Editor’s note: A longtime ed-tech consultant and director of the National School Boards Association’s Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education (ITTE), which he helped found in 1983, Jim Mecklenburger recently returned to ed tech after an eight-year absence. Here are his thoughts after attending NSBA’s 2007 T+L Conference in Nashville last fall.

In reacquainting myself with educational technology, I was curious to see what had happened in public education–if anything–while I had been away. Some things were obvious: There is more “stuff” in schools than there was. Some schools have one-to-one programs where every child has a computer; some schools have banks of computers in every classroom. One-to-one programs were just beginning when I left. And banks of computers in every classroom were then considered “cutting edge.” Many more schools have broadband networks that move data, and sometimes video, with an ease that was almost impossible in the 90s. Most schools have some kind of internet use in place–although there’s a great deal of timidity about this, with educators trying to control access and prohibit some of the most exciting developments.

But some of that “stuff” in schools is old, and frequently underpowered for today’s best applications. I met people from some districts that have committed to four-year or five-year or seven-year replacement programs, which is sensible; but others whom I talked to had gotten special funds to acquire whatever technology is in schools today and hadn’t a clue about managing the long-term costs of this infrastructure.

The growth of “stuff” has been helped by eRate funds and other federal dollars, and in some states by substantial state investments. Yet heavy concentrations of technology seem, as they did in the 90s, to be most likely to have developed in prosperous school districts or where high-tech industries have located.

Where technology has made significant inroads, districts have addressed the staffing issues that bedeviled schools a decade ago. They’ve invested in technicians to keep the machinery humming, and many have invested in high-status (such as assistant superintendent) directors of technology, so that systems and networks work and are kept working; and they’ve invested in staff development–urging, cajoling, teasing, praising, and teaching teachers over the long term to make use of the tools.

And yet, from board members, administrators, and technology coordinators, I heard many echoes of things I remember from a decade ago about the difficulty of moving staff into the world of new tools. The fresh expression back in the 90s that must be an old cliche by now, about educators becoming a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage,” has not happened for more than a small minority of teachers. And without that kind of shift in perspective, the tools in schools get less-than-optimal use.

At the conference, and in a site visit before the conference, I was able to see and to hear about stellar examples of infrastructure and remarkable examples of instruction. But, frankly, a lot of what was showy was not substantial. Projectors and whiteboards attached to teacher-owned laptops with graphic tablets, for example–enabling teachers to lecture or verbally quiz students from a screen instead of a chalkboard–is, in the scheme of things, merely old wine in a new bottle. There remains a great quantity of that old wine around, even in places that others think are cutting edge. Perhaps “old wine” is a stage that educators have to go through before they “get it,” but moving instructional strategies beyond “old wine” hasn’t proven easy.

Partly, I heard at the conference, this is because school districts have been hammered by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its “back to basics” mentality, with its tests and the ostensible accountability they imply. For the most part, educators seem to have chosen to fall back in the face of NCLB to refining tried-and-true methods; they’ve not fallen forward into experimentation and new practices.

NCLB has had one interesting impact, however: States, schools, administrators, and teachers have become conversant with standards (or goals, or objectives, or benchmarks). These assertions about what schools must accomplish seem remarkably similar across the states, and so there has developed–while I was away–a much more detailed consensus about what schools must accept responsibility for teaching.

From this development have come two incumbencies (which also are opportunities) for the educational software industry: Computers can help enormously in the tracking of oodles of data about objectives, materials, test scores, and so on, which has led to more educators wanting computers to help manage their data. And, having a list of known objectives gives software creators and publishers a means to communicate what their products might be good for, and to develop new products that meet needs associated with reaching objectives. There has been a cottage industry, I learned, of tracking and reporting all this data, and every software company has (out of necessity, if not out of opportunity) pegged its “content” to objectives in each state. This is not to judge the wisdom of the purported standards; I heard much complaining about them. But over time, perhaps, the standardization of expectations for schools is likely to improve if the debate becomes one about “which” standards rather than about “whether.”

A decade ago, the “guru” contingent who populate the main stages of conferences such as this were mostly forecasters. The argument was, then, that the world is about to change–and schools need to change, too. The “guru” slots on the T+L agenda this year offered a more compelling variation of the same message: The world has changed (or, if you like, “the future is now”), and schools are remarkably behind the curve. Change is now represented as urgent, even a matter of institutional survival, and not merely wise.

A variation on this argument, a decade ago, was that children were growing up in a digital age, and schools were (or would be) boring and seem irrelevant. Today, especially in the able presentation by Ian Jukes, the argument is that children are different–that their brain development is demonstrably different from previous generations’, because children have adapted to the world of presentations from screens. There was a lot of shorthand talk about “digital natives” (that is, the young generations) and “digital immigrants” (meaning everyone else).

The obvious question, it seems to me, is whether schools are elastic enough to change in more than superficial ways. The only phrase I heard more often at the conference than “digital natives”–which suggests, if nothing else, a new view of children–was the phrase “technology in the classroom,” which, if nothing else, bespeaks a supposition that classrooms will forever be the principle of school organization, and bespeaks an old tradition of expectations for children. We seem equally as dedicated to “givens” such as “K-12 education,” “elementary school,” and “high school,” and–if anything–the stress on accountable objectives has raised to greater importance the standing of “curriculum,” which is the “scope and sequence” around which schools are organized. All of these constructs are at least arbitrary, and not necessarily wise (if they ever were) in an age of instantaneous information, new social patterns of organization based (at least in part) on digital connections, and creative tools that can be used by very young people.

I heard many educators–in the corridors, at meals, and on the exhibit floor–comparing notes on how they restrict children from all this new “stuff.” There’s an interesting product that emulates the internet, but only within a school or district, with highly restricted access outside. There are many filtering products. There are school injunctions against cell phones, blogs, and social networking (MySpace and Facebook, especially, and Wikipedia, too). Long term, these are losing battles, and they suggest that the very best tools of today are (in the minds of some educators) not appropriate for school. That might be true, because of the nature of school; but it is sad, at a leadership conference, to meet so many people attracted to a “backward, march” approach.

Personally, I was excited to hear Will Richardson speak about the educational value of blogs, social networks, and wikis at the conference. There’s a clever educator/author who is leading in a forward direction! I was also hopeful to learn at the conference that the phenomenon of “virtual schools” is doing well; but I came back disappointed to learn that this “outside the box” approach is having a tough time gaining foothold, which is not a sign of schools’ flexibility. Home schooling is not much in favor, either, among educators, though some have figured out how to accommodate it and keep the youngsters nominally under the schools’ wing. I was interested that the phrase “computer literacy” had all but disappeared from use–and that the excitement of a decade ago about “distance learning” has not much affected public schools, although it is having major impact in higher education.

As usual at such events, a main focus was the exhibit floor, which was large, well trod by most attendees, and full of interesting developments. At the conference, I heard some injunctions from Ian Jukes and others about avoiding “technolust” and buying just the services that truly suit local educational purposes. David Thornburg was quite a presence at the conference, and he is currently excited about open-source software, which is often free to schools. And many of the products for sale fit that “purposeful” approach–tools to aid instructors, tools for library management, tools for tracking students and objectives, tools for teaching and testing specific objectives, and management systems for specific functions, including some major integrated management systems that can undergird an entire school or district.

There was not as much emphasis as there was years ago on computers per se; there was no Apple booth, for example (though Apple was one of the sponsors of the event). So if you wanted to succumb to technolust, you had to drool this year over systems for streaming video, of which the one that made the biggest splash for me was Safari/Mirage, from Library Video Company. A few years ago, when the best way to deliver video to classrooms was on videodiscs, someone issued a 40-plus disk set called The Video Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century. Today, that incredible resource has been digitized, its content pegged to state educational objectives, and it is but one resource among dozens that the makers of Safari/Mirage have licensed.

The library of video housed in Safari/Mirage is astoundingly large and of high quality. But it’s not a closed system (the way integrated learning systems used to be a decade ago), in that you can add videos to the server–videos your school might purchase, acquire, or create. And it doubles as a videoconferencing system. Very cool concept, very well designed. What I didn’t hear from the Safari/Mirage people was anything about better ways to use video than has been conventionally done with projectors, VCRs, and laserdiscs; but at least they’ve made it easy for teachers to access video, and they’ve had the wisdom to acquire the rights to thousands of media titles.

On balance, the “transfer of technology to education” scene is better than it was when I left it, with more happening, more teachers and students engaged, and some interesting experimentation going on. But I wondered in 1983, and 1999, and again now, whether the incredible tools for expanding anyone’s reach into the world, acquiring and remembering information, creating unique expressions, and communicating with students and adults worldwide are getting the attention they deserve.

There is surely persuasive lip service–to a new age, new approaches to children, new “21st-century learning”–but underneath it all, the 19th-century invention of the lockstep curriculum, the adults as keepers of the wisdom, the day as balkanized into hours separated by bells, and many more educational “givens” inherited from industrial-age schools still seem to be the dominant ideas driving how funds are spent, edifices are built, and students and teachers spend their time. Technology still seems to be accepted when it fits within old ideas–but it’s not being allowed to challenge these ideas.

The future of education is going to be more about “the network” than it is about “the classroom,” I believe. Whether those two institutions (networks and classrooms) can be profitably blended, time will tell. After the 2007 T+L Conference in Nashville, I am awed at the prospects for education in our 21st century; and thanks to an excellent conference, I am better informed about these prospects than I have a right to be after eight years away. But I am skeptical that, behind the stimulating rhetoric, there is an institution willing and able to evolve. It seems to me that too many educators and policy makers–while more sophisticated, perhaps, than a decade ago about fitting technology into schools–nevertheless are using technology primarily to put a little frosting on the school cake, and not to bake a tastier, more nutritious educational cake than ever has been feasible before.

(For more information about the 2007 T+L Conference in Nashville, see the Conference Information Center at eSchool News Online.)