“The greatest challenge we face with ed tech and with evolving education is human,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), at the group’s 13th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in Arlington, Va., March 10.

Krueger was referring to the importance of teamwork and strong leadership in achieving successful school technology programs—and at the conference’s opening general session, attendees got a glimpse of how one school system has attained success by embodying these qualities.

“It truly takes a knowledgeable team to do what we’ve accomplished,” said Jennifer Bergland, chief technology officer for the Bryan Independent School District in Texas. Bergland’s district received CoSN’s TEAM Award for exemplary leadership in educational technology.

“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to highlight the outstanding work of the technology team at Bryan ISD,” said Krueger in presenting the award. “What began as a small-scale initiative a decade ago has grown into an innovative, district-wide team effort that has significantly transformed the way the district operates. From using technology to enhance classroom instruction and learning to streamlining administrative functions, Bryan exemplifies the meaning of teamwork.”

A key factor in Bryan ISD’s success is coordination and cooperation from administrators at the top all the way down to the classroom implementation level. Anecdotally, school leaders note that the district’s technology programs have helped to boost student achievement, as students are more engaged in learning, spend more time on tasks, and there is a reduced need for external discipline.

“We are fortunate to have a visionary team of technology specialists who recognize that today’s students are bright, inquisitive, and ready to be challenged,” said Mike Cargill, the district’s superintendent. “It is important for us to create an environment in which students and staff can readily access information. As educators, it is an exciting challenge to stay abreast of advances in technology.”

Teamwork and coordination start at the top, inspired by strong leadership—which is why CoSN has started a Empowering the 21st Century Superintendent Initiative, a program created by superintendents to help superintendents become more well versed in ed-tech issues, as well as understand how they can become better supporters of educational technology.

Sheryl Abshire, CoSN’s board chair, noted that this year’s CoSN conference is “the largest ever, based on pre-conference registration. … Our goals for this year are to increase tech leaders’ knowledge and skills within CoSN’s guidelines of proposed essential skills and goals—so we can really work together” to improve education.

Redefining assessment

The opening plenary session focused on how school leaders can embed new 21st-century skills and assessments into their instruction.

Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth professor of learning technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, argued that the key to future success for schools across the nation will be learning how to create new strategies for assessment: measuring student learning based on cognition, observations, and interpretation.

“The future is about knowing … when to use formative or diagnostic assessment, versus summative assessment. It is about recognizing that performance data [are] an untapped resource,” said Dede.

To illustrate his point, Dede described a research project at Harvard called River City, a multi-user virtual environment that immerses students in an online scenario in which they are asked to apply scientific inquiry skills to solve a problem.

Every time students interact with a resident of this virtual world, the interaction is logged in a database, Dede said. This means that, besides formal assessment data, researchers also have access to observational data based on these event logs: information about where students went (and in what sequence), which artifacts they examined, who they talked with, and what they said in these interactions. And these observational data can play a key role in assessment, he said.

(Editor’s note: For a more detailed explanation of Dede’s views on assessment, see “Educators glimpse the future of assessment.”)

Another emerging trend that Dede said is increasingly important for schools is differentiating between students’ optimal learning styles.

“I was in Philadelphia the other day, and one student said she liked research papers because of their linear approach, another student said she liked media projects more than papers because she was more comfortable with using the web, and yet another student said she thought like a video gamer,” he said.

According to Dede, corporations are looking for all three types of students, and schools will need to be able to cater to, teach, and assess all three based on their various learning styles.

Researcher and former college president Richard Hersh echoed the need for new approaches to assessment.

“Teachers must teach to a test worth teaching to,” Hersh said. “Life is not multiple choice questions—that’s a gross injustice to how people interact in this world.”

Currently, tests such as the SAT are asking students what year Columbus landed in America, Hersh noted—but this simple answer doesn’t provide any context for how well students understand that period in history.

He explained: “The right answer for this test is 1492. If a student answers ‘I don’t know,’ he’s wrong. But what if you ask the student who knew the date [to explain] and he said, ‘It’s just a series of dates I memorized for this test,’ and you ask the student who didn’t answer and he or she says, ‘I don’t know the exact date, but I know it was near the end of the 15th century, because that’s when mass naval trade really began,’ et cetera.”

Concluded Hersh: “We need to be able to test for a variety of answers and a variety of knowledge.”