Attending this year’s annual State Education Technology Directors Association (SETDA) Education Forum was like sitting through a timeline of technology integration in schools during the last few years: Participants heard about what’s now the norm (interactive whiteboards, or IWBs), what’s hot on everyone’s list (digital textbooks), and what’s on the horizon (national high school reform).
Educators, administrators, and ed-tech vendors from around the country attended the forum, titled "Defining the Future of Learning Today." Of course, before you can define the future, you must remember where you’ve come from.
In his opening keynote, Robert Marzano, CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory, presented his organization’s newest research report, titled "Evaluation Study of the Effects of Promethean ActivClassroom on Student Achievement," which details how interactive whiteboards can affect student learning.
"I was nervous to do this report," Marzano said, "because you always hope for positive results, but you never know what to expect. I’m happy to show you these results, because they clearly show that technology … makes a positive impact on learning."
During the 2008-09 school year, 79 teachers from 50 schools participated in independent studies to determine how using Promethean’s ActivClassroom affects student achievement in their classroom.
According to the report, when interactive whiteboards were incorporated into the classroom, there was a percentile gain of 17 overall, meaning students at the 50th percentile would move to the 67th percentile if they had been taught with the help of an IWB.
"We saw that the more the tech was used in the classroom, meaning the more time spent using it, the higher the percentile increase. However, sometimes, during the most prolific uses of the tech, the percentile decreased. This is due to teachers not appropriately using the technology," Marzano said.
He went on to explain that there is a "sweet spot" in using IWBs: If an experienced teacher who’s been using technology for two or more years uses the board appropriately for 75 percent of the class time, and has enough training to be confident in his or her use of the technology, student achievement gains were highest.
Whether the IWB was being used correctly also was studied through varying factors associated with IWB use, such as student skill in IWBs, teacher skill, and use of IWB reinforcers (functions such as applause, drag and drop, hidden content, voting, and so on).
"You have to make sure it’s not all bells and whistles," said Marzano. "The teachers [who] didn’t see improvement with IWBs were usually those who didn’t make sure the content, and not the add-ons, came first. Content, and knowing what you’re trying to teach, is key."
The study also revealed what teachers need to do to use their IWB correctly and efficiently with regard to presenting content. For example, content should be:
• Previewed: The teacher should introduce the content to the students.
• Chunked: The content should be delivered in small, digestible chunks of information.
• Scaffolded: Teachers should show how one piece of information correlates to the others and build up to the point of the lesson.
• Paced: The teacher must make sure students can keep up but at the same time not get bored.
• Be interactive for students.
Students also must be able to understand the material and provide feedback, as well as be able to reflect and respond to what they have just learned.
"If these steps aren’t followed, IWBs can actually impair learning," said Marzano.
Marzano said the next IWB study will slice more deeply into the classroom variables associated with IWB use, such as response rates and nonlinguistic representations and their effects on learning. (Editor’s note: For more information about the initial study, see "Study: Ed tech leads to significant gains.")
Digital content on the march
After reviewing how IWBs can help affect learning and giving concrete examples of the technology’s success, the forum then moved on to "Digital Content for the 21st Century Education Experience," which gave attendees a glimpse into the issues surrounding this now hot topic in education. Already, major advancements in–and support for–digital textbooks have occurred in Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, California, and Texas.
For example, thanks to a new state law (H.B. 4294) that allows districts to use state funds to buy the technical equipment to support the use of electronic texts or instructional materials, Texas is becoming a leader in using digital resources.
"The teachers in our district aren’t even using printed textbooks anymore," said Jennifer Bergland, chief technology officer for Bryan Independent School District. "Students want interactive content, not broadcasted material. Pedagogy also needs to change, making the teacher a mentor and not a sage. Digital texts can help bring about these changes critical to 21st-century learning."
"Digital resources can also be used in assessment," said Mike Russell, associate professor for educational research at Boston College. "Digital resources can really help bring about universal design [for learning]."
Russell explained that "universal design" refers to something designed to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized skill. "Right now, tests are developed for the general population and administered under standard conditions, usually with paper," he said. "We need a new model for testing."
This new model, Russell said, should include a change in presentation (allowing for magnification, high contrast, color filters, or reading aloud), equipment, response method, and scheduling (such as elongated timing, spacing testing over several days, and allowing for responses to occur outside of a classroom). Russell believes new testing using digital means could allow for these accommodations easily, while also allowing for alternative representations.
For example, water could be depicted by the word "water," as a chemical structure, as an image, and so on. "An alternative representation means spelling, saying, signing the concept, images, Braille, and so much more. Digital resources allow for this and can therefore serve all students without classifying them as special needs," he said.
He continued, "I’d say that digital content providers right now need to focus on, and deepen their understanding of, alternative representations."
Although many teachers sign up for digital content, there is still not a lot of consistent, scalable use of this content by teachers, said Bill Kelly, CEO of digital content provider Learning.com.
"We knew it wasn’t because of student access to computers, or teachers’ lack of technical skill," explained Kelly, because Learning.com conducted a statewide study in Texas measuring these two factors and found about 90 percent of students have access to a computer, and most teachers have a social-networking profile (proving they have enough technical skill to manage a digital content portal). "So we decided to test a pilot program with two Texas districts to see how we could engage teachers."
According to the pilot program’s results, the key to more consistent teacher use of digital content is making the resources highly customizable and organized according to individual preferences.
"If a teacher, or school, can organize and customize their digital content platform, usage increases by a high percentage," Kelly said. "Digital content resources also should be data-driven, easy to use, crowdsourced, and integrated into the curriculum." (Editor’s note: "Crowdsourcing" is a neologism for the act of taking a task normally performed by an employee or contractor and issuing an open call for a large group of people or a community to perform it, usually via the internet.)
High school reform on the way
A final session at the forum touched on high school reform–a topic Education Secretary Arne Duncan has on his agenda to improve U.S. schools.
"At the policy level, there are four measures that can [define] successful reform," said Lyndsay Pinkus, senior policy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education, "and those measures are breaking the cycles of inequity, preparing for 21st-century employability, reducing the economic costs of failure, and maintaining America’s global competitiveness."
She continued, "The time is ripe for reform. By combining the reform measures included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as creating state-led common standards and having new budgets and appropriations, reform could happen with the right steps."
Representatives from both Alabama and North Carolina next gave examples of how their states and local schools have begun to reform high school education.
"At the state level, we have the Access distance-learning program, a new graduation requirement that includes an online requirement, credit recovery and advancement, and a removed seat-time requirement," said Melinda Maddox, state educational technology director for the Alabama Department of Education.
"At the local level, we have initiated one-to-one [computing] programs and offered college and Advanced Placement programs via online learning," said Patricia MacNeill, assistant superintendent of Greene County Schools in North Carolina. "By implementing these technological changes, we’ve seen our college attendance rate go from 26 percent to 94 percent. We’ve also seen a decrease in dropout rates and teen pregnancies."
She continued, "Integrating technology is hard, I must say. There are so many challenges besides just funding, such as network problems, student responsibility for their learning, and helping teachers become comfortable with 21st-century teaching. But to see what an impact it makes, to know you are changing, and sometimes even saving, lives … makes it all so worth it."
On Nov. 16, SETDA will have a new leader: Long-time ed-tech industry executive Douglas Levin will take the reins from current SETDA Executive Director Mary Ann Wolf–and with challenges ranging from state funding shortages to the formation of a new national broadband plan, he’ll have his work cut out for him. (Editor’s note: For more information about SETDA’s leadership change, see "SETDA names new executive director.")