How do you measure the value of educational technology? In today’s climate of increased accountability for schools, it’s an important question–and one that school technology leaders and decision makers sought to answer at this year’s Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) K-12 School Networking Conference, held in Arlington, Va., March 6-7.

During the welcoming address and throughout the two-day event, educational leaders discussed how to define qualitative values for student computing initiatives. The talks introduced the idea that young people today need a different skill set–and what was considered an outstanding education 50 years ago is not the same today.

Rich Kaestner, project director of CoSN’s Total Cost of Ownership and Value of Investment initiative, said educators must identify the process behind the change that educational technology initiatives are intended to bring about.

“What is your final goal … [and] what are you trying to accomplish?” he asked. “Success should be measured by whether you have met your goals.”

Peer-reviewing technology programs also can help educators measure the value of their student computing initiatives. Having officials from another district review your own district’s technology programs can help you identify strengths, as well as areas that need improvement, said Gerald Crisci, director of technology for Scarsdale Public Schools in New York.

At least one conference speaker said there is more to evaluating your ed-tech programs than just measuring their success.

“Don’t focus [solely] on measuring the value of ed-tech, focus as much on improving the value of it,” said C. Jackson Grayson Jr., founder and chairman of the American Productivity and Quality Center.

While measuring the value of a school system’s technology investments was a primary conference theme, it certainly wasn’t the only topic of discussion.

The second day’s opening talks focused on one-to-one computing: how both teaching and learning would change if schools implement one-to-one computing initiatives, whether one-to-one computing is necessary, and some of the changes that must accompany it.

“Not only is one-to-one our vision, it’s going to happen,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology for the Blue Valley School District #229 in Kansas.

But regardless of whether, or how, district leaders choose to implement one-to-one computing in their schools, Moore and other speakers agreed, executive educators must focus on ensuring that technology is easily accessible for children who do not have desktop computers or laptops at home.

Beyond access to computers, high-quality professional development and tech support are key elements in determining whether students learn 21st-century skills, Moore added.

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Leadership Forum enabled district technology leaders to hear other districts’ best practices in technology, as well as challenges to their IT departments.

The Blue Valley School District #229 does a customer and community assessment of its technology programs, and Moore said that 95 percent of the community gives the district a grade of A or B. The district technology department’s commitment to customer service and its help-desk process of tracking progress contributes to the district’s success, he added.

Montgomery County Public Schools, the 17th largest district in the country, has experienced an influx of minority students, and its challenges lie in ensuring that technology addresses the needs of minority groups while at the same time increasing test scores, said John Porter, deputy superintendent of the Maryland school district.

Karol Walters, director of information systems for the School District of University City in Missouri, said technology is viewed as one way to retain students in her district, which has a declining enrollment. Walters said funding technology is a challenge, however, because her school system’s region has very little industry and a tax-averse climate.

Online work-order systems allow teachers to submit their own work orders and also allow for requests to be sorted by school, type of request, and other classifications, Walters said of her district’s best practices. The district also uses Tech TOTS (Trainers of Teachers), a program where one or two teachers act as a liaison between the technology department and their school’s teaching staff, helping other teachers to integrate technology and performing some basic troubleshooting.

While her district has many unique and promising technology programs, Walters said aging infrastructure and school buildings are a challenge.

Keeping technology staffing up to speed with a fast-growing district is the main challenge for Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools, said Bailey Mitchell, the district’s chief technology and information officer. The school system, which has 12,500 computers and 1,600 classrooms equipped with Promethean interactive whiteboards, needs 11 new schools in the next three or four years, Mitchell said.

“We all need more people, [and it’s] hard to add the central-office positions you need when you’re in fast growth,” he said. “The teachers are more and more [tech-]savvy, so a challenge is finding ways to provide increased professional learning … that provides that support.”

Conference breakout sessions included talks on the eRate, educational technology and student achievement, disaster preparedness, and emerging technologies.

eRate officials are trying to demystify the application process and make it easier to do business, said Mel Blackwell, vice president of the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administration Corp., which administers the $2.25 billion-a-year federal wiring and telecommunications program. Blackwell added that he thinks there is not enough eRate outreach and that training sessions like the one held in Washington, D.C., should be available in other areas of the country.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the eRate is the vision for our [schools],” said Sheryl Abshire, administrative coordinator of technology for the Calcasieu Parish Schools in Louisiana. “Technology is the great equalizer in education.”

A breakout session entitled “Preparing Next-Generation Learners with Emerging Technologies” featured the different ways in which school districts and companies are helping teachers create engaging and rigorous learning environments for students. The session focused on blogs, wikis, handheld devices, and interactive displays.

These emerging technologies are embraced by youth and are highly collaborative, said Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation Yes, which works with schools to help plan, implement, and enhance student technology programs. Emerging technologies such as these “enable excellent teaching and learning practices,” Martinez said. She used examples from del.icio.us, a social bookmarks manager, and touched on the use of blogs and wikis in the classroom.

Educators in the Wichita Public Schools in Kansas are using clickers to help with daily formative classroom assessments as well as district testing programs. Teachers have real-time access to data, the clickers reduce grading and other workloads, and in 2005 the district showed a 7.2-percent gain in the Kansas State Math Assessment, said Cammy Todd, instructional technology specialist in the district’s IT department.

Also at the conference, CoSN announced a new “K-12 Open Technologies Initiative,” co-sponsored by IBM Corp. and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The project is designed to increase educators’ understanding and awareness of open technologies, including open-source software, open standards to ensure interoperability, and hardware devices that use open-source operating systems.

“Open technology resources can be a key factor in maximizing the value of district hardware and software investments, yet too many education leaders are in the dark,” said Jim Hirsch, board liaison to CoSN’s K-12 Open Technology Initiative and associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. “By better understanding the applications of these technologies, education leaders will be better positioned to manage their districts and educate their students.”

Editor’s note: For more detailed reports on various conference sessions, visit the eSN Conference Information Center (see link below) and click on “Conference Correspondent Reports.”

Links:

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

Generation Yes
http://genyes.com

eSN Conference Information Center
http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic