [and] unable to meet the expectations of the 21st-century workforce and the basic 21st-century literacy skills necessary for colleges.

“What does it mean for our economy and way of life when 80 percent of the students who do enter college need basic skills courses when they get there?” he asked.

Citing the work of technology expert Willard Daggett, Ender said the near future of technology will be built on a convergence of bio-, nano-, and information technologies. He said American students need to emerge from their K-12 education with strong backgrounds in the biology, physics, math, and high-level reading skills necessary to make the transition to the 21st-century business world.

“By 2010,” he warned, “90 percent of all folks studying engineering and science will be residing in Asia.”

Ender said students should spend their senior year in high school pursuing competencies they need–or earning college credits. “The senior year should not be wasted,” he said.

He urged communities to examine the 12 industries that have been identified by the government as high-growth–including information, bio-, and geospatial technologies, as well as advanced manufacturing–and make certain that the curriculum used by local schools is aligned to meet the demands of those professions, especially those that the community intends to make a part of its future economy.

“You should be angry–it’s [education] all out of whack,” Ender said. “Leadership and education need to prepare our students to compete in a global economy.”

Getting into the ‘swing’ of learning

Michelle Kim, program manager for the Tiger Woods Learning Foundation, called her own two children her “built-in beta testers” for the educational programs the foundation, — still in its infancy, — is developing.

She spoke of one program that uses technology to help children learn a basic golf swing. Through that example, the program helps children learn physics, math, and science concepts.

“Students also learn core values,” Kim said. “Diligence, sportsmanship, and integrity.”

The Tiger Woods Learning Foundation will open an actual center in Anaheim, Calif. That center then will spawn 10 lesser-equipped virtual learning centers in other cities. These virtual centers will refer students back to the original center interactively. The first of these virtual centers will open in Atlanta.

Kim said the centers will work with their communities to supplement education programs and emphasize the importance of leaving secondary school having developed “reusable assets”–those science, math, and technology skills that are so valuable in the workforce.

Rethinking traditional ways

Tracey Fraley closed out the day’s talks by discussing progress at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. She explained that, upon entering MacArthur in 2000 as only the third principal at a school that had been in existence for 40 years, the place was “traditional by definition.” Her staff now jokes that she’s “successfully killed every one” of these traditions.

“My goal when I entered the place was to graduate students,” Fraley said. “Now, my goal is to prepare students for life.”

It appears she is achieving both goals. Fraley said her ethnically diverse school has a 92-percent graduation rate–and officials are working on ways to help the other eight percent. She also has implemented a one-to-one laptop program, which she said has been useful in “implementing key processes.” One of those processes was changing the culturally engrained teacher-student dynamic.

“We have changed what we teach, and how we teach, in the classroom,” she said. “Teachers are facilitators of learning–that’s a huge role reversal. You walk into the classrooms, and you find students teaching. When kids take ownership of learning, that’s when learning happens. That’s engagement.”

She said the students are an integral part of the IT support services so critical to a successful one-to-one computing program.

“Whenever I have [IT] problems, I call Sam. He can always fix them. He’s very creative and very smart. He’s also been banned for life from AOL,” she joked.

Fraley said the laptop program has been an important part of rethinking the traditional ways of running a high school. She has put in place an after-hours program. MacArthur is now open from 6:30 a.m. to midnight so that kids can have wireless internet access when they need it.

She’s also been instrumental in getting the surrounding community involved in education, largely by permitting greater access to school news and events–and soliciting concerns from parents and community members–through MacArthur’s web portal. That effort, she said, has led to the development of partnerships in, for example, anatomy and physiology programs. As a result of her work, students now can take part in actual surgeries, both live and through the internet.

Partnerships based on trust

A brief group discussion capped off this year’s event. Among the issues presented in the discussion were the need for education officials to develop a strategic business plan that demonstrates, through total-cost-of-ownership analysis, the benefits of their school technology initiatives; the need to look at new, cost-effective, long-range plans for technology that will allow for schools to keep their technology current; and the need to rethink the business paradigm between education and ed-tech vendors from one that can be contentious to one that is a “partnership based on trust.”

On that last point, one conference attendee said that “from the vendor community side, I don’t like the term ‘vendor.’ I’m a partner.

“We’re both at risk if this project fails. Be careful who you partner with, and take the advice of partners you trust,” he said. “We’re not selling something that’s not going to be manufactured tomorrow. Partners know what’s coming three or four years from now: We’re making it now.”

See these related links:

Intel Corp.

U.S. Department of Education

Talbot Hill Elementary School

Cumberland Community College

Tiger Woods Learning Foundation

MacArthur High School