Experts: Ed tech must change its message

Supporters of educational technology need to change their message when talking with stakeholders, and they need to advocate more forcefully for change in higher education: These were the key points made during a special roundtable discussion featuring past board chairs of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Aimed at celebrating CoSN’s 15th anniversary, the event took place during the nonprofit organization’s annual conference in San Francisco March 28.

Seven former chairs of the group’s board of directors, as well as many other industry leaders, gathered for an informal conversation centered on the question: Given the needs of today’s learners, as well as the current context of technology in most school districts, what are the most important ed-tech leadership issues that are not receiving attention?

In a spirited, hour-long discussion, participants touched on a variety of issues–from the need for a formal certification process for school district chief technology officers, to the lack of federal leadership on educational technology under the Bush administration.

But two themes stood out in particular: (1) the need to shift the focus in the national dialogue about educational technology from the technology itself to the changes it enables in teaching and learning, and (2) the need to overhaul teacher education in the United States to produce a new generation of educators who are not only comfortable with technology, but expect it to be used in schools.

‘A new vocabulary’

Cheryl Williams, a former CoSN board chair who is now vice president of marketing for the San Francisco-based professional development firm Teachscape, said ed-tech leaders need to “bridge the divide between technology and teaching.” She noted that many conversations about school technology fail to make the vital connection between the two–thereby empowering critics who argue that technology isn’t necessary in schools.

“We need a new vocabulary for discussing [educational technology] with stakeholders,” Williams said.

To illustrate her point, she referred to arguments made by the Bush administration in justifying the elimination of federal funding devoted to school technology.

“The administration says, ‘It’s not about technology, it’s about teaching.’ Well, yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing all along,” Williams said.

Sheryl Abshire, administrative coordinator of technology for the Calcasieu Parish School System in Louisiana and another former CoSN board chair, cited another reason stakeholders sometimes balk at funding for educational technology: Many people don’t understand the ongoing commitment it takes to sustain a strong ed-tech program.

“We still have people who think that, because schools are wired and because we’ve reduced the student-to-computer ratio, the work is done,” she said.

Cheryl Lemke, president of ed-tech research firm The Metiri Group, said research points to the essential value of such “21st-century” skills as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, innovation, and collaboration–skills that educational technology, when used effectively in schools, can help foster.

“Instead, we let No Child Left Behind drive us into using technology [primarily] for data collection,” Lemke said. And while data collection is an important function that allows educators to make more informed instructional decisions, she said, this ignores technology’s full potential to transform teaching and learning.

Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive, expanded on Lemke’s point. He noted that the United States has been a leader in innovation for the last few centuries, but countries such as Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, and India are catching up. “Will we, in 15 or 20 years, be the birthplace of innovation?” he asked.

Krueger described a recent trip he took to Asia. In places such as South Korea and Singapore–where students are outperforming American students on standardized tests in math and science–education officials are worried, Krueger said, because they recognize the need to improve in areas such as creativity and innovation.

“Here, we’re squeezing that out” of the curriculum, he observed.

David Byer, an education executive at Apple Inc., summed up the discussion on this topic by noting that the national conversation about technology in schools should shift to one of pedagogy.

“We need to focus on the learning process,” Byer said. “Then, the technology becomes irrelevant.”

Fixing the pipeline

Another key theme to emerge from the discussion was the need to overhaul the nation’s higher-education system–and the teacher-education process in particular.

“Unless we address our colleges of education, we won’t fix the pipeline,” said Karen Bruett, vice president of K-12 education for Dell Inc. “We need teachers coming in who recognize the need for technology in schools.”

Kurt Steinhaus, a former CoSN board chair who now works for the presidential campaign of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, noted that, for his own children, ages 20 and 23, “the whole rhythm of their social life is built around technology.”

“We haven’t figured that out yet in K-12 schools,” Steinhaus said.

But just because today’s young people are accustomed to using technology in their everyday lives doesn’t mean they will be agents of change when they become teachers themselves, warned Jim Bosco, another former CoSN board chair and a professor emeritus at Western Michigan University.

In their role as students in the classroom, today’s youth are exposed to a model of teaching and learning that is largely devoid of the same technologies they use at home, Bosco said. As a result, he said, “when those students become teachers, they follow the same structure.”

And that might happen regardless of how schools of education transform their curricula, Bosco added. To change this dynamic, he said, it’s more important to reach out to college presidents than schools of education.

“Transformation needs to be institutionalized throughout college,” Bosco concluded.


Consortium for School Networking

(Editor’s note: For more real-time coverage of CoSN’s 12th annual conference in San Francisco, see the Conference Information Center at eSN Online:

Dennis Pierce

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