Experts: Use national budget crisis as an opportunity

The keynoters took the stage to share what they thought ed-tech leaders should hear to get them through their own troubling times.

In the opening session for the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference, held this year in New Orleans, the theme was “Mastering the Moment,” which referred to the country’s current budget crisis.

Starting with tables of coffee and muffins, a few hundred or so attendees settled in to glean tidbits of information from four experts in educational technology.  With the intimate setting and small prominent stage, it seemed as though the session was less glitz and glam, and more get-down-to-business.

One by one, like participants in a town hall meeting, the keynoters took the stage to share what they thought ed-tech leaders should hear to get them through their own troubling times.

“In this time of crisis, we must also understand that it can be an opportunity to strengthen investments and develop clear action plans on how we can improve schools and learning,” said Ed Zaiontz, past chair of the CoSN Board of Directors and executive director of information services for the Round Rock Independent School District in Texas.

On the federal level, Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and associate director for technology at the White House, said President Obama sees digital access and mobility as a way to seize opportunity for growth.

Chopra gave a brief explanation of three different ways the Obama administration is trying to leverage technology and collaboration to help schools:

  1. The Innovation Strategy, which includes Wireless and Start-Up America. See “Schools to get $9 million for off-campus wireless access.”
  2. The National Broadband Plan. Read more here. See the federal map of broadband availability for U.S. schools.
  3. ARPA-ED. Read “Obama highlights $90M ed-tech agency.”

“We need to figure out how to unlock the cognitive surplus of the American people and create and ecosystem of change,” said Chopra.

To help put into context exactly how the system of education is changing, or ought to change, was the task of William Rankin, director of educational innovation and associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

“The problem with jumping into opportunities is that often it’s hard to sift the technology that will truly help,” said Rankin. “We also have to know what the objectives are for 21st century learning.”

Rankin demonstrated how choosing technology tools is tricky.

“A technology becomes popular because it solves a problem,” he explained. “The technology then creates a kind of culture around it. However, that technology often creates its own new set of problems, which need other technology to solve. This creates tension.”

Rankin suggested that school leaders looking to invest wisely consider how the technology they employ will affect the culture of their school in a variety of ways.

Also, they must know that learning will change in relation to this culture.

Ranking listed the three ages of information:

  1. Hands—Pre-books, learning was done through apprenticeship and practice. It was individualized, but the problem was the inability to scale this knowledge and give access to many people.
  2. Books—Teachers became the conduits of knowledge, especially what information was needed from these books. Memorization was used, and testing was based on memorized facts. Access was solved, but the new problem was how to find the information you needed.
  3. Data—With the influx of knowledge available primarily from the internet, the problem has now become accessing the right information, or how to sift through the information. Teachers should become those who put the information into context, rather than simply dispensers of information.

“I offer these three questions for education leaders to consider in this ‘data’ age: One, by giving students more information in lecture format in class, are we helping them or hurting them? Two, if I as a teacher think I am the nexus of all information, am I wise or delusional? And three, if teachers can help assess and sift the information, aren’t they the most important part of 21st century education?”

Diane Roussel, superintendent of Jefferson Parish Schools in Marrero, La., is in charge of one district that suffered not only a budget crisis, but a natural disaster, and learned how to “master the moment” by taking the opportunity to transform her schools.

“I asked myself, what can our schools look like? We started with a clear plan on how we wanted teaching to look and 21st century learning to be, and went from there. We really redefined roles in the system,” she explained.

Jefferson Parish created a technology division and hired a CTO, implemented tried-and-tested educational technology in the classroom, and made sure to commit the school board.

“Going digital has helped our schools in so many ways. Not only is digital and mobile technology an equalizer for students, it’s a necessity for future crisis planning,” she said.

CoSN CEO Keith Krueger took the last position on stage, explaining that if you’re a school leader looking to “master the moment” in a few basic ways, there are some solutions to current school challenges.

For example, schools with a technology access problem should consider lifting bans on student-owned mobile devices and supplementing these with school-owned devices for students who don’t bring their own device. This is essentially what most colleges do, he said, and it can save money and provide 24/7 access to learning. One example of a K-12 district doing this is Forsyth County Schools in Georgia.

For schools with a tech support problem, consider moving to cloud-based computing. The Oregon Department of Education has partnered with Google to deliver its cloud-based productivity software to schools via the web and reportedly saves $1.5 million per year. The Kentucky Department of Education has partnered with Microsoft in a similar fashion.

For schools with limited collaboration or interactivity, consider using free Web 2.0 tools. Birdville Independent School District in Texas is a good example, as the district uses social networks and even YouTube.

“Birdville defined [acceptable] behavior, not the tool,” said Krueger.


CoSN 2011

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